BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Tag: surreal (Page 1 of 2)

Hex Session XXVII – 5th Edition Actual Play – Chainbreaker

The characters in this session were:

Waspkin 3Miri Draft 2     Yam

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Miri, trollblood wizard, plucked from Mount Shudder and raised amongst Hex’s arcane elites. A recent graduate of Fiend’s College.
  • 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: 500 XP

The Book of Chaos was safely stowed – Yam had entrusted it to Cosmo, the eldritch sheep, who was currently living in his chambers – but the party had unfinished business in Delirium Castle.

Miri had retrieved the Sanguineus Scripture, a tome only readable when blood was spilled on its pages; however, her employer at Fiend’s College, Samuel Dweomerkamp, noted that the volume retrieved was but one of three.

Cephalus the dagonian monk and lawyer was convinced to join the party on their sojourn, in case any legal disputes arose in their discussion with the demon.

After regrouping at the Green Star – Comet the waspkin now sporting an impressive scar from his encounter with the apex chimera – the party returned to the Outer Bailey of Delirium Castle. Sister was away on religious business, and so the party lacked the painted characters she previously comandeered from the magical Marjorie’s painting. Fortunately, Caulis was able to procure another handful, as Marjorie was painting over her previous mural; Caulis procured several balloon-duellists from the apocaylpse of pigment Marjorie indifferently inflicted upon her animate creations. These two-dimensional helpers rescued on a piece of parchment, the party approached the gate.

“Ah, you again!” the gate said. “Back for more?”

“I suppose so…” Yam said. “We’ve got some sort of deal with a demon, I guess.”

“Mmm. Best not to renege on one of thosem eh? Well, here’s your riddle.” The gate coughed, then spoke: “Two goblins sat down for a drink after a long day of happy work in the service of the glorious Emperor Soulswell. Both loyal servants elected to drink iced mead from a great pitcher between them. One goblin swiftly drank five cups of the mead. The other drank but a single cup. The first goblin fell into a drunken stupor. When he awoke, he found his dining companion dead, face blackened with poison. Yet he had drank five times the mead as his companion. All of the mead was poisoned. How did the first goblin survive while the second died?”

Several minutes of discussion proceeded until Comet produced the answer: “Ah, it was the ice that was poisoned. The goblin who drank fast didn’t consume as much because the ice didn’t melt.”

“Correct again!” the gate said, opening itself and admitting the party to the Castle. Here, Greengrin once again greeted them, and they entered the Inner Bailey – Yam pausing briefly to hand a group of terrified-looking goblin servants some pamphlets on the evils of enforced magical labour.

The party stealthily made their way through the Castle to the precarious bulk of the Armoury Tower, stern and grey, a brooding presence. The door was unlocked; several windows were evident above. Caulis sent its familiar, Eleyin, to observe, and the pseododragon heard a strange hissing sound from within. As she circled, a swarm of arrows and bolts flew out of the windows, flocking like birds, magically flying through the air in search of their prey. Eleyin dived to safety, retreating from the swarm to Caulis’ shoulder, and the arrows returned to their roost.

The party entered the tower cautiously, Comet leading the group. Within, a spiral staircase swept around the edge of a massive domed room, leading up to the level above and down to the dungeons below. The walls were dour grey. Hunched in the middle of the room was a mass of rust and gleaming metal, chains snaking from it to the walls. As the group entered, the mass shifted, uncoiling, and they realized it was a Troll, some thirteen feet tall, shackled in place. The Troll’s body was covered in weapons that had been fused into his body, as if they became wedged there and then grew to become part of him: swords, axes, broken spears, halberds and pikes, and hundreds of arrows. The party eyed this creature carefully.

“Are you… some kind of prisoner?” Miri asked.

“I am Jack-in-Irons,” the Troll intoned. “Bound by these fetters and by the magic of the Castle to guard this tower for Emperor Soulswell.”

“Uh-huh,” Yam said. “Anyway you could… not?”

The Troll grunted. “I am magically bound.”

“Ugh,” Yam said, and cast fog cloud, filling the chamber with mist. Comet, flitting above, hurled caltrops around Jack-in-Irons, and the party made a run for it, dashing as stealtily as they could through the fog to the stairs, avoiding the creature’s wild swings as it stumbled about the chamber, caltrops sticking into its flesh. The group scampered up the steps, Caulis dislodging a broken flagstone but managing to dodge out of an errant sword-swing.

Nettle. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

The next level of the Armoury Tower contained beautifully painted shields of every shape, size, and style. The party quickly set to work looting the room – only to find that the shields themselves had something to say about their new owners. One, a shield of living oak, carved with an elfin face, thorns and vines growing out of the wood, eagerly greeted Caulis, introducing herself as Nettle, a shield capable of lashing out with its magical vines; a shield with numerous marks on “his” surface and a figure resembling a beautiful man tied to a stake painted upon it urged Comet to shoot it. Comet obliged, and the shield- who named himself Severein – sighed with what seemed like obscene pleasure, and the waspkin, somewhat reluctantly, picked up the masochistic arrow-catching shields. Another shield, snarling and growling its name – “Chompy!” – drooled on the floor.

These shields in tow, the party very stealthily began creeping to the next level, where the arrow-swarm nested. Dead rats and birds littered the ground. And a gnome lay on the floor, riddled with arrows and badly decomposed. He had thieves’ tools, a Crowsbeak amulet, studded leather armour, a map of the Armoury Tower with scribbled guesses about different levels, and a key with a sword-like bow. The arrows were here, roosting in quivers, their feathers rustling as they snoozed.

Comet, at first, tried to coax the arrows from their quivers like frightened birds, to reassure them he meant them no harm.

“Don’t you want to be free from this terrible place?” he asked them cajolingly. Suddenly the Castle groaned and shook; something moved down below.

“Ah! The Castle thinks you’ve insulted it!” Miri exclaimed.

The arrows, meanwhile, were shaken from their torpor by the tremor, and began flocking in the air, preparing to attack.

Yam used cantrips to conjure an illusory flame in the quivers. Instantly the arrows flew into action, swirling in a panic, fleeing into corners. Comet rushed forwards, Severin brandished, Cephalus behind him, while the rest of the party rushed to the next level. The arrows swirled and began attacking, many hitting Severin, filling the air with the shield’s sighs. A few grazed the waspkin and other party members.

Meanwhile, Cephalus was busy, snapping arrows and catching them by the handful, destroying them by the dozen. The pair quickly depleted the supply, destroying hundreds of arrows in a few minutes, sustaining only a handful of minor wounds before following the rest of the party up to the next level.

A mass of armour was strewn about this room – chainmail, helmets, plate armour, all disassembled, along with a mess of weapons, mostly longswords and pikes. As the party entered, suits of armour assembled themselves, one for each party member, grabbing weapons and menacing their counterparts; some were small, suitable for gnomes or waspkin or homunculi. The party leapt into action, Cephalus sparring with his suit, Comet and Miri attacking their own, and Yam… dancing with theirs. The suits responded in kind. While Caulis used misty step to bypass the chamber, the party fighting their suits battered their opponents into submission. Yam meanwhile, danced with sufficient elegance and energy to charm their suit – which, in delight, attached itself to the gnome. It seemed the illusionist had made a new friend.

The party hurried upwards, to the room marked “Chainbreaker” on their map. Comet used the sword-bowed key found on the gnome’s corpse to open the door. Thick dust carpeted the floor. The magical warhammer Chainbreaker restsed on a plinth in the middle of this room – a dusty old thing, more like a tool than a weapon, with a few crude symbols carved into its handle. Comet conjured an unseen servant to grab the hammer. Meanwhile, the party could hear something groaning below them, making its way up the stairs – whatever horror Comet’s insult had conjured.

The waspkin hefted the hammer, and found that it could speak. “AH! I AM CHAINBREAKER!” The hammer bellowed. “I SENSE IN YOU THE SOUL OF REVOLUTION! TOGETHER, WE WILL BRING AN END TO OPPRESSION! BREAK THE CHAINS OF ALL WHO ARE UNJUSTLY SUBJUGATED!”

“Uh… sure,” Comet said. “Sounds like an agenda I can get behind.” He turned to the party. “Wait here… I’m going to go check out whatever is coming up behind us.”

The ranger flitted out a window, hammer in hand, and peeked into the floors below. He bristled as he saw the thing coming to destroy them. Jaws smeared with vicious spikes. Eyes that spurted flame. A torso riddled with holes, spraying poisonous needles. One arm terminated in a massive hammer, the other a vicious buzz-saw. It moved on a rolling stone ball that crushes everything in its path.

Thinking quickly, Comet flew down to the first floor, re-entering the chamber with Jack-in-Irons.

“You are back!” the giant said.

“Hey, I’m here to get you out!” Comet said. “I’ve got a hammer that can break your bonds. But if I do, could you help us? There’s a big golem coming up the stairs.”

“Ah, the deathtrap golem.” Jack said.”Hurry, then, but take care! My bonds compel me to attack you until they are sundered!”

The waspkin rushed forwards, dodging under a sweep of the Troll’s blade, and, with a blow from Chainbreaker, struck his chains. Instantly the bonds binding the Troll burst, sending metal linsk everywhere. Jack-in-Irons groaned in relief, suddenly unburdened. Comet led the Troll to the golem, which turned and began assailing Jack, spattering him with poisonous needles and pounding him with its hammer and saw, flame spitting from its eyes. The Troll was true to its word, hammering the deathtrap golem with his sword. He sustained many blows, but between the pair of them – Comet hitting the automaton with arrows – they were able to reduce the killer-machine to slag. Comet returned to his companions, having bade adieu to the Troll, who was bound now for the gates and freedom.

Caulis attempted to open the door to the room marked “The Mace of Madness,” but was struck by a symbol of insanity and fled, gibbering. Miri tackled the homunculus and held it down until it regained its wits. Instead of returning to the mace-room, the party now approached the door marked “Mademoiselle Sanguinaire” on the map.

Mademoiselle Sanguinaire. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

The floor here was carpeted with bones, along with the badly decayed corpse of a cambion man clutching a rusted sabre. Dancing through the air, twirling back and forth, was a slender rapier.

“Aha! New combatants!” the sabre said, a female figure coalescing out of the air – a flamboyant swashbuckler, clad in high boots, black house, and a loose tunic. “Dare any of you face the indomitable Mademoiselle Sanguinare?!?”

There seemed to be no takers, but then Comet, declaring himself on a roll, stepped forward, weapon in hand. A duel commenced, in which Comet was nearly slain several times, the ghost-possessed rapier wounding him severely, but eventually Comet triumphed, swatting the blade to the floor.

“A worthy duelist indeed!” Mademoiselle Sanguinaire declared. “My blade is yours to command, swordsman!”

Comet – proving himself more valuable by the minute – took the sword in victory.

The final chamber now awaited. Yam managed to open the door, ignoring the effects of the symbol; perhaps the gnome’s mind was too eccentric for the magical lunacy to affect them. Within the chamber, a mace whose spikes were all of different lengths was held in a stone fist rising from the floor. Mad laughter echoeed within the chamber, and upon entering the room, Yam began to perceive uncanny movement from the corner of their eye. Very delicately, Yam plucked the mace from the hand, managing to sneak it from the stone fingers just in time before they closed into a fist, swiping madly at the gnome. The Mace of Madness in hand, they prepared to make their descent.

The party lingered in the turret containing the Sword of the First Queen, which contained an ancient bronze sword, huge, engraved with glyphs in a tongue from the first age of humanity. It rested on a stone slab. Painted on one wall of the turret, between two windows, was a fearsome sphinx with the head of a woman, grinning unnervingly, her paws wet with blood. Miri grabbed the weapon, and the sphinx’s grin widened even further; Yam drew a dragon on the wall and used Marjorie’s spell to awaken it, but the dragon was terrified of the sphinx and tried to “flee,” the animated mural preparing to pounce. Caulis rescued it just in time, letting it flap to the parchment with the other refugee paintings.

The party left, but became aware that the sphinx was now following them along the walls… a disturbing development. They made their descent and exited the Armoury Tower, making hurriedly for the Library Tower. Miri spoke Beleth’s name, summoning the Reference Demon with whom they had made a contract. Instantly, the party was teleported to the demon, somewhere in the depths of the tower!

“You could have come down!” Miri declared.

“Mmm… but I didn’t,” Beleth replied. “Are you here to fulfill your end of the bargain?”

“Yes,” Comet said, hefting Chainbreaker. With the hammer in hand, he could see the magical tether binding Beleth to the Castle, a glowing metaphysical chain. A single blow broke the contract. “You’re free!” The waspkin said.

“Ah, my thanks,” Beleth replied… and promptly vanished, leaving the party abandoned in the Library.

Lost, the party passed from the chamber they were in to the next. Immediately they were assailed by a monstrous sight. Slender, massively tall, with chitinous limbs, enormous moth-wings sprouting from its shoulder-blades, the thing that loomed before them vaguely resembled a skeletal, insectoid angel – a gaunt, pallid monsters, busy stitching shut the lips of a ritually scarified man. The creature turned, one impossibly long, clawed finger to its liplers mouth…

In horror, the party fled, shutting the door behind them.

“Shit!” Miri whispered. “I think that was one of those things Greengrin warned us about last time. The Silent Ones. Must be the mature form of those dire bookworms everywhere!”

“Could we use the chalk to get out?” Cephalus asked.

“Let’s use it to get back to the other part of the Castle,” Caulis said. “We still have one end of the portal there.”

Agreeing, the party hastily scrawled a portal and stepped through, just as the Silent One’s bony fingers eased through the cracked door behind them. They closed the portal and looked around them, back in the hall of statues, all depicting Zachariah Soulswell.

Picking a chamber they had not previously entered. Here they found a large alchemical laboratory: a forest of glassware, none of it currently in use. A small collection of pre-made potions could be found on a low shelf. Three massive cauldrons dominated the room: one of brass, one of iron, and one of silver. The party investigated, finding and identifying various potions: Diminution, Flattening, Invisibility, Longevity, Reverse Gravity, Tongues, Water Breathing. They experimented with the cauldrons, discovering that the brass cauldron had something to do with life and death, and was capable of reviving dead matter. The iron cauldron appeared to have a replication effect – a blueberry placed within it duplicated itself rapidly, overflowing its lip. The silver cauldron, finally, had a metamorphic effect, and seemed to able to transform one creature into another.

This room thoroughly investigated, they passed to the next. A bullseye lantern flickered in this chamber, hung from a chain on the ceiling. Its sickly greenish light illuminated a skeleton seated on a chair of black metal. A small shelf to one side contained four spare candles, alongside a tinderbox. The walls of this chamber weare fashioned from obsidian, or a substance which resembles it.

Cephalus grabbed the lamp, and the light shifted. Instantly, the skeleton moved, muscle and organs rapidly growing, flesh appearing on its bones. Soon a tall, thin humanoid of indeterminate gender stood before them; they possessed a narrow skull, skin of a soft mauve colour intricately patterned with small, crabbed sigils in silver ink, and eyes with black sclera and jale irises. The lantern, it seemed, had an entropic effect – its light decomposed anything it touched, but the effect reversed when the light was removed.

The figure – after spells were used to translate its speech – introduced itself:

“I am Xeb Wraeth Jennai, of the Dusk People, of the city of New Ys; a magus of no little skill, though sadly deprived of my apparatus or familiars.”

The party introduced themselves in turn, and learned that Xeb had been imprisoned by Soulswell long ago. They were one of the Dusk People, who Xeb claimed to be descended of the Twilight Folk who dwelt on the western shores of the Final Continent. “Doubtless some of you are my distant ancestors,” Xeb said. “Though I could not trace the twisted braids of evolution that might connect out bloodlines. I am from New Ys, the greatest of the Final Cities that will precede the Everlasting Midnight. I am a visitor from what you perceive as this world’ far future, or rather, one version of that future, many millions of years hence, by your reckoning. I elected to flee here during the Temporal Exodus. My people, you see, have retired throughout time, escaping the doom of Everlasting Midnight, when the sun itself is extinguished. We gathered in the Plaza of Manifold Shadows and flung ourselves to the far reaches of history, in a diaspora across innumerable centuries. To my knowledge I am the only one of my fellow Time Travellers to seek this rude millennium, for most preferred more familiar epochs – the perfumed reign of the Pink Emperor, or the Time of Many Heads, or the age of the Hearth Culture. I was seeking company among those conversant in the arcane arts, and journeyed to this accursed city in hopes of scholarly conversation. When Zachariah learned of my presence, he had me arrested and, using their Lantern of Entropy, imprisoned me in skeletal form. A fine jest, which I shall repay in kind once I have recovered those materials the upstart took from me.”

Fascinated by this strange being, the party prepared to leave Delirum Castle once again – though they lacked convenient means of escape. Climbing a flight of stairs they discovered a solid wall of water. Several eroded, barnacled statues seemed to flee a huge knight clad entirely in plate armour that had completely fused by rust. The knight was unmoving. In his gauntleted hands he bore a massive sword. This Cephalus – capable of breathing water – procured from his grasp, before returning to the party. The party made an about-face and continued looking for a way out. This time they found one: a hidden corridor, used by several duster-goblins as a servant’s exit. This led them into the Outer Bailey, and they realized they had been within the Imperial Keep. From here it was a brief sojourn to the Gates, and out once more into the city, their packs burdened with loot from another successful delve into Delirium Castle’s mysterious depths.

Hex Session XXVI – 5th Edition Actual Play – The Book of Chaos

The characters in this session were:

AlabastorArmandWaspkin 3Miri Draft 2SisterYam

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-warlock and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • 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.
  • 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.”
  • 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: 1100 XP

The Variegated Company had been busy. Armand was renovating his familial estate, seeking a means of installing a teleportation node between his townhouse and the country manor. Sister had been carefully studying Cosmo, the strange sheep which might contain a pocket universe. Yam had acquired a new supervisor, Millicent Decrestor, who urged them to develop their thesis.

The party met at their usual haunt, the Green Star in Mooncross, to plot their plundering of Delirium Castle, the sprawling ruin in southern Hex. Sister had surveiled the fortress thoroughly using magic. The fungoid bartender Eramus Grole – “Pungent Elmo” – brought them a round of drinks as they planned their approach, sharing what they knew of the Castle, its history, and defenses.

Delirium Castle looms above the worst parts of Hex: the rotten tenements of Corvid Commons to the east, the eldritch desolation of the Midden and the mildewed slums of the Zymotic Ward to the west, the stinking corpse-markets of Shambleside to the south. A sprawling edifice of ancient stone, the Castle occasionally rearranges itself overnight, sometimes sprouting new spires, turrets mottling its walls and towers like tumours, entire wings spasming into existence in a viral bloom of teratomatous architecture.

The Castle was constructed seven centuries ago by the mad dictator Zachariah Soulswell, a wizard of tremendous power gleaned from his time in the Old City. Zachariah magically mind-controlled many of those in high positions of office and gradually assumed control of the city, eventually proclaiming himself Emperor, using his arcane prowess and artefacts to maintain his brutal reign. During this period, Soulswell dominated many of Hex’s neighbours, gathered additional artefacts of great power, and enforced a series of bizarre, nonsensical edicts – for example, insisting that all sentences be spoken and written backwards on Stardays, or banning the eating of eggs.

His vicious rule lasted for thirteen years, during which time many of Hex’s other powerful wizards lived in exile. They would eventually return to Hex with an army of mortal mercenaries and conjured troops, the latter purchased through a deal with the Chthonic Gods promising them the damned souls of Hex – a deal which would also lead to the construction of the Infernal Basilica. The Hexian Civil War would culminate in a siege of Delirium Castle which has technically never ended: the invading army forced Soulswell into a retreat, but found taking the Castle too difficult. The result has been a seven-hundred-year stalemate. Soulswell’s crazed laughter still echoes over the city on certain nights, and lights are often glimpsed in the ruinous Castle’s variegated spires.

Overhearing this conversation was a young waspkin – fresh-faced, long-haired, and a tad scruffy, with an idealistic glint in his dark, insectile eyes. He buzzed around to their table.

“Uh… are you, ah, the Variegated Company?” he asked a bit shyly.

“That’s us,” Alabastor said. “Who are you?”

“Do we have a groupie?” Yam muttered to Sister.

“Ah, I’m Comet. Comet the Unlucky. I, ah, heard you talking about Delirium Castle? I go by that place all the time. I could help you get in, if you’re looking for help…”

Sister shrugged. “Why not?”

Armand drained his glass. “I suppose it’s fine. We plan to leave tomorrow morn. Meet us by the Castle then.”

The party reassembled the next day, Comet now in tow, and approach Delirium Castle carefuly. They had placed a chalk portal in he hive of the Thirteenth Queen, in case they needed a swift escape.

The Outer Bailey of Castle Delirium was once extensive, but had long ago been reduced to rubble, the broken walls and shattered tower scarred with the marks of catapults and spells. A series of crude dwellings clustered neat the gatehouse: tents, lean-tos, the odd shack fashioned from loose stone and other materials scavenged from the nearby Midden, Hex’s waste-tip. Fires crackled amidst the ramshackle camp, and a handful of figures drifted about near the flames. These include a heavy-set human, male, with shoulders like an ox, sharpening an enormous battle-axe and staring morosely into the flames, bandages round his waist stiff with blood. His huge beard and long hair spilled down from his head, nearly touching the ground; his dark eyes were filled with flame and sorrow. Next to him, a ghoul in flamboyant rags, grubby finery pieced together into a tatterdemalion suit, presided over a court of rats from atop a throne of rubbish, a yellowing femur for a sceptre, a crown of gold leaf and crow’s feathers atop his head. The rats watched him carefully, and periodically he chittered something and threw them a lump of meat or cheese fished from the depths of his elaborate patchwork frock coat. Over to one side, a cambion woman with huge curling ram’s horns turned half a dozen pigeons spitted on a short spear over an open fire. She wore leather armour made from various dead animals’ hides, a patchwork of fur and scales and bare flesh. Finally, a towering trollblood woman sat on a lump of rubble, dressed in the robes of a Fiend’s College graduate, a spellbook open in her lap. She eyed the party as they approached.

“Are you heading into the Castle?” she asked.

“That’s the plan,” Alabastor said, perhaps over-eagerly compensating for his past troll prejudices. “Are you heading inside as well? We could help each other out.”

“I’m Miri, and I’m looking for a book, the Sanguineous Scripture,” she said. “If you’re heading to the Library Tower, we might as well stick together.”

Near the gate, a woman with untamed hair – human in appearance save for her pale green skin – slowly painted a mural on one of the Outer Bailey’s broken walls. A homunculus followed her about, its branch-like hair laden with pails of paint. She appeared to be painting over an even earlier mural, its colours now faded. As she worked, she whispered incantations, and whatever she painted began to move. The current section depicteds a chivalric tournament between a lizard and a mouse riding a bird and a bat, respectively all of them costumed in knightly armour and barding, while a crowd of animals cheer in hot air balloons. Everything was quite silent. She was painting this scene over a pastoral landscape filled with farmers and sheep. As she painted, the livestock and farmers became extremely agitated, fleeing the colourful destruction of her brush, the farmer’s wife weeping as the mage painted over the barn and then the farmhouse.

Seeing this unfolding artistic catastrophe, Sister experimentally placed a piece of parchment against the wall. To her delight, the painted farmers rushed to the safety of the parchment, huddling in its blank spaces with relief as their painted farm disappeared.

Yam approached the painter. “Interesting spell,” they said.

“Ah, thank you,” she responded. “I call it Marjorie’s marvelous mural – a spell of my own devising. It animates any painting. Here, have a sample scroll.”

“Thanks.” Yam made a note to add the spell to their spellbook later.

The party approached the gate of Delirium Castle, sculpted into the semblance of a monstrous visage that glowered down at those who approach, the doors themselves set deep within the grotesque face’s mouth. As the gate was neared, the face abruptly moved, stone eyes rolling in their sockets. Its lips contorted, and the door yawned and spoke:

“Who approaches Delirium Castle, abode of Emperor Soulswell, first of his name, Lord of Hex, Master of Chaos, Wielder of the Mace of Madness, Keeper of the Anarchonomicon?”

“The Variegated Company,” Sister replied.

“Hmm, more adventurers, eh? Well, good luck in there. To let you in, I need to ask you a riddle. Sorry, it’s a requirement.”

“That’s… alright. Go ahead.”

The gate cleared its “throat” and spoke the riddle:

“A thief is condemned to die for stealing from the halls of Emperor Soulswell. In his endless mercy, the Emperor allows the thief a choice of execution between three rooms. In the first, a water elemental surges, the bones of its victims floating in its deadly waters. In the second, a pack of vicious owlbears haven’t eaten in years. In the third, a golem of brass clenches and unclenches its mighty fists. Which room should the thief choose?”

The party chewed on this for a moment before Miri provided the answer: “Uh, door number two. The owlbears are dead.”

“Yup! In you go!” The gates opened, and the party entered the inner bailey of Delirium Castle – a courtyard of grey stone spreading between pockmarked towers like the carious teeth of a buried behemoth. The black pits of their windows stared down at those below, their emptinesses filled with a nebulous curiosity and cruelty. Apart from the grim spires of the Castle, the visitors were greeted by a series of mutilated, mostly-decomposed corpses, some dangling from dead trees, others pinned to walls or simply left sprawled on the ground, their broken limbs spelling out warnings to other trespassers.

“Yikes,” Comet said, seeing the corpses.

“Oh, look out!” a voice said nearby. “Hide, if you don’t want to get spotted!” The party quickly assumed stealthy positions as a group of goblins stamped across the courtyard – hunched, ugly little creatures, moving towards the kitchens. They periodically snorted fire from their nostrils, clearly augmented magically in some fashion.

“Whew, that was close,” the voice said again, and the paryt looked up to see a cheerful stone face: a gargoyle, peering down at them from a nearby tower. The statue resembled a broad, ugly, vaguely humanoid face, expression contorted into a slightly unnerving grin, its teeth and features half-obscured by moss.

Greengrin. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

“Who are you?” Yam asked.

“Me? I’m Greengrin!” the head replied. “Something of a greeter here. Need any directions?”

“This Castle seems… friendlier than I imagined,” Alabastor said.

“You’ll find a lot of us don’t exactly, ah, adore working here,” Greengrin said. “Don’t want to badmouth the boss, but…”

“Gotcha,” Sister said. “Say, can you give us any advice about the Library Tower?”

“Hmm, Library Tower eh? I’ve heard a few things. So, first thing to remember here, is that everything is alive. Stones, doors, windows, cutlery… it’s all filled with the magic of the Castle to some extent. So watch out. Also, everything is dangerous. Even me.” Greengrin snapped his teeth together in a mock-baleful bite. “But only if you piss it off. So, be polite. Learn the rules. That’s general advice for the Castle as a whole. As for the Library Tower itself, I’ve heard a lot of adventurers coming out of there talking about the Silent Ones. I don’t know much about them, but based on the way they talked about them, I’d steer clear if I were you.”

“That was genuinely helpful, thank you,” Miri said.

“Hey, anything to relieve the unendurable boredom of being a stone statue stuck to a tower,” Greengrin said with sincere good-natured mirth.

The party made their way through the Castle’s courtyards to the Library Tower. Alabastor noted a shadowy figure on a high balcony; it retreated into the tower.

After checking the front door of the tower for traps, the party entered a foyer and immediately found themselves in a labyrinthine space – stairways, doors, trapdoors, and passageways branching deeper into the library, much larger than the bounds of the Library Tower should have been able to hold. They noticed a shape in the corner of the foyer; closer inspection revealed it to be a corpse, presumably that of a prior adventurer judging from its rotting armour and rusted sword and pistol. The man’s nose and mouth had been stitched shut, and his stomach grotesquely distended. He also had an ornate key with a worm-like bell, pocketed by the adventurers.

Backing quickly away, the party began their exploration of the impossible library, making their way through a series of chambers filled with books on a variety of topics: one room was filled entirely with tragic dramas, the next with theological tomes, the next mathematical treatises. Metaphysics, medicine, law, magical theory – many topics were covered, with little rhyme or reason dictating an overal organizational scheme. Self-kindling lamps and candles lit themselves upon the party’s arrival at each room. Several discoveries were made as the adventurers pressed their way deeper and deeper into the extradimensional space. Yam discovered a tome known as The Ultimate Tragedy which seemed to be a different tragic play for each person who read it – the saddest play imaginable, for that individual. Comet found a book describing the contents of the Armoury Tower, including the legendary warhammer known as Chainbreaker, supposedly capable of destroying any bond or fetter. Alabastor and Sister discovered a book called the Persuasive Polemic: a largely blank tome, some pages dedicated to extremely persuasive religious or political arguments. Writing in the text would guide a writer’s hand, such that their rhetoric would always be maximally persuasive. The party encountered corpses riddled with some sort of mould, rune-trapped doors, and a flock of animate books flapping round another corpse covered in paper cuts – books terrified by an illusory fire Yam conjured, forcing them into a corner while the party hurried past.

The party entered a new chamber, this one occupied by a massive wooden figure, its torso fashioned from an enormous card catalogue, its limbs articulated joints like that of a massive doll.

“It’s a catalogue golem!” Miri said excitedly.

“Do you require assistance in locating a book?” the golem asked helpfully.

The party requested information on two books: the Anarchonomicon, and the Sanguineuous Scripture. The golem provided a reference card for both, but instead of some specific location, the cards seemed to provide directions: “up and south” for Miri’s tome, “up and southeast” for the Book of Chaos. As the party traveled deeper into the lilbrary, they found the letters on these bewitched cards changed according to their location, in a kind of game of “hotter or colder,” recalibrating in response to a shifting position. Before leaving the group also requested the location of a book about the Silent Ones, “up and east.”

Resuming their expedition, the party discovered a staircase, protected by a crude tripwire rigged to a hidden net. They avoided this curious trap – suprisingly primitive given the rest of the library – and pressed on. Something squelched and oozed up ahead: Comet flitted in front of the party to discover a reeking, slimy, blackish mass of mould, shaped only vaguely like humanoid figures, slithering through the Library Tower, spreading mould wherever it moved. Alabastor attempted to distract the mould-spawn with an alluring illusion of a fellow fungal creature, while the party took up positions of ambush. As the thing shambled towards the illusion the group assailed it with spells and missile weapons, quickly eradicating it in a burst of black spores.

Exploration continued. A book on the Soulswell’s bizarre laws was found, as were a group of shelver-goblins: a unique breed, custom-spawned by Soulswell, with extendable arms to reach the tallest shelves. The goblins squeaked in fear, but Yam approached and offered them some of the pamphlets from the Society for the Abolition of Demonic and Infernalism Subjugation and Mistreatment. The goblins took them with confusion and curiosity, and in exchange directed them to a chamber with a magical circle – a teleportation symbol, which transported the party to a different chamber closer to the books in question. The party pressed on, discovering a secret door, which led them into a library of political philosophy texts.

A translucent, floating humanoid of indeterminate sex, with a mass of prehensile, tentacular hair perused the stacks, humming to itself.

“Ah, visitors to the Library,” the creature said. “I’m one of the Reference Demons. If you’re searching for a book, I can assist you… for a price.”

Tense negotiations proceeded, a complex back-and-forth. Eventually, the Demon agreed to teleport the players to the location of the Anarchonomicon if they promised to release it from its bondage to Zachariah Soulswell using the weapon Chainbreaker. As collateral, Armand was able to barter one of his most valuable botanical concoctions, promising a moment of pure ecstasy. The demon gave them its name – Beleth – as a means to summon it to repay their debt.

Instantly, the party was transported to the chamber of the Anarchonomicon. The book spewed out a shifting, coruscating madness of transmutation – books becoming colourful rats becoming iridescent pigeons becoming stones becoming bonsai trees, bookshelves transmuting into massive faces or mosaics or walls of ice, the floor transmuting to mud or crystal or waist-deep jam. Sister searched for traps magically, and confirmed that none were present. Yam, bravely leaping forward, resisted the metamorphic influence of the tome and opened it. Instantly, the book transformed into a doorway.

“Ah, guests at the Castle! I’ve been so bored! Come now, plaaaaay with meeee!” the book proclaimed.

Hesitantly, the group passed through the doorway.

The party found themselves on an island in a brightly glowing greenish sea, swarming with eel-like horrors. Upon the island, two giants – one pink and one yellow – guarded two massive doors. Graven on the ground before the giants was the following text:

“ONE OF THESE DOORS WILL LEAD YOU TO ME. THE OTHER WILL BE MOST UNPLEASANT. ONE OF THESE GIANTS SPEAKS THE TRUTH, AND THE OTHER LIES. YES, IT’S ONE OF THOSE. HAVE FUN!

– A”

The pink giant said: “My door leads to the treasure you seek.”

The yellow giant said: “No, my door leads to the treasure you seek.”

The pink giant responded: “My yellow friend here is an inveterate liar. Only I speak the truth.”

“Ugh,” Yam said.

“I know this one!” Comet said. “We ask one of them what the other would say.” The waspkin asked the yellow giant: “Which door would your pink friend tell us to go through if we asked him which was the right door?”

“He would tell you to go through my door, the yellow door.”

“Then we have to go through the pink giant’s door,” Comet said. “If the yellow giant is telling the truth, then pink is the liar, and we should go through the pink door. But if yellow is lying, then pink is telling the truth, and he’d tell us to go through the pink door.”

Accepting this logic – and suitably impressed with their new companion – the party passed through the pink door.

Through the pink door, the characters reached a desolate plain with a bleak orange sky. Rising from the middle of the plain wa a small plateau, on which stood another door. A handful of green, two-headed rabbits grazed on dry grass, while purple cacti muttered to one another.

Each time one of the party moved closer to the plateau, it grew taller. But as some of the adventurers drew further away, it became closer. Armand, bored with the endeavour, cast blink and sped to the top. Using a mixture of spells, ropes, and clever clambering, the party surmounted the ever-growing plateau. They passed through the door into yet another space.

Here was an endless darkness, with a light illuminating a series of tiles, on which were letters spelling:

“NOR DO WE”

Adrift in this void, the characters puzzled and rearranged the tiles, eventually spelling: “NEW DOOR.”

Instantly, a trapdoor opened beneath the party… dropping them back into the library. The book closed itself, and the chaos around it ceased. Stowing the tome, the party made haste in search of Miri’s tome after a brief rest.

The next chamber was infested with a gigantic, inching grub, gorging itself on books. Disgusted, the party slew the creature with a few well-placed clouds of magical daggers and agonizing blasts.

“Like a giant bookworm…” Alabastor said.

The next door was blocked; a skilfull thunder wave broke it open. Miri’s card now indicated that her book was directly below them. The trollblood wizard proceeded to break through the floorboards, prying them up and breaking through the ceiling below to create a path to the chamber beneath. Flinging down a rope, the party entered the chamber, and Miri found the Sanguineous Scripture: a thick tome, bound in dark red leather, with page edges the gleamed like metal, it appeared blank save for a single word on the cover page – “BLEED.”

Her treasure safe, the party continued their exploration, looking now for a way out. A helpful animated memento mori was able to provide directions, and the party pressed on towards the exit. Along the way, Armand discovered an unusual book that looked like instructions for some sort of puzzle box.

The party passed through a room heaped with bloated corpses – human, goblin, cambion, gnome – along with massive quantities of books, piled up in a kind of nest around the dead bodies. All of the corpses were swollen, their mouths and nostrils sewn shut.

“Gods, this is horrifying,” Miri said, and lit the corpse-pile on fire with a spell before the party passed on, out through a door and onto a balcony, high above the bailey below.

Out of the Library Tower, the party began making their way back to the entrance. They passed through the southwest watchtower, in which they found a room with twelve humanoid skulls. Under each was written a short phrase in Goblin.

  • Shot outside the Gate.
  • Eaten by Bloodhound Slugs.
  • Shot attempting to scale the walls.
  • Killed by feral books in the Library Tower.
  • Jumped out of the Haunted Tower.
  • Spiked Pit.
  • Fell in the Broken Tower.
  • Found in the Caves, Cause Unknown.
  • Poison Needles.
  • Slain by the Wolf-Headed Knight.
  • Slept with Succubi in the Tower of Dusk.
  • Pecked to death in the Rookery Tower.

Past this room, they found their way to the West Twin, entering a chamber containing six jars of lantern oil, nails and carpenter’s tools, a dozen torches, linen, and a significant quantity of spare timber.  There were also some bandages and other healing supplies. After looting this room, they pressed on to the East Twin. Another garogyle-face greeted them: a waterspout named Gargle.

“Oooh, you’ve got quite the haul there, adventurers,” the face said. “Best watch yourselves or one of the Castle’s guardians will be after you soon.”

“Guardians? Like what?” Alabastor asked.

“Oh, the Jester, the Deathtrap Golem. One of the Apex Chimeras. Hurry on now, if you want to get out alive!”

The entered the East Twin. Painted onto one wall of an otherwise empty room was an ornate wooden door with a purple door-frame, guarded by two painted suits of armour. There was a bucket of slowly coagulating paint on the floor. Sister took the parchment with the painted farmers she’d rescued from Marjorie outside, and pressed it against the mural. They tugged at the door, opening it, even as the amoured guards began to move. Before the guards could subdue them, however, the door opened and the painted farmers leapt back to the parchment. The door, now open, became a real door, allowing access to a corridor beyond…

The party passed through a long corridor, one larger than the East Twin should have accomodated. They entered a long hall lined with half a dozen towering stone statues, being cleaned by goblins with long arms for dusting and broom-like tails. All six of the statues depicted Zachariah Soulswell himself, in a variety of heroic poses. Here he was represented as a clever-faced, handsome man, human, dressing in a variety of ostentatious robes. As the party entered the goblins fled, stirring up a cloud of dust with their tails to cover their escape.

One of the statues suddenly spoke, stone features contorting to stare at the adventurers

“Greetings and welcome, intrepid adventurers. I applaud your efforts thus far. Tell me, how are you enjoying my Castle?”

“Hmm,” Armand said, detached as always. “I’ve seen better.”

“Oh you have, have you?” Soulswell said. “Not finding it sufficiently challenging? Well, we’ll just have to remedy that immediately.” The statue whistled, and then abruptly became inert stone again. Somewhere in the Castle, a strange triple-growl was audible.

“Armand, seriously?” Alabastor said.

“Come on, let’s see what we can find here and get out before whatever that thing is finds us,” Sister said.

The party ducked into one of the several chambers off the hall. In the middle of this room was a steel cage; within is coiled a gigantic, writhing worm, thick as a tree trunk, its mouth gnashing with teeth like a buzz-saw. The creature’s segmented hide had natural markings that appeared to be alchemical symbols. Gleaming in a corner on the floor of the cage wee hundreds of lumps of gold. The worm whined piteously and raises up, pressing its maw to the hatch in obvious hunger.

The cage had a door and a small feeding-hatch. Heaped on the floor below the hatch was a pile of metal scrap – bent swords, rusted shields, dented helmets, twisted gears, and other metal oddments.

Miri attempted an experiment, feeding the worm one of the bits of metal. It devoured the oddment, and then moments later excreted a small lump of gold. Yam used mage hand to fetch the lump.

“Yep, it’s gold,” they announced.”

“It eats scrap metal and shits gold?!” Comet said.

“A… philosopher’s worm,” Armand observed.

“We have to take this thing with us,” Alabastor said. “I have an idea… someone who’s good with animals, coax it in here.” The gnome ringmaster got out his Snatcher’s Sack, liberated from the Dreamlands bogyeman back in the Egregor Vaults. Using the worm-key taken from the corpse in the Library Tower, they unlocked the gate, and Comet carefully led the worm into the Sack, gingerly luring it with a bit of metal. Alabastor cinched the Sack shut, and the worm was theirs’. The party quickly looted the floor of the room of gold, then returned to the prior hall.

Ducking into another chamber, the party spied what looked like a massive clockwork knight guarding a doorway. Rather fatigued, they opted not to approach, and returned to the hall… just as the beast entered the room.

The thing was the quintessence of predation – a splice of tiger, crocodile, and shark, with the body of a vast bear. It slavered with too many teeth, its breath stinking with the blood of a thousand meals. Unsubtle, but terrifying, a gaudy reimagining of the chimera.

The thing barreled forwards, and the party scattered to avoid it, firing off spells. It snapped at Sister, injuring the Lengian and hurling her to one side, and swatted at Miri and Alabastor.

“Here!” Armand said to Comet. “Get one of these in its mouth. Er, one of them!” He tossed the waspkin a mysterious phial – one of his many alchemical concotions.

“On it!” Comet said, buzzing towards the chimera. He unstoppered the phial and shook a few drops into the tiger head. Meanwhile, the shark head snapped and caught him in midair in a spurt of blood. It chewed and gnashed, Comet struggling to get free, stabbing at it, and the head hurled him away; he hit the wall with a sickening splat, falling to the ground like a bloody rag.

The potion, meanwhile, had taken full effect. While Alabastor, Miri, and Yam continued to hit the chimera with spells, the poisoned tiger head snarled and tore viciously at the head to one side, the crocodile head. With a fearsome flash of teeth the tiger ripped out the scaly throat of the crocodile, and the head went limp, the thing’s life’s blood spewing out from the chimera in a vast spurt that incarnadined half the hall.

Sister hurried to Comet, conjured medicinal spiders creeping from her sleeves to sew up wounds and administer healing serum from beneficent fangs. The Lengian cleric scrawled a chalk portal and urged the party through before some other horror could find them.

So ended the first half of the party’ expedition to Delirium Castle. But their contract with the Reference Demon remained unfulfilled – though they had procured the Anarchonomicon, their business at Soulswell’s fortress was far from concluded.

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

The characters in this session were:

  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Insidia “Sid” Thorn, a cambion graduate student and illusionist at Umbral University. Yam’s office-mate.
  • 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: 600 XP

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

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

J

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

S

“J for Jarna?” Sister suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

Snowy City

Market

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

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

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

XOXO

YAM

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

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

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

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

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

Gloomway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YAM

Armand tried the door; it proved unlocked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting. Do they go in the tube?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other party members introduced themselves.

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

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

“Any idea how to leave here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

child Armand

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

“Generally, yes,” Armand drawled.

“Let’s play a game!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

child Sister

“Where are we heading?” Caulis asked.

“Hex,” Ordira said. “Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright…” Ordira said.

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

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

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

lil caulis child Caulis

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

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

child Sidlil sid

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

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

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

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

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

white room

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

“Huh. Well, that’s interesting.”

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

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

“Yam?!” Sister said. “Is that you?”

There was no answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In synchronicity, the illusory pirates on both spoke:

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

“Um…” Sister said. “Avast?”

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

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

at sea!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cavern

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

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

“Yam!” Sister exclaimed, happily.

“YAM!” Sid added, somewhat less so.

Yam burst into tears.

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

“What happened?” Caulis asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastian stormed out of the office in a huff.

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

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

The characters in this session were:

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • 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: 600 XP

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

“What?” Garvin said, disoriented.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Act like my servant,” Armand urged.

“How?”

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

“Fine.”

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

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

“The vampire city. Yes.”

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

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

“Alright, might as well.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mooncross

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

Yam looked unusually pale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fever Lane Sewers

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

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

“Where’d you go?” Sister retorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s coming,” she said. “Get ready…”

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

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

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

Cagehead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agreeing, the party headed south.

Egregor Vaults

Yam’s map of the Egregor Vaults.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parlour

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

Little Nightmares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

boots 001

Garvin’s childhood drawing.

Monster

Yam’s childhood drawing.

The Sun

Armand’s childhood drawing.

Shelves

Alabastor’s childhood drawing.

Boot

Sister’s childhood drawing.

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

Door1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Maze

Yam’s map of the Maze, so far.

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

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

Bones crunched underfoot – children’s bones.

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

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

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

Eyeballs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Garvin, however, hovered at the threshold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The characters in this session were:

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

XP Awarded: 700 XP.

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

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

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

Fever Lane Sewers

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

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

“Maybe we should leave…” Alabastor agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

“You may want to be careful.”

“Why’s that?” Sister asked.

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

“Sentient?! How smart is it?”

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

“Thanks! That’s good advice.”

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

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

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

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

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

library4

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

“Where now?” Alabastor asked.

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

Alabastor shook his head.

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

“I don’t think I met him.”

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

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

Little Pandemonium 2

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

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

“May I assist you?” she asked.

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

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

ManWithTheMetalArm

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

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

Dreamers' Quarter

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

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

“Shit.” Alabastor swore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m stuck!” the gnome gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

journey4

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

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

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

“Go go go!” she urged.

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

“Just go!” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, best get moving,” Sprigley said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

monolith

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

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

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

“Fuck it, run!” Alabastor urged.

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

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

“No swimming, then,” Sprigley said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Another one,” Sister said.

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

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

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

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

journey5

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looks like we were followed,” Alabastor said.

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

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

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

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

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

The characters in this session were:

  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • 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.
  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard/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.

XP Awarded: 650 XP.

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

Faunsweald

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

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

suitors

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

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

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

Vespidae indicated the affirmative.

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

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

csm_78_60b790af21

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

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

It wasn’t long before the hallucinations started.

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

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

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

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

f08820d8e1ca56f83fdda8998d5fdf2a

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

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

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

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

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

The woman looked at the group with mad eyes.

“Who are you?” Vespidae asked.

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

“The Feaster from Afar. We killed it.”

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

“Years?”

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

“Then why not return to the surface?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sime-29

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

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

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

the-mask-of-the-red-death

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

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

ball

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

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

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

Vespidae buzzed forwards.

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

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

yellow

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

Vespidae nodded. “Yes, my Queen!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

5th edition Hex campaign

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.

Hex Close UpMap Screenshot III

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…

Map Screenshot IVMap Screenshot IMap Screenshot II

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.

Condemned: Criminal Origins – Retrospective

Condemned-Criminal-Origins-744-8.1

I picked up Condemned: Criminal Origins some time ago, but only recently finished playing it, searching for something to scratch the survival horror itch until Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within hit Steam. It’s a grubby little linear neo-noir horror game that occasionally rises to rapturous heights of dread, but which remains fraught with frustrations. Despite its flaws the game remains a somewhat underrated title heavy on atmosphere and bone-crunchingly intimate action.

Condemned2

I’ll get my grievances out the way. First and most damningly, Condemned has absolutely terrible controls. I played the game on PC, which may have made things worse, but even on a console, the inability to jump or crouch at will in a first person game is pretty much inexcusable, in my opinion. The game also lacks any kind of stealth element, which is unfortunate, as stealth would have greatly contributed to the feeling of oppressive gloom the game relies on so strongly. While enemies can hide from you, you’re more or less unable to conceal yourself. You have pathetically low stamina, can only run for short distances, and walk at a snail’s pace, especially down stairs. There’s no ability to lean round corners, either, which is infuriating when fighting enemies with firearms. Limitations can be great in horror games, don’t get me wrong – one of the best things about Outlast and Amnesia is that you’re unarmed, for example – but the poor controls in Condemned don’t enhance the experience appreciably. Less vexing but still irksome are the clunky forensic tools, which feel grafted on rather than integrated organically; they’re only accessible at certain key points with one notable exception, a high point towards the end of the game where you wander round a mouldering old farmhouse using a UV light to follow trails of glyphs drawn in blood throughout the building. Though harder to execute it would have been much better to allow complete access to the entire roster of tools at all times, so that you could actually select the right tool for the right job instead of essentially being handed clues on a silver platter. As it stands the forensic minigame feels less like an exercise in puzzle-solving and observation and more like a hoop you have to jump through. What’s especially frustrating about this is that the tools themselves are quite cool, and you can sense the potential in the forensic element: the idea of a hybrid investigation/combat game with strong horror elements, built around forensic puzzles and violent setpieces, is incredibly compelling, but what we get instead is a combat game with a fringe of investigation and a façade of puzzle-solving. My final complaint pertains to the last area, which suffers from the classic “disappointing last level” syndrome (AKA “Xen Syndrome”) and feels unfinished and dissatisfying, with repetitive by-the-numbers boss-fights and a locale (an abandoned orchard) that throws the putrescent urban atmosphere the rest of the game had used to superb effect completely out the window. For orchards, the final level is bizarrely linear: a spooky farm is a fine idea, but it should either involve “Children of the Corn” style fields, hedge-mazes, or sprawling, open spaces filled with tress, not a series of fenced pathways leading you inexorably from one dull fight to the next with unlikely firearms and pill-bottles scattered around inexplicably. It’d have been much, much better if the game had simply ended in the farmhouse, which is a masterfully executed area – non-linear, creepy, requiring actual exploration and even a bit of puzzle-solving, with a final fight that feels bracing and genuinely scary rather than tacked on and frustrating.

Mannequin_People

Such deficiencies aside, Condemned is mostly very enjoyable in a pitch-black, hallucinatory sort of way, throwing visceral splatterpunk combat, psychological horror, and grungy noir atmosphere together into a blender and pureeing into thick, pinkish-black ooze. Obviously taking its cues from such films like Se7en, Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, and Memento, the game takes place in Detroit Metro City, a rundown metropolis infested with vagrants, junkies, squatters, and criminals, an increasingly deranged and monstrous lot who menace the protagonist, Ethan Thomas, at every turn. Punning on the dual meaning of “condemned” – in reference both to Ethan’s quarry, the malevolent Serial Killer X, and to the series of decrepit stores, metro-stations, sewers, office complexes, and public buildings that Ethan has to trek through. Though the graphics are beginning to look a bit dated, the game remains very effective atmospherically, and despite taking place almost entirely in dilapidated buildings it somehow manages to avoid feeling homogenous. A mixture of scripted events and AI capable of stalking the player enhance the sense of paranoia the game cultivates: you can never quite be sure when an enemy is going to pop out or sneak up on you from behind, and several enemies are much more mobile than you, particularly the scrawny, ghoulish squatters encountered from the Metro Station onwards, who can scarper down low tunnels or haul themselves up walls. The tendency of enemies to run away if injured only to return is particularly commendable – there’s nothing creepier than landing a blow only for the enemy to dash off into some shadowy, slime-encrusted maze, a maze you’re going to have to slog through to reach the next area. Particularly effective sections include the burnt-out shell of a library, with holes in the ceiling and floor that you can fall through or climb down; the whole place is infested with what seem to be burn victims, but it’s never fully explained who these people are or why they’re here. This utter dearth of explanation really works in the game’s favour, giving the whole thing an air of sublime horror. Birds are inexplicably dying, the city’s homeless all seem to have suffered a psychotic break simultaneously, and Ethan is definitely losing his mind, but exactly why any of this is happening is unclear. I haven’t played the second game, but I’ve heard it explains some of these details, and while I understand the motive for doing so I like that this game keeps the overriding reason for the collective madness of the metropolis more or less mysterious.

Uber_Addicts

Enemy design is largely very good: although there aren’t really any non-human enemies and most of the opponents can be described as some variant of “vagrant,” there’s quite a bit of variation in enemy types and armament. The vagrants all look like they’re slowly rotting, with some literally resembling the undead, but unlike most zombies the crazed homeless are twitchy and fast, moving more like rabid marionettes or the Infected from 28 Days Later than shambolic Romero-era flesh-eaters. The animations for the various enemies really sell the creepy; the putrescent Mannequin enemies are especially effective, hiding in plain sight amongst regular store mannequins only to advance with the slow, menacing stride of a slasher-movie villain. While, as I mentioned, I didn’t particularly like the final stretch of the game, the last boss has wonderfully horrific design, like something out of a Clive Barker novel or film. I will say, however, that the game shamelessly, unavoidably, and unapologetically exploits middle class anxieties about the homeless. There is literally no effort to make the homeless seem like anything more than a bunch of addled urban monsters. The addition of non-violent or even helpful homeless NPCs might have mitigated the feeling that the entire game is a kind of grotesque class war, but no such luck: the world we’re being painted is a kind of conservative nightmare, a hardboiled reality where whole districts of the city have been given over to the ravenous, deranged underclass. We are told of one part of the city for example, described as “a nasty area filled with nasty people, and the people down there are different, they go beyond nasty.” There’s no real effort made to make the homeless seem like victims; where in Outlast, for example, the game is very much aware that it’s presenting the inmates of Mount Massive as monstrous, it also shows us again and again that the current state of the inmates is the result of experiments carried out by institutional authorities, by people who should know better. Nothing of the sort is attempted in Condemned. I’ve heard in Condemned 2 that an evil cult is shown to be behind the whole thing, but, really, that’s not much of an improvement; a clichéd fear of non-Christian religion isn’t all that much better than fear of the subaltern. All that said, Condemned exploits bourgeois anxieties about the homeless very effectively. Spotting one of the inhuman squatters indulging in a cannibal feast produces an undeniable frisson of revulsion, a strong “get the fuck away from me or I will cave your face in with this sledgehammer” response, and that’s exactly the response the game is aiming for; in this sense it’s an aesthetic success.

 Oro_Dark_Primary

Disturbing class dynamics aside, bashing in the skulls of the vagrant hordes in Condemned is another strong suit. Firearms are incredibly rare, as is ammunition for them, so most of the combat is melee – an unusual but highly effective choice, as it means you have to get up close and personal to dispatch your enemies. The various weapons – everything from sledgehammers and fire axes to paper cutters, piping, mannequin arms, a burning 2×4, and plenty of others – all come with advantages and drawbacks, and since you can only have a single weapon at a time (another stroke of genius), finding and choosing weapons becomes a major tactical element of the game. These choices are further complicated by the fact that certain weapons allow access to key areas – the sledgehammer, for instance, is required to break off padlocks. The actual nitty-gritty of combat is kinetic and brutal, a visceral back-and-forth requiring careful positioning, timing for blocks, and a gruesome selection of hands-on finishing moves. There aren’t any combos, which is a bit disappointing, but I’ve read that this is remedied in Condemned 2. You can however, effectively invent your own combos by learning the timings and habits of your enemies, knowing when they’re going to suddenly lurch into an attack and when to close in for the kill, when to kick and when to run while your Taser recharges – the addition of the Taser to your arsenal makes combat significantly easier, but the recharge time on the weapon means that its utility is limited when facing multiple foes, which is often. Condemned offers a lesson in how to do action right in survival horror: keep the player-character fairly fragile, restrict ammunition brutally, and force the player to get up close and personal with enemies.

condmned combat

As a narrative, Condemned isn’t wildly original – as I noted, it cribs quite heavily from various noir-horror sources – but it knows its genre well, and plays it to the hilt. The greatest strengths of the story are its various elisions, its gaps and unknowns. Why are the birds dying? Why are the city’s homeless all gone berserk? What is happening to Ethan? What motivates the sinister Serial Killer X, and who is the lurid, mutilated devil we catch glimpses of in visions? Many such questions are never given wholly satisfying answers, but such loose ends give the story a feeling of uneasy irresolution. The game is also quite effective at presenting what’s effectively an unreliable narrator – no mean feat for a first-person game. At many points throughout the story it’s unclear whether certain events, creatures, or phenomena are supernatural or psychological in nature: is Ethan just crazy, or is some occult power at work? This sort of ambivalence is central to certain subgenres of horror. As structuralist critics like Tzvetan Todorov and Terry Heller argue, when there is significant hesitation between a natural and supernatural explanation for events we have ventured into the world of what Tzvetan calls the “fantastic,” further subdivided into the “fantastic uncanny” – when the events receive a rational explanation by the story’s end – and the “fantastic marvelous” – when a supernatural explanation is accepted. In the middle is the “pure fantastic,” in which ambiguity is sustained to the very end of the story. Outlast, for example, is of the first class: what seems like a supernatural creature sealed under the mountain and summoned by a “conjuring” (the Walrider) is revealed to be a predatory nanobot swarm; Amnesia is firmly of the latter category, as supernatural forces are increasingly implicated and even what seemed potentially earthly (Alexander, the shaking of the castle, the darkness) are revealed as otherworldly. Condemned seems to vacillate between natural and supernatural explanations so thoroughly that it lands in this third, rare category, one shared by many of Poe’s stories as well as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Even what seem like patently supernatural elements – the weird, acrobatic monster that you face repeatedly at the end, for example – the possibility of a more rational explanation lingers, especially if Ethan is going mad. You receive injuries from what seem to be spectral foes, but they might be psychosomatic wounds “inflicted” by hallucinations; at certain points objects seem to shift of their own accord, but this could simply be Thomas’ addled mind “rearranging” his perceptions. Heller identifies horror tales of the pure fantastic as the “most terrifying” (14) and while this assertion seems to me to somewhat overstate things, there’s some merit to his suggestion that the pure fantastic is in some sense the most threatening of the three genres, insofar as it blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality. It’s a rare videogame that attempts the kind of ambiguity offered by a pure fantastic tale of terror, and a rarer one still to actually sustain and pull off such ambiguity, as Condemned manages.

Condemned-Criminal-Origins Background

Works Cited

Heller, Terry. The Delights of Terror. Chicago: U of Illionois P, 1987. Print.

Outlast: Whistleblower – Review

Whistleblower

I have now finished Outlast: Whistleblower twice, once on Normal and once on Nightmare difficulty.  Not only is the game one of the best examples of quality DLC I’ve ever seen, it’s a brilliant follow-up to the original Outlast, deftly interweaving the two storylines in such a manner that they feel like halves of a single whole; on my second time through the game I began by replaying Outlast on Nightmare, seguing directly to Whistleblower afterwards, and the entire experience felt seamless and perfectly paced.  Those who enjoyed the first game will find this semi-sequel just as gruesome, harrowing, and delightfully disgusting as the last.  I heartily recommend it for anyone who likes horror games, especially those who enjoy the hyper-vulnerable weapons-free style of things like Amnesia.

Mild spoilers will follow, but I will refrain from revealing the details of the ending.

Slabs

The story of Whistleblower is, if anything, richer and more gratifying than that of Outlast; or, rather, it deepens and builds on the foundation Outlast created, transcending its workmanlike horror plot to offer a far more narratively satisfying experience.  Here you play as Waylon Park, the Murkoff employee who alerted Miles, the former protagonist, to the diabolic excesses of Mount Massive in the first place.  The scenario feels similar to something like Michael Crichton’s nano-disaster techno-thriller Prey: your character is a Snowden-esque programmer, so morally revolted by the actions of his employers that he can no longer stay silent.  The story is such that I almost want to recant some of the statements I made in my original Outlast review – specifically that the story was entirely incidental to the mechanics of hackle-raising horror that the game deployed so expertly.  In Whistleblower, the latent anti-corporatist critique in Outlast is made much more explicit, personified in the sinister and coldly calculating Jeremy Blaire, a ruthless executive who wants to keep the illegal experiments of Mount Massive secret.  The presence of Blaire – and his single-minded dedication to secrecy – gives the narrative a locus for the player’s hatred. In Outlast our antipathy towards Murkoff is essentially abstract, the organization faceless, its employees already dead or warped by the time the story begins, whereas in Whistleblower we actually see just how appallingly amoral they really are, up close and personal.  In Outlast, chronicling and exposing the horrors of the asylum always felt secondary to escaping, surviving.  In Whistleblower you really want to take Murkoff down: they’re so despicable, so ethically bankrupt, that you feel a real desire to see them stopped, shamed, and punished.  Whistleblower also leads me to reconsider my previous objection about the dearth of female inmates.  It’s now clear that the designers didn’t eschew female characters because they were squeamish or thoughtless: they are saving those characters for a sequel.

It’s important to note that most of the hate isn’t directed at the Variants but at the despicable economic and institutional forces that made them what they are.  This is made especially prominent in Whistleblower where you see one character, Eddie Gluskin before being subjected to the Treatment.  “I knew it was coming,” he declares.  “You filthy fucking machines! You fucking machines! No! No, not again. No! No! Jack-booted fucks, I know what you’ve been doing to me.”  Later, we see that the madness Gluskin exhibits is, in part, an internalized manifestation of his own violation at the hands of Murkoff employees.  In another memorable scene early on, strapped into a chair in the manner of Clockwork Orange and subjected to hypnogogic programming, Waylon has his face licked lasciviously by one of the scientists, heavily implying that the scientist is abusing patients.  Its moments like these that redirect our hatred away from the individual inmates – who we pity and fear, perhaps, more than we can truly hate them – and towards those in actual positions of power, the scientists and executives that constitute the vicious biopolitical machine that’s ultimately responsible for the horrors we’re exposed to.

Operating Room

One of my major worries was that Whistleblower was going to be a very by-the-numbers DLC, with recycled environments and gimmicks – a series of environments and enemies mostly identical to those from the first game.  Fortunately this was not the case at all.  While a few very brief segments of the game took place in the same parts of the asylum as the original, even these areas were drastically altered – different doors blocked off, rooms in a less severe state of disarray, etcetera.  The vast bulk of the game, however, took place in original environments, prominently the outbuildings of the asylum utilized for work and recreation (the Vocational Block), as well as a large area shrouded with clinical plastic wrap.  Great attention was paid to making these areas feel unique.  As with the original the atmosphere of Whistleblower was phenomenal, the paranoia palpable.  The twists from the first game – like losing the camcorder and thus night-vision capability – are not replicated, but there are new ways of complicating things for the player.  One sequence, more eerie than terrifying, takes place in a mist-shrouded series of tennis and basketball courts; the moisture in the air makes the night-vision mode a useless blur of white static.  Like Miles, Waylon is also injured badly at one point, but whereas Miles loses several fingers Waylon manages to sprain his ankle, slowing his speed to a limp for a tortuous segment of the game.  This is a brilliant move and ramps up the terror considerably.  Just as losing the camcorder pulled the rug out from under your feet, taking away something you’d taken for granted, so does injuring Waylon’s leg radically reshape your experienced, depriving you of your most valuable defense against Mount Massive’s inmates, your mobility.

Cat's Cradle

The enemies in Whistleblower are just as horrifying as those in Outlast, and the major, named Variants all feel unique.  The original antagonists (Chris Walker, Father Martin, the Brothers, Trager, the Walrider) make cameos or briefly pursue Waylon, but don’t take centre stage.  Instead we’re faced with the anthropophagic Frank Manera, whose insatiably ghoulish appetites complement Murkoff’s profit-driven voraciousness perfectly, and the sublimely disturbing Eddie Gluskin, AKA “The Groom.”  Like Trager in Outlast, Gluskin steals the show.  A misogynist murderer (possibly with an out-of-control Oedipus complex, judging from his obsession with Harry von Tilzer’s and William Dillon’s “I Want a Girl”), Gluskin’s gentlemanly demeanour and penchant for folksy twentieth-century barbershop songs belie his absolute brutality; he might’ve been stolen from the pages of de Sade, and his Freudian quest to fashion himself the perfect Bride in an asylum full of men somehow manages to surpass even Trager’s bloody cost-reduction-cum-experimental-surgery in its capacity for terror.  I will not spoil precise the details of Waylon’s encounter with the Groom (although the following paragraphs verge on spoilers, so read at your own risk), but they will sear themselves into your memory.  On this note, those who find sexual violence in games deeply off-putting to the point of being unable to play or enjoy games that include such themes should probably avoid Whistleblower.  While the game in no way glorifies or normalizes sexual assault – far, far from it – Gluskin’s sadism is undeniably sexual.

ick

I’ve heard some suggest that the Groom’s inclusion in the game makes Whistleblower transphobic and/or homophobic.  While I can understand this interpretation, I’d like to articulate a counter-reading, because I think there’s far more going on with Gluskin than mere transphobia or homophobia: what’s horrifying about Gluskin isn’t, in fact, his queerness or same-sex desire, but his relentless heteronormativity, his misogyny, his patriarchal violence.  Gluskin is not Buffalo Bill; he doesn’t want to become a woman, and nor do his Brides.  The game thus isn’t pathologizing transgender people or demonizing the rejection of binary gender: it’s actually criticizing the opposite impulse, the forced assignment of sex and gender.  The Groom’s all-pervading desire to produce Brides for himself directly mirrors the logic of heteronormative gender assignment: as Judith Butler might put it, any assignment of sex or gender is irreducibly a kind of violence, an oppressive act.  As she writes in Bodies That Matter:

…“sex” is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time.  It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize “sex” and achieve materialization through a forcible reiteration of norms. (Butler 1-2)

Our horror of Gluskin is not necessarily fear of the idea of gender transgression per se as it is horror at the idea of the forcible imposition of gender, an imposition carried out by the patriarchy in the name of the social order: hence, for example, Gluskin’s endless talk of happy families, the joy of childbirth, the supposed frailties of women.  “I want a family, a legacy,” Gluskin rhapsodizes.  “To be the father I never had. I’ll never let anything happen to our children.”  His obsessive reiteration of this ’50s ideal constitutes a kind of performance that he wants to trap Waylon and the other would-be Brides in.  It is no coincidence the character is associated with bonds and ropes, most notable in the cadaverous cat’s cradle at the heart of his domain, a graveyard of abjected Brides who failed to meet his misogynistic ideals of femininity.  Gluskin wants to produce women only to subjugate and destroy them, to reduce them to birthing-machines and, ultimately, corpses.  As Waylon scribbles in a note titled “Blue Beard’s Wives”: “Whatever story he’s telling himself, he’s not making women to bear his children, he’s making women to kill them.”  The Groom’s inevitable failure and frustration occurs in part because his Brides fail to live up to his idealized, unattainable image of womanhood.  Were Gluskin simply a rapist he would be boring and forgettable – “vulgar,” to use his own term.  What makes him both more compelling and infinitely more terrifying is the twisted ideology that underlies his impulses, an ideology all the more unnerving in its familiarity.  Through Gluskin, Whistleblower manages to make all that patriarchal society wants to seem wholesome and natural – binary gender, the nuclear family, the “biological destiny” of women – instead seem decidedly monstrous.

Frank!

The design of all three major antagonists – Blaire, Manera, and Gluskin – is perfect: Blaire, suited and unruffled, the perfect avatar of American capitalism-gone-wrong; Manera, nude and blood-spattered, with a hillbilly beard bedewed with blood; Gluskin, dapper and slick, not a hair out of place, a loving grin forever fixed on his disfigured face.  The gameplay is more or less identical to that of Outlast: barebones stealth segments and paranoid exploration interspersed with the occasional, impossibly intense parkour/chase scene.  There aren’t any significant innovations here, but I wasn’t particularly expecting any.  The game is short, but not all that much shorter than the original Outlast.  It could certainly be played in one sitting, though, and in fact the Insane mode of the game disallows saving, much like Justine.

I have a few minor criticisms, more nitpicks than anything.  While Waylon’s use of the camcorder is justified, his note-taking makes less sense than Miles’ (where did he even get a notepad?).  They just about justify it in that Waylon is writing to his wife in case he turns up dead, but why not speak into the camcorder instead?  Generally, Waylon’s voicelessness is more noticeable and jarring here than Miles’ was in Outlast.  Miles was all about being a witness, an observer, a cipher: his silence makes thematic sense.  Waylon, though, is all about spreading the word, about speaking out: for the early part of the game your goal is to find a radio.  There are scenes where you’d think Waylon would speak to other characters, especially Murkoff’s employees.  One could argue that he’s too nervous about the repercussions of his whistleblowing to speak, but that seems a bit unlikely.  I’ve seen some reviews with other nitpicks that actually aren’t accurate, such as this Joystiq review that claims that your character goes from naked to clothed instantly (he doesn’t: there’s an animation that’s easy to miss where he pulls on a pair of ragged pants).

Whistleblower sets up the tantalizing possibility of a sequel or sequels.  My fairly blind guesses as to the nature of the sequel(s) are that:

  • Female characters will be present in the sequel.
  • The protagonist will either be a government employee, possibly sent to infiltrate the facility, or an activist who wants to take Murkoff down (my hope is that the protagonist will also be female, since we’ve had two male protagonists so far).
  • The sequel will probably take place in the U.S. but in a fairly remote location – my guess is either the Alaskan wilderness, the Florida Everglades, or (in an homage to Half Life) New Mexico.  No idea where they’d go if it wasn’t in the US… an island somewhere?  Siberia?  Central America?
  • For at least part of the game the facility will be more operational.
  • While there will be no weapons (or perhaps very limited weapons, maybe a Taser) my guess is that the character will have some sort of additional equipment, or else the conceit will be slightly different (maybe a mobile phone instead of a camcorder).
  • There will probably be expanded stealth mechanics incorporating distractions, disguises, or technology.

These are just stabs in the dark, however.

Overall, I can thoroughly recommend Whistleblower to those who enjoyed the first game.  It is, if anything more deeply and lingeringly unsettling, but those with the stomach for viscerally graphic and psychologically disturbing horror will find a superbly dark and powerfully affective game.

Planescape Play Report – Olympus Burns

It’s been quite awhile since I posted, but here’s what my players have been up to in my Planescape game recently.

Battle_of_the_Milvian_Bridge_by_Giulio_Romano,_1520-24

Context:

  • Mount Olympus and its surrounds on the plane of Arborea has become a war-zone.  Anarchists (members of the Revolutionary League) posing as Athar have stirred up resentment and hostility towards the Olympian pantheon who reside on the Mountain, claiming them to be decadent and tyrannical rulers.  This, in turn, has caused the powers of the gods to wane as they lose worshippers.  The Revolutionary League is always aiming to dethrone authorities and undermine the fabric of society, which they believe is hopelessly corrupt.
  • As a result of the Anarchist machinations, war has broken out as inhabitants of Arborea rise up against the gods.  The gods, still powerful, are fighting back to put down the rebellion, but are reluctant to unleash the full force of their powers lest they appear to be the very vicious tyrants they’re being painted as.  Many, such as Apollo, have abandoned their palaces for Zeus’ temple-fortress at the top of the Mountain.
Fall of Rome
  • The slaughter, unfortunately, has “destabilized” the plane.  Each of the Outer Planes is associated with a set of Alignments; when events and beliefs on the plane shift, planes begin to “slide” into one another.  So, as a result of the war, parts of Arborea (Chaotic Good) are beginning to slide into the Abyss (Chaotic Evil).  This has been facilitated by the fact that Arborea, as a plane, is a place of grand passions – the plane actually amplifies emotions.  This includes emotions such as hatred, fear, and anger.
  • As the plane slides into the Abyss the Doomguard (crazed entropy-worshippers – basically the heavy metal Faction) have joined in the fun and started randomly burning, pillaging, and generally revelling in Arborea’s desecration.  The Doomguard have brought with them three flying Ships of Chaos, powerful “Entropy Weapons” capable of great destruction.
  • Meanwhile, Tanar’ri – that is, Demons – are emerging out of the Abyss and into Arborea at the places the planar boundaries are weakest.  They’re now running amok, some of them magically enslaving the native inhabitants to do their bidding (so, for example, there are hordes of cannibalistic Maenads running around who’ve been Charmed by incubi and succubi).  They seem to be allied with the Doomguard, and indeed Tanar’ri crew can be found on the Ships of Chaos.
bacchanalia
  • The Blood War – the eternal, now many-millennia-long conflict between the (Lawful Evil) Devils and the (Chaotic Evil) Demons – has started spilling into Arborea, as the Baatezu (Devils) suspect the Tanar’ri of attempting to “outflank” them using Arborea somehow.  So there are also platoons of Devils and their mercenaries stomping around Arborea’s hinterlands and attacking Tanar’ri wherever they find them.
  • The Harmonium (a Faction dedicated to stability and order) have arrived in force on Arborea to try and stop it from sliding whole-hog into the Abyss.  They’ve brought with them the Mercykillers (a Faction of executioners and bounty hunters) to help enforce order and try to end the conflict.  However, so far they seem to be having the opposite effect, their presence only leading to more fighting and carnage.
The whole situation is based on one of the players’ back-stories.  I’ve played it out as a hexcrawl, with Mount Olympus at one end of the map and a bunch of hexes in the middle full of forest fires, gorgons, mad minotaurs, Blood War skirmishes, and rebels.  The tone is sort of Apocalypse Now meets 300, with a little zombie/cannibal survival horror thrown in.  So far, my players have done the following:
  • Cut their way through swathes of Bacchae-infested wilderness, holing up for awhile in a ruinous trade-town stripped bare of every scrap of food from an orgiastic horde of the Raving Ones.
  • Rescued some prisoners from the anthropophagic Dionysian revellers, killing the Bacchae in mass numbers though liberal use of Fireball and Cloudkill.
  • Repaired one of the downed Ships of Chaos (Doomguard “Entropy Weapons” literally made from the souls of the damned) and psychically bonded with it.
  • Picked up an Earth Genasi mercenary (a new PC), a Lawful Evil Monk dedicated to becoming “One with Stone.”
  • Used the Ship to engage in high-stakes aerial combat with a flock of Harpies and Vrock before seizing a second vessel of the same sort, killing the mixed Tanar’ri/rebel crew and confronting the Anarchist wizard captaining the thing.
  • Joined up with a beleagured battalion of Harmonium and their Mercykiller death-squad (the Ranger also decided it was a great idea to sleep with the head torturer).
  • Raided the abandoned and thoroughly desecrated Temple of Apollo and re-took it from demented Baaetzu legionaries driven mad by prolonged exposure to the Chaotic/Good energies of Arborea – their passions eventually got the better of their discipline.  Their leader, a depraved Bone Devil, was keeping a Medusa as a kind of pet; the party freed her and used her to petrify the Devil’s lieutenant, an Erinyes.  The Hardheads have now adopted the Temple as a base of operations.

Oh, and they did this:

tumblr_n7fm3ncf8I1ro0bsbo1_1280

They have sort of a habit of taming & domesticating weird horrible things.

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén