Monday 27 February 2023

Hex Crawl 23 #58: Ruined Za-El

 Four hexes northeast of Alakran.


This is a small herding and farming village, some 30 houses nestled around a well in a hollow in the low hills of the Dhuga range. At this point in time, early 7020 of the ancient Urig calendar, it has lain empty for a few months, the denizens scattering to join family elsewhere. The only clues to unusual happenings are nonhuman footprints in the dust leading north, and on the walls of more than one house, among the usual drawings that parents indulge their children to create, the recurring motif of a seven-legged spider.

Find one of these scattered denizens, and they will tell you that the village's name is Za-El; that it was already an unpleasant place to live for it gave children nightmares of oddly colored and proportioned spiders. The tales gave the Za-Elians the reputation of fantasists, so when real, bipedal inhuman creatures started preying on the fllocks and even carrying off lone villagers, there was little sympathy or response from the Governors of Wahattu. Eventually they had no choice but to flee.

These monsters came from the cave in the hex to the north, which will be detailed later; if you are running the Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom out of that location, they are, of course, the marauding pod-men seeking biomass for their fungal creator.  But the earlier spiders, which some say could be glimpsed running about on a moonlit night, as big as a sheep, are phase spiders that have blinked up from a secret tunnel under the floor of the well leading to an Underdark lair inhabited by the ox-sized, naturally seven-legged Leng spider who had journeyed there across dimensions to harvest eldritch crystals.

It may be worth posting the account of the adventure, which I wrote up for my players after the session, the second part as a pastiche of a relevant and instantly imitable prose style. They were called to the aid of new settlers in the village, the family and retinue of a man from far away called Yul, who will be described in good time.

That day and the next, observed curiously by the peasants and servants of Yul, they investigated the village well, whose water level was lower than at the end of the rainy season. In the middle of their stay overnight, the daughter Henettawy awoke with a scream, and related a dream in which she had conveyed to the seven legged spider the presence and the size of the party's diamond. The spider seemed satisfied and ordered her to put the diamond in the well, whence it would be fetched the following night. Later that night, Nura watching in spider form saw with her dark-vision a kindred arachnid near the well, who faded from sight when she approached. Its tracks, visible in the morning, led from the well and then stopped.

On the next day, renewed investigations showed that the bottom of the well was actually a lid. It was necessary to empty the precious water into a nearby empty cistern-house. Then, with many strong arms pulling on ropes, the lid was lifted and a damp rough-hacked passage slashing deep into the stone below revealed. At that moment Dasypus suffered recurring abdominal pains, and begged off the expedition.

Back into the belly of the earth the others descended. After a long downward march, the hewn passage ended at a natural tunnel in limestone stretching out  to left and right. Spider tracks showed in the silty residue at the intersection, proof they were on the right path. The left path curled around after another long walk, and opened into a cavern festooned with the shreds of aggressively iridescent webbing.

The warrior women advanced into the chamber to inspect a silk-wrapped bundle of, apparently, a small body, a corroded bronze box, and the blue-glowing passage to the left from which a low, semi-audible humming emanated. Without warning four giant shimmering blue and purple spiders materialized to surround the explorers and viciously attack!

Although the mighty spells of the party soon destroyed the spiders, a new menace came to Korth's attention - a roiling gray-green blob surging down the east passage! Korth soon found that the slopping blob, smelling of oily meat but insensible to all the rest, corroded his hide and flesh when it touched him. But he saw that the others were not just unaware but unharmed by it, as it swelled and slipped around them.  After a few rounds of this oddness, Korth considered the proposition that the painful amorph that so diligently followed him down the passage might be an illusion - and the blob faded and vanished from his mind, leaving his front half covered in acid burns that proved real enough.

The party had a short breather to see whether their ordeal was over, or what other horrors might be waiting down here.

Dasypus experienced a sudden easement of his gastric bloating a scant hour after the rest of his companions had set out down the dry and forlorn well. Trusting in his nose and common sense, but taking with him a capacious oil lamp lent by the servants of Yul, he set off after them, rolling along the flatter stretches of the descent to make time.

The antique tunnel, hewn into the massy rock by hands unknown and doubtfully even human, settled after a long descent into a declivity. In this hollow the silts of aeons shewed the recent passage of well-known tracks into the leftward passage, whose smoothness betokened a natural origin. To the right the crevice continued, but Dasypus misliked the tenebrous malice with which its stones huddled close, and bethought him of certain ancient rumours of his race concerning the grubs, worms, and beetles which gnaw through the obdurate stone far beneath the wholesome and yielding earth. These vermin were said to be of a size and disposition rather to make a meal of an armadillo-man, than the more usual state of affairs.

He bore left and, the general disposition of the passage curving ever rightward, soon imagined that he had wholly reversed direction, when he saw ahead past many a pinch and angle the glimmer of that white-gold hue, the sorcerous incandescence of the True Sun. Thereat he hastened, and soon enough was again among the usual company.

An air of general befuddlement was in evidence after the immediately preceding events, which are described in detail elsewhere in the expedition's logs. Kaapioinen was attempting to extrude, through his eldritch arts, a wizardly ectoplasm of manipulation to the far side of the cramped and web-festooned cave, its object a verdigris-crusted object whose outlines suggested an unthinkably ancient coffer or chest. One time this exudation was snuffed out as it passed the cyan-litten passage onward, another it was capriciously allowed to pass.

Nura then stepped forth with the intention to per down the tunnel and see what might lie there; and the other saw her look, and stare, and gibber only the word "Spider!" before some inner struggle convulsed her. Later she would hazily recall that the unspeakable entity, whose bloated form she had glimpsed, had outstretched a terrible and oppressive cordon around the lower functions of her brain. But rather than be ensnared by this tightening web, the primordial conscience of her habitual spider-spirit raised up its hairy legs, and in some wise deft and unimaginable clambered out of the constraint. What would have befallen her had this atavistic guardian not roused itself, those who hear this account agree, is not well to think upon.

Somewhere close by, a hissing whisper commenced, its indistinct syllables having a nerve-scraping rhythm to them. On this there followed a further derangement of the sandwalker's behaviour, which seemed antic and inexplicable to those onlooking. Shrinking back, she plucked and slapped at her garments, on which small spots of blood appeared, shouting, "Spiders!" Korth, having through recent doleful experience some insight into the situation, replied, "They are not real! Do not believe them!" Shortly after that Nura's demeanour became calmer and, after the manner of the old legends of pelt-changers and night-striders, she melted into the form of a tawny dire wolf of the desert and charged forward. Not all the diamonds and gold of the world in that moment would have induced her to change form into a spider!

For as the others made haste to advance behind her, that which had troubled Nura became nightmarishly obvious. Against the turquoise glow of the eastern tunnel, cramped and almost filling it, loomed an aberrant and massive arachnid silhouette. Seven clustered red eyes like baleful rubies surmounted pincered mouthparts which were moving and emitting the raspy, incomprehensible whisper-language. Its chitinous thorax and flabby, distended abdomen were of an empurpled hue unnatural to any earthly arthropod.

Struggling to maintain their sanity, the explorers let fly volleys of arrows, bolts, and conjured light-rays over the growling and barking she-wolf's back. Most of them, too many, hit the gargantuan belly of the thing where they untapped spurting rivulets of magenta-coloured ichor, but without stopping the thrashing of its malevolent limbs which seemed too agile and numerous to count. And then, by the greatest of chances, a searing beam of radiance hit the thing in its eyes, so that it was bedazzled and vulnerable to further onslaughts which left it near-lifeless and slumping on the ground. Nura by instinct seized her chance and grabbed the thing's neck in her jaws, ripping head from thorax. So came to an end that loathsome dweller beneath unfathomed layers of desert earth and stone. But what lay beyond? And whence the lurid glow?

The answer, in a cavern beyond, was soon plain to see. The uncanny illumination came from great, many-sided crystals thrusting from the walls and floor, connected to each other by filaments and nets of translucent web-work that fairly blocked passage through. At intervals a mote of bright cyan-tinged light would coalesce where a web anchored itself on a crystal, and thence travel into the web itself. The erratic paths of the constellations of ghost-lights with which the webs were festooned seemed at first capricious and chaotic, but on patient observation could be seen to have some barely discernible pattern and routine at the edge of human understanding, one whose inexorable trend was to move the light ever closer to the south and out of sight. An opening of sorts ran through the congeries of webbing, fair wide enough, but raised off the floor.

As the gnome studied the far reaches of this peculiar arrangement, he neglected to see that closer to him several of these motes were departing from their courses and drawing near. They pooled and leapt from the web in a lambent arc to scorch him woefully. There followed an investigation by trial and error, wherein projections of fire proved useful to clear the hanging webs but left uncomfortably many motes of angry reddish hue in the web.

On cracking open the corroded chest, it was found to contain a myriad of triangular silver coins of singular and disturbing aspect, not for their accursed metal alone, but for the leering faces and eerie configurations of writhing centipedes stamped on them, amidst curling arcs of the script they recognised as peculiar to the Dark Elves. Stranger yet, the coins had been piled around a queer compact assemblage of bronze that unfolded into an articulated armament, a sort of cuirass whose proportions were subtly and disturbingly abhuman, not least for the curving plates that extended from what could only be its lower back, for the covering of parts that no human anatomy should possess. The coins, in any case, proved to be an attractor and conductor of the weird energies when thrown into the web, and between this method and gouts of fire the region of webs was cleared with much laborious effort.

Beyond the crystal cavern that curled around in a leftward direction was a roughly hewn stone archway that gave upon a chamber faced with dark stones not native to the caverns, and whose provenance could not be determined. The particularly thick cables of webbing that had been noted connecting the different regions of the anterior caverns here conducted the cyanotic glow to a ring of strangely pulsing flames of a slightly more bluish tinge. Most of the webs having been cleared, the energetic flames were fading and died out altogether even as the expedition entered this crypt, which was judged a not unwelcome circumstance.

In the chamber sat an incomprehensible apparatus of some unknown and unreflective black metal, with seven spines radiating from a hub, from which upthrust a stalk with a set of pincers made for holding some small object. The spines, Kaapioinen noted, were arrayed in a configuration that corresponded to no evident radial symmetry, but suggested nonetheless a pattern reminiscent of the alternative geometries that drove Riemann mad in a garret, hints of which were adumbrated in the forbidden notebooks of Kolmogorov and Smirnov. The gnome studied this arrangement with some unease, and his trembling was all the greater for deciphering through his art the wall-scrawlings that had been limned in some nitrous substance, containing various such seven-rayed asterisks, diagrams of angles and curves, and annotations in a jagged and unknown alphabet.

Along with various queer tools whose functions could not be intuited, the end of the chamber contained a sizeable pile of oval gold coins, mingled with a number of cracked and scorched diamonds. Now the insistence of the dream-spider on procuring such a stone became clear, given the empty clasp that surmounted the black metal apparatus.

The ecstasy of gold soon turned to unease as the figures on the coins were subjected to closer inspection. Unsettling enough was the figure of the obverse, a robed, mitred, and enthroned hierophant of veiled face. He clutched in mittened hands a flute whose design, coarse and small though it might be on the coin, suggested loathsomely carved contours.

But on the reverse, amid cramped and clustered ideograms of no known system, was worse yet -- a sigil whose proudly aberrant disproportion brought shudders to any who beheld it and which Kaapioinen dimly connected with some half-remembered lore gleaned from the ramblings of one of his academy's emeritus instructors, no longer allowed to teach the youth after an incident hinted only in whispers, but whose mumblings in the garden where he sat all day staring at the sky returned again and again to a figure of alien geometry rumoured to open vistas of madness, the dire and legendary Yellow Sign.

The gnome's unease deepened when he applied his translative arts to the ideograms, which confirmed the identty of this Yellow Sign, referring also to the treasury of a place called Yian-Ho, in a land called Leng, another name of dread the elder gnome had murmured feverishly. But of the sign itself there was no translation, only a howling void of meaning that made him look away hurriedly and close his eyes tightly.

Korth, meanwhile, was dismembering the great purple spider after the ancestral custom of his savage race. Count again as he might, he found that he had only had cut seven legs from it, despite there being no stump or gap in their arrangment, only a loathsome and half-comprehensible asymmetry. Then he recalled that the dream-spider which had so terrified young Henettawy with its demands for a diamond had likewise been described as having seven legs, but not one missing.

The long trek back from this scene of horror was uneventful. They emerged into the tawny light of a hot Dumuzu afternoon, but Kaaipioinen could not concentrate on the dealings with a grateful Yul. With courtly Urig indirection the lord of the village requested tribute from whatever had been found down "his" well, and was greatly pleased to be gifted the cobra-shaped headpiece of traditional Urig office they had found in the river-caves on an earlier occasion. Such mundane dealings were far from the care of the gnome, which wandered to things that might have been. Had they not so diligently destroyed the conductive webbing, the apparatus, which Korth's oracular vision had connected to the traversing of the planes, would still be active and powered. In their possession was precisely the kind of diamond the spider had demanded, and whose cracked and discarded counterparts shewed the sacrifice needed in order to open the gate and escape this reality for a different one.

By nature curious and an explorer, Kaaipioinen nonetheless was grateful that he had not been tempted by the possibilities of a functioning gate-apparatus. For he had studied the mad scrawlings on the walls of the chamber, and read therein the names next to each of the seven-spoked configurations -- DREAM TSUVUGHEND, PANDAEMONIUM, YADDITH, SHAGGAI, SIGIL. Of these, Pandaemonium and Sigil he had learning of, being locations far past the Astral. The others were unfamiliar, but he misliked the alien sound of them, and the suggestion that one was located literally within the realm of dreams. Nor would he have enjoyed a sojourn to this place of Tsuvughend, or found its inhabitants wholesome or reasonable. For next to that name was scrawled an annotation -- a single word normally welcome and salutary, but which nonetheless filled Kaaipioinen with nameless terror -- rendered by his arcane arts as none other than the simple and universal term --


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