"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Monday, September 21, 2015


I myself have seen this woman draw the stars from the sky; she diverts the course of a fast-flowing river with her incantations; her voice makes the earth gape, it lures the spirits from the tombs, send the bones tumbling from the dying pyre. At her behest, the sad clouds scatter; at her behest, snow falls from a summer's sky.” 

― Catullus

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Meet the Witches

The Ninth World of the "Numenera: Jihad" campaign is very definitely a quasi-medieval fantasy setting.  Sure, there are strong elements of post-apocalyptic survival, space opera, and weird horror, but medieval fantasy tropes are front and center.  The Order of Truth, for example, is a bit more religious than it might be in other campaigns, with a pseudo-deity and Aeon Priests that come off a tad "Bene Gesserit."  The Magisters of the Convergence are very "wizardly," with secret handshakes and Masonic rituals and a whiff of the Renaissance alchemist about them.  There are nobles and serfs, plagues and superstition, and in episodes three and four...the curtain draws back (at last) on witches.

When I decided to introduce witches to the Ninth World, I was determined that they wouldn't just come off as just female Magisters but as something unique.  The Sisterhood, as they came to be called, needed to be bound to the depths of the wood, to ancient prehuman gods, to secret yearnings of the heart and dancing under the moon. These drives formed the core of episode three, "When the Woods are Made to Whisper," and its sequel, "The Sisterhood of Wyr."

When the Woods are Made to Whisper (Episode Three)

During her strange reign, Queen Whenith Sarromere had become convinced that by using a variety of numenera secrets, she could harness the power of dreams to control the minds of all who might oppose her, inside and outside her borders. Eventually, she gave up on this scheme, but only because she began to believe that within dreams lay an entirely different realm that she could rule instead of the corporeal land of Iscobal...

Numenera, p. 158

Having killed the lady Anatrea, the characters find their welcome in Draolis worn out.  They are fleeing south into Iscobal across the Wyr River, with city guards from Qi and one of the biomechanical peace-keeping Zhev in hot pursuit.  They are mounted on Lopers (my warm climate cousin of the Snow Loper), in an overland chase through a blinding storm.

The nano Emerson uses a cypher to slow time, and with a lucky roll of 20 manages to take the Zhev out.  After a few of the other pursuers are shot down, they give up the chase, leaving the PCs to continue south towards Mulen, Iscobal's capital.

The storm all but forces them to shelter at an inn they come across, the Queen's Rest.  Once called the Green Ghi-Bird, it was renamed forty years ago, when the young Queen Sarromere made the journey north from Mulen specifically to stay there.  Or so the landlord would have it.  A truer version of the story emerges that she came to investigate the Whisper...a strange wood nearby.  Rumor has it that after she entered the Whisper, she emerged alone, her retinue vanished, and from that day forward the Queen had a mad obsession with dreams.

There are weirder stories about the wood, which the characters discover passing through the neighboring village of Obeth the next morning.  Sleeping on its borders is said to grant strange dreams; a youth might catch the image of his or her future betrothed, while an elder might see himself young and hale again.  Those who enter the wood return dazed, as if drugged.  Some never emerge at all.  And one girl in the village, Ara, started entering he Whisper after her fiancée tragically drown.  Four months ago her belly began to show she was with child...a child she swears was fathered by her lost love, who now lingers in the wood...

Their visit to Obeth comes with a plea for help.  A young peasant boy known for a dangerous and unhealthy attraction to children has vanished, along with a little girl.  A mixture of curiosity, greed (who knows what numenera the Whisper might hold?), and heroic instinct pushes the group to go in pursuit of them.

Before entering the Whisper they stop at Chapel Green, an Order of Truth chantry on the edge the wood.  There they consult Sister Anass, who tells them what she knows of the wood.  It is, apparently, a near perfect circle three kilometers in diameter.  Legend holds it sprang up rapidly after a star fell from the sky.  It is said no bird or beast will enter it, and that a shadowy coven of witches worships there.  Armed only with this, the characters enter.

At this point they are actually in the belly of the beast...

The Njarshan Vkshii                                        Level 7
aka "Witchwoods," "Wood Gods," "Old Ones"

Each of the Njarshan Vkshii appears to be a small, circular forest, 2 to 6 kilometers in diameter. Closer inspection of the various "trees" and "underbrush" (Level 2) makes it apparent they are all a single species, and digging around (Level 3) beneath the soil reveals the truth...they are all connected, the entire forest in fact a single organism.  

A race of ultraterrestrial, they arrive in the Ninth World when one of their seed ships crashes to the earth.  A single massive "tree" sprouts up from the seed ship overnight, and in the nights that follow thousands of smaller "trees" spring up in a circular forest around it.  According to the Sisterhood (see below), the Njarshan Vkshii once ruled one of the previous worlds, and today still cover the entire surface of the Moon (in my campaign the moon is green, in yours, the Vkshii might come from blue-green Mars instead or elsewhere).

The Vksii feed on psychic energy, preying on those who come under their boughs.  They are known to recruit the service of women--and only women--by "seeding" them.  The exact mechanics of this act are unclear (the Sisters will not discuss it), but it always results in the Sister becoming pregnant and giving birth to one of the monstrous human/Vkshii hybrids known as Green Men.  Ever after, the Sister is psychically bound to the Vkshi and her other Sisters.  They can communicate through images and sensations (not actual words) over any distance and telepathically when in line of sight. The Sisters are also able to peer into the minds of others and cause hallucinations, like the Vkshi itself.  The Sisters age very slowly, living centuries, growing more twisted and bark-like as the centuries pass.

Motive: Feed on psychic energy, retake the world someday.

Environment: 13 are known to lay scattered around the Steadfast and the Beyond.

Health: 120

Damage Inflicted: 3 Intellect points in the outer ring, 5 in the middle ring, 7 in the center (see below).

Armor:  4

Movement: None

Combat: A Njarshan Vkshi (Vkshii is plural) attacks only those who enter it, and only to feed.  Attacks come in the form of hallucinations that increase in strength and intensity the closer to the center you go.  In the outer rim these are only level 3 (9) attacks, increasing to 5 (15) in the middle ring and 7 (21) at the center.  The player rolls Intellect to resist.  Failure means losing 3, 5, or 7 Intellect points and suffering a hallucination.  As the Njarshan Vkshii are telepathic, the hallucinations are drawn from the victim's own secret desires or worst fears.  Attacking the Njarshan Vkshi means going to the center, and striking at the core "tree."  The difficulty to hit the creature is actually 0, as it doesn't move, but with 4 points of armor and 120 health it is hard to destroy...especially as it continues making level 7 attacks on your psyche each turn.

Interaction: The Vkshii do not speak save through their Sisters.  For centuries, they seemed quasi dormant, seeding women living near them and preying on stragglers.  But over the last century, the Order of Truth has launched a Shadow Inquisition against the Sisterhood (for the false heresy of worship and impure relations with the alien) and the Vkshii are fighting back, seeding women in positions of power (such as the Order or the nobility) in pursuit of an agenda no one can yet be certain about...

Loot: Any number of cyphers, oddities, or artifacts may lay under the leaves of these witchwoods, left by unwary victims.  If the creature is killed, it will wither to dust and exposing the seed ship.  At least four to six cyphers should be found within, as well as an artifact.   

Intrusion: No escape.  Using its powers of hallucination, the forest keeps turning the characters around so that they can't find their way back out.  It might even appear to blot the sun and stars from the sky, or make them stand still.

It doesn't take the player characters long to know something is very wrong in the forest.  They are attacked by guards from the city of Qi, and later by Lady Anatrea herself...the woman they killed and Beatrix's mother,mseemingly alive and well.  As they figure out the forest is causing them to hallucinate and try desperately to leave, it becomes clear the wood will not let them, so they press on to its center.  Along the way they manage to find the boy they were hunting and the child he took captive.

The Whisper eventually turns them against themselves, sending Lugar into a berserker rage and forcing Emerson to paralyze him with a mass increasing cypher.  Eventually they realize the only way out is to go in...and they make for the center.  Fighting the "core tree," Beatrix contemplates using his dagger...an artifact that kills whatever it wounds and transfers its DNA back into the killer, healing his wounds but also mutating him.  Not certain he wants to attempt it against so massive a being, Emerson takes the blade and does it for him...his player rolling another 20.  The entire forest convulses and withers into a yellowed tangle of husks...and Emerson collapses into a coma, green tendrils starting to writhe beneath his skin...

The Sisterhood of Wyr (Episode Four)

With Emerson in a coma, they decide to avoid the village and make for Mulen as quickly as possible.  

Arriving at Isobal's capital, they take a room in an inn and fall into an exhausted sleep.  They had been lost in the Whisper for days, and after struggling against its psychic predations, are damaged physically and mentally.  

But it isn't over yet.

The miracle-working charismatic Nano in the party (as of yet he has not revealed his name to his comrades) decides to bathe before bed, and Myrna decides to keep watch.  They are spared then when the attack comes...

The sleepers suffer the same dream.  Lying beneath the boughs of the Whisper, the green moonlight bleeding through the shadowy leaves, they are paralyzed by the incoherent chants, hisses, and screeches of unseen women...or what at least sound vaguely like women.  One voice starts whispering to them through the dark.  "You have taken from us.  Now we take from you.  You have wounded us.  Now we wound you.  You have torn the heart from our breast, no we come for yours..."

A female figure, all in black, with a pale face and obsidian eyes, a crescent shaped mark on her forehead and a mass of wild, tangled hair, crawls slowly over the sleeper's prone body like a lover.  She kneels on the sleeper's chest, making it hard to breathe, and gripping him by the face bends to kiss him.  A slimy tendril, rough and hard as bark, slides down the sleeper's throat, strangling him.

The sleepers turn blue and start convulsing.  Myrna and the Nano leap into action, trying to rouse their comrades from slumber.  The hardest to awaken is Beatrix, who is nearly killed.  Once all are revived, they understand they suffered the same identical dream.

They go to the Order for help, and are put in contact with the blind Aeon Priestess Sister Yaevadra.

Yaevadra knows what is happening to them; they have been marked for death by the Sisterhood of Wyr, the human women who made their pacts with the Njarshan Vkshi the party destroyed.  

Yaevadra knows the Sisterhood well, because she used to be one of them before repenting.

Emerson, meanwhile, has awoken, and everywhere he goes, a shadowy presence follows that only he can see.  She is the dark woman from the killing dream.  She whispers to him, and Yaevadra figures out the terrible truth.  The numenera he used to kill the Njarshan Vkshi has, by infecting him with its DNA, "seeded" him.  He is, for all intents and purposes, one of the Sisterhood now.  The only male in history.  Worse, he carries the nucleus of the witchwood in him.  If he returns and is planted in the ground, the Whisper will sprout up again.

The group explores several options.  Lugar suggests returning to his tribe and the Cloud Crystal Sky Fields, because there is a living god in the desert who might be able to purge this. The idea is rejected, and the only thing to be done, they determine, is to return to Obeth, hunt down the Sisterhood of Wyr, and eliminate them.  After that, they can concentrate on a way to extract the Njarshan Vkshi from him.

Yaevadra accompanies them to lend her expertise.

Along the way, she tells them all she knows.  

Iscobal is a land tearing itself apart from within. The palace intrigues start with the royal family led by King Noren tiKalloban. His father, Rabbar, seized the throne about forty years ago from Queen Whenith Sarromere whom most believed unfit to rule. She died in exile in the land of Ancuan.  Now her sons Bren and Kor want Iscobal back in the name of their house. They plot against the king both openly and in secret.

Numenera, p. 158

Queen Sarromere was not merely found unfit to rule.  When, as a young queen she went into the Whisper, she was Seeded, the beginning of her obsession with magic and dreams.  The Order of Truth supported tiKalloban against her; a witch could not sit upon the throne.  This is part of what they learn from Yaevadra.

They go first to the Chapel Green to speak with Yaevadra's fellow Aeon Priestess, Anass.  It is, of course, a trap.  Both Yaevadra and Anass are members of the coven, and they launch into an attack...

The Sisterhood

Sisterhood witches are levels 3 to 5.  Their main method of attack is the Hex; a psychic attack doing their own level in Intellect damage.  The victim suffers potent hallucinations, animating their darkest yearnings or most horrible fears.  It takes an Intellect roll to resist.

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