Monday, 16 September 2019

The Spectral City

This is not a mirage, though it is seen in the desert when one is desperate and weak.

Inspired by The Pilgrims in Jack Vance's Eyes of the Overworld.
Contains paraphrased passages and quotes from that work, not cited. Fair use etc.

First it comes for those on watch, whose eyes become uncontrollably heavy. They will close them - only for  a second - but that is long enough. When they open them again, they see that the desert is quite different from how they remember it.

The Spectral City appears atop a shimmering sea where once there was sand. The tide laps gently at the travellers' feet, but they are quite distracted by the sight of the city itself: slender towers lit by white and purple light, dancing to a music of such uncommon beauty the spectator finds themselves hopelessly transfixed. They know that it probably isn't real, and that if it is, it is of a nature beyond their understanding, but they do not feel fear. They feel nothing but joy.

The sound of ghostly music awakens their companions: startled, they beseech the watchers for an explanation. None is forthcoming, and soon they too are hypnotised. Somehow, though the city seems far away, they can see the beautiful, diaphanous-skinned couples in pale luminous garments walking arm in arm along its splendid boulevards. They watch a carnival of barges, piled with silken cushions, encircle the cities walls, helmed by ghostly young men and women blowing horns of delicate sound.

And it will all be too much for one of them to bear any longer. At first hypnotised by the spectacle, they will snap from their reverie and, overcome by a desire to join in, will either call out to the occupants of the barge, or wade out into the water. As soon as this happens, the music stops, and the citizens of the Spectral City will affix the interloper with expressions of such disappointment that the individual will show no reaction other than hanging their head in profound shame.

Presently, the city fades from view and the ocean evaporates into the cold night, leaving behind nothing but a sea of sand and the incredulous expression of the weary travellers. They do not speak,; neither do they return to sleep. Instead they sit in silence, contemplating the void the city has left in the desert and also in their hearts.

As dawn breaks, they may crawl back to the shade of some palm, or whatever cover they have already erected; they may drink a little of their water, if they have any left; such will be the full extent of their actions. Their only desire now is to wait for the city's return.

Long after dusk is their wish granted, though later recollecting the precise moment proves impossible. The same gleaming spires and beautiful ghosts materialise before them, but this time it is as thought their revelry has been amplified: a true spectacle of the carnivalesque unfolds before their very eyes. Fireworks of wonderful intricacy bloom in the sky: laces, nets, starbursts of red and green and blue and silver. The promenades throng with  gay processions of outrageously costumed ghosts, dancing and marching to the unearthly music of the Spectral City.

Again, overcome by the sheer jubilance of the sight, one of the travellers is unable to resist temptation, and edges forward into the water. This time the carnival does not grind to a halt: the revellers are oblivious. Buoyed by this, the traveller will edge forward a little, wading into the ghostly waters, but something holds them back: they do not belong there. Glancing to their left and right they will see that their comrades have joined them, standing knee-deep in this illusory ocean, captivated by a carnival city of ghosts.

Here they remain, until the city and its seas fade with the rising sun.

Once again, the party are overwhelmed by torpor, and retire to positions around their camp where they might better await the coming night. But for one of them, there is a memory of another purpose, another journey they are supposed to be making. They remind their comrades of this fact, but are unable to rouse them. They pace the length of the imaginary shoreline, and the brief moment of clarity experienced begins to fade, as they contemplate a large sand dune that might afford them an evening grander view of the Spectral City come nightfall.

Here is the moment of truth. All hope for the travellers rests upon this one soul: this is their last chance for salvation. In exploring the site, even only absentmindedly, the traveller increases their chance of happening upon the desiccated remains of their predecessors. The mere sight of a mummified corpse sticking out of the desert sand will be enough to break the spell totally, and it will only take a few strong words for them to likewise rescue their colleagues.

Yet two days have already passed, two days in which the sun has shone and no food has been eaten and no-one has slept: there will be members of their party too weak to leave of their own volition, and decisions will have to be made. Do they try to carry the invalided with them, or leave them to their fate? They will receive no encouragement from those so incapacitated, whose dry lips intone that they will only slow the party down.

All to often this is the case: the party leaves at least one of their number as a sacrifice to this wicked vision, and continues their journey across the desert in bitter silence. It is a silence born not only of guilt, but also of envy: part of them wishes they could see the city too, just one last time.

Her eyes closed, just for a second, and when they opened it was just as she expected and more. An enormous silver moon bathed all in its luminescence: the towering spires of the Spectral City; its beautiful, ghostly inhabitants; its grand barges, like floating palaces. Unlike before, now she finds herself almost completely submerged, and she begins to tread water in the cool sea around her. Gondalas drift by, its passengers urging her to swim towards the city. Atop its walls the beautiful ghosts are calling to her to join them and, in time she will.

She feels a joy like no other when she is lifted up by one hundred hands, and held aloft to watch a sky erupt into a chaotic ballet of iridescent fireworks, but is brief. Her exertions have bettered her, and within she descends into oblivion.

Perhaps her former colleagues will come by this way again. They will not have forgotten the Spectral City, even if they have forgotten their companion. In spite of knowing the dangers it poses, part of them will yearn to see it again. Perhaps they will.

If they do, they will notice amongst the throng a familiar figure: she will be more youthful and more alive in appearance than they ever remember her being, in spite of her non-corporeality. They will want to join her (foolish) or try to rescue her (even more so), bu tit is not her. It is the ghost of her final moments, a trace of her animating spirit that knew such glee in its final moments. Her soul, that which was truly her, was utterly annihilated long ago.

Read more cities of a darker age here

* * *

The Spectral City feeds on souls. It lingers in places of desolation and strikes at weary travellers. It only ever appears at night, when at least one member of the party has acquired one level of exhaustion. Put it in your nocturnal encounter tables for suitable environments.

There is no save for its initial effects: any party members on watch will be immediately hypnotised. Describe what they can see, emphasising the gaiety and splendour of what they behold. They rest of the party will be woken by the sound of bizarre music and, upon witnessing the bizarre scene before them, will likewise be entranced.

Roll for a suitable number of encounters through the night: animals, fey, aberrations and the undead will be deterred by the Spectral City, humanoids will find themselves drawn towards it, and experience the same effects as the party.

Morning comes. Each member of the party gains one level of exhaustion, and will not have recovered hit dice/ hit points from the previous night's rest. They (and any wandering monsters who have joined them) may make a save vs spells (dc. 18 will/wis/cha save if you're using more recent systems) to temporarily free themselves of the enchantment.

A successful save means they are able to clear their head long enough to go for a short walk around the camp. There is a 50% chance they will find a skeleton of the City's previous victim. This will be enough to break the enchantment entirely, and they will be able to talk party members out of it. They are now free to go, though of course they may choose not to do so.

If they do no find any skeletons, they will take up a comfortable position and wait for the city to return. This process repeats each morning until everyone has either died of exhaustion or  they have fled. The odds are fairly favourable that they will make it out alive, but there is a good chance that at least one member of their party (even if its only their lowest level retainer) will have accumulated sufficient levels of exhaustion to become a serious burden. The party have to consider whether they wish to risk proceeding without them.

If "liberated" party members voluntarily remain for a further night of Spectral City viewing, they are entitled to make a similar save to the one they made in the morning to resist the spell. If they attempt to attack or destroy the city, it will simply disappear. The city does not move and will not pursue the PCs. However, it will return to the same spot the following night.

If any characters are left behind they will accumulate exhaustion until they die, after which their soul is consumed by the Spectral City, while their animating spirit will persist in the form of one of its citizens. No resurrection magic of any kind can save them, save for a wish.

If the party travels back this way again, they will be unable to resist spending the night at the same spot, and the cycle will repeat.

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