The characters in this session were:
- 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.
- Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
- Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.
- 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).
- 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”