The Devil Bulls of Transjordan Edit
Eighth of the Tavistock Expeditions
Session 1 Edit
The party had three weeks’ leave, including Christmas and the New Year, before their next briefing. Donald and Mrs Stanley spent it visiting their families, Kohath volunteering in the free clinics in Edinburgh and with Leith Police, and Albert spent it doing more dancing lessons.
Mrs Tavistock wasn’t pleased by their report failing to provide evidence of Bartholomew Coleshill’s expedition. So Dalgetty put the Foundation’s other Expeditionary team on researching more into the back-story, and they found many items which cast similar doubt on it. Dalgetty got the party together for a weekend house-party the weekend before Christmas, where they could discuss their missions and compare notes on Coleshill. (And Mrs. Tavistock, for that matter!) Albert showed off his new dancing ability, even building up enough (Dutch) courage to ask Mrs Stanley for a dance. This one came off rather better than their last dance together, though it would have been better still if he hadn’t almost reached the staggering-drunk stage before daring to ask her!
Haggart left the party at this point because of a ‘family emergency’ – his player is off to spend a year cycling round Europe.
Their first mission of 1935 was to investigate the mysterious death of a soldier in the Mesopotamian campaign in the Great War. Private Kant went into what sounds like either an extra-dimensional space or a magic Gate between the forelegs of an Assyrian temple’s guardian-bull, and was found shortly afterwards dead from multiple broken bones and what looked like a bull’s-horn goring.
Albert tracked down Capt. Arthur Torwell, who had commanded Kant amongst his scouts, and Torwell agreed to accompany them to guide them to the ruins (and help them with survival in the desert). He still has his old notebooks with the navigational record, including the position of the guardian bulls at Djag-Yamaruk.
They travelled to Amman in Transjordan and met up with Prof. Dalgetty’s friend Geoffrey Duggan, who is working on some new vehicles designed for desert travel.
He let the party borrow two of his prototypes: a scout car (the final version will be armoured and have a turret, but this one isn’t and has a normal car-roof, with additional hinges) and a lorry. Both primarily use wheels, but have the facility to ratchet down additional wheels to fit lightweight tracks for crossing soft sand, and a powerful winch and wide sand-anchor in case they do get bogged down. They spent a couple of days driving them around under supervision to practice driving on rough ground and soft sand, and learning to spot the hazards. Amongst the features the party particularly appreciated were the air-conditioning driven by an onboard wind-power generator (weak, but it takes the worst of the heat out of the cabins) and the kettle driven by that same generator.
They made good progress, the practice at driving on rough and soft ground making the desert crossing fairly comfortable. On Capt. Torwell's advice, they accepted Duggan’s suggestion of taking a guide and fixer, Mohammed ibn Farsu, and a couple of camp servants, and they led the procession on camels, which slowed the vehicles down but made the journey easier and more comfortable.
Until locals started shooting at their camel-riders, of course…
The first volley of shots injured one of the camels, and the riders dived for cover. After an exchange of abuse, it turned out that they had been mistaken by men from the village of al-Zereth for allies of their rivals in Sha-Halan. There is currently a neighbourhood dispute going on over access to camels hired to take the villages’ produce to the big-city markets. It turns out they hadn’t been trying to hit either camels or riders, but just scare them off. The shot that hit the camel’s leg was supposed to drop a bit shorter and kick up sand in front of them. Though there have been tit-for tat raids between the villages (stealing livestock, cutting down palm trees, burning crops) no-one has actually been hurt yet. Being the smaller and disadvantaged village, al-Zereth took the arrival of these heavily armed British (with their implied backing by the RAF bombers who keep the peace out here) as a chance to have their grievances against their larger rival village settled in their favour, so they asked the PCs to arrange a settlement. The sight of Kohath using magic to heal the camel’s broken leg helped impress the villagers too.
After negotiating with Sha-Halan, Donald used his diplomatic skill to bring the two sides together and helped them hammer out a reasonable compromise. The negotiations included a banquet hosted by the PCs, where Kohath enjoyed reversing the usual trick of obliging the Brits to eat sheep’s eyeballs; as hosts, the PCs could serve them to the honoured guests: each village’s headman.
They proceeded onwards to Djag-Yamaruk and talked to the nearest villagers. They reported that the ‘devil-bulls’ stalk the desert around the temple ruins whenever there is sufficient moonlight at night. They won’t approach within a mile of the ruins after dark – that seems to be far enough away that the devil-bulls are not bothered by them.
On Capt. Torwell’s advice the party had brought powerful telescopes, which came in useful when they spent a night watching from a high point about a mile away. The moon rose before sunset, but there was no sign of devil-bulls till the sun had set. As soon as it was dark enough for the moonlight to be the only illumination on the temple gate-pillars, the area between their front legs darkened and the ‘devil bulls’ emerged: three legs at the front and two at the back, and about five feet tall at the shoulder. They ‘patrolled’ the area around the temple ruins, apparently meandering randomly till Donald realised that they were following the old streets between the low humps that marked where mud-brick buildings used to be. Willie said that if they were ever caught out by them, it might be worth running into a ‘building’ – if they still perceive the old walls, the bulls may be unable to go inside the buildings. The bulls re-entered the gate-pillars shortly before moonset, and the party retired to bed.
Next day they went in for a closer look at the ruins. Their first priority was an escape route: Willie rigged up a rope ladder so that they could easily get onto the top of a gate pillar. Closely examining the carvings Willie noticed that although there were some remnants of paint in the sheltered bits of the carvings, the weapons used by people fighting bulls had been gilded. This convinced the party that they needed gold weapons to fight the devil-bulls.
Torwell guided them to Private Kant’s grave and Willie held a séance. Kant made his last scouting report over eighteen years late: he had entered the shadowy gateway between the bull’s legs and found a ramp sloping down. He had followed it, turning on his torch (flashlight) when far enough down that it wouldn’t be seen from outside. At the bottom the ramp opened onto a corridor, which he followed for a short way before realising that it was a maze. He turned and retraced his steps, but the ramp was no longer off the corridor. He was forced to try and find his way through the maze, but then ran into a bull in the corridors as his torch battery was fading. He got off two or three shots from his rifle, but they didn’t stop the bull, and that’s the last he remembers.
Kant agreed that he would like to be taken back home so that his wife could care for his grave, so the party excavated his now-mummified body and carefully packed it in their truck. Last thing they did that day was to build a canopy out from one of the bull-statues so that no moonlight could fall on the stone there. They also tried to rig up a timing device to drop a canvas screen an hour or so after the moonlight hit the stone to cut off the moonlight while the bull was outside, but couldn’t manage it.
That night their watch confirmed that no bull came out of the pillar which had been shaded. Next morning, they decided that they needed gold ammunition for their guns, which they wouldn’t be able to manufacture precisely enough at the small forge in the village, so they had to go to a larger town for specialised supplies.
They went to the nearest sizeable town and came back with a supply of gold bullets, by which time they had had time to have more ideas.
The crucial question became – what happened if a bull was shut out of the maze by the magic gateway being blocked before it retreated at moonset? Would that shut them out and make anyone within the maze safe? How many bulls are there? There are known to be four gateways, but no more than two of them are active at once because of the angle of the moonlight. If they manage to shut two bulls outside, are there still two inside?
Mrs Stanley raised the question of what the bulls’ functionality is. They seem to be defending spirits, so what do they think they are defending, and what against? By checking the path they followed through the streets, she and Albert calculated that they were still following the old road just within the town walls, not patrolling the ‘newer’ parts of town outside it. If they are patrolling the town, like a kind of Watchman, would they even have any sense of what is happening within the walls of the Temple?
Albert suggested that they should bypass the vanishing entrance tunnel by digging down into the maze directly, giving them their own exit up a rope ladder rather than needing to find the original correct exit. For a while, they were put off by the idea that the sands of the desert would slide into the hole, making excavating it a massive engineering task. Then Kohath realised that as the place they were going to dig used to be a temple precinct, it will have a hard courtyard surface somewhere – even if it was only more sand, tramped down by thousands of feet over the years. A quick test pit found that the sand was only three to four feet deep in the temple courtyard. Below it was a hard-pounded clay layer as little as eighteen inches deep which smoothed out the irregularities in the bedrock. The temple, of course, had been erected where the bedrock came close to the surface to avoid subsiding under the weight of the walls.
Below the clay was a surface of sandstone. The party were happy to volunteer to tunnel down an unknown depth to the maze – till they realised that they were in the heat of the desert and literally miles from the nearest usable well…
Capt. Torwell and Mohammed recruited a gang of labourers from the local villages to dig a shaft in the temple courtyard. It was constructed like a local well, just wide enough for a man to wield the necessary digging tools, which gave ample room for an adventurer on a rope ladder. The job took the whole of the week around the dark of the moon, when the moonlight was too feeble to activate the portals.
They tested the question of what would happen if the portal was shaded from moonlight when the bulls were out patrolling by staying atop the pillars all night to drop a shade down across one doorway. It turned out that it didn’t affect the bulls, which kept patrolling, but when the moon began to set and they turned for ‘home’ one bull could not find its portal, and didn’t even try to find the other. It just stood in front of its own portal till moonset, and as the last moonlight faded, so did the bull. No sign of it was left behind.
Just eight feet down through the bedrock, the workmen broke through the roof of a maze, as the PCs had expected. They finished the shaft without dropping down into the maze – it is too much of a place of evil power for them, the home of the devil-bulls. At sunset, they headed for home and the PCs prepared to go into the maze while the bulls were out on patrol, hoping to find it unguarded.
Albert was the first down, holding the rope ladder for Mrs Stanley, carefully keeping his eyes averted as she climbed down even though she was wearing practical slacks. While she held the ladder for Donald, Albert moved to look around, and the light of his torch vanished. He had been wearing a rope around his waist so that they could pull him back if something went wrong – they pulled, and found the rope still ended in the loop that had been tied around him, but Albert was no longer in it.
Alarmed, Mrs Stanley told Donald what had happened, and rushed off to investigate. Donald tried to stop her, but his fingers brushed the air where her shoulder had been a moment after she also vanished as she passed the corner into the next maze-corridor.
Kohath was next down. Donald told him what had happened, and they briefed Capt. Torwell as he descended, then stepped around the corner arm-in-arm.
Willie was last down, and on being briefed by Torwell agreed that the right thing to do was to follow Donald and Kohath’s initiative and stay together. They linked arms and stepped into the unknown…
Each had the same experience. As they stepped into a new section of corridor, the lights and noise behind them disappeared. Turning, they could see and go back to the rope ladder and the shaft to the surface, but there was no-one else there – except that those who had stepped around the corner arm-in-arm stayed together. Though they had all agreed to carve route markings as they went, they could see no trace of any others’ passage.
Mrs. Stanley decided to wait fifteen minutes to see if anyone solved the problem and found her. They didn’t so she climbed up the ladder and looked around. The courtyard was deserted, and from atop the door pillars she could see the bulls still patrolling. From the vehicles she took a sheet of Foundation headed notepaper and wrote a description of what she had experienced, signed and dated it, then descended into the maze again.
Each person or pair wandered the maze, marking their route with chisels as they turned, until they encountered one of the five-legged devil-bulls in a straight stretch of corridor. The bulls snorted threateningly, then charged.
Ancient Assyrian devil-bulls, it turned out, aren’t such good guardians when the intruders are armed with modern hunting rifles with gold bullets, shooting at such short range that they could hardly miss. Each time they charged and attempted to slam and gore the PCs, the bulls had to decelerate and turn, giving the high-powered firearms another chance to get in killing blows at point-blank range. Only Mrs. Stanley was gored, and even she stayed conscious long enough to put another bullet into her bull, which dropped unconscious in the same round she did.
Albert was the first to make the entire circuit and find himself back at the rope ladder. He realised that he had found neither the entrance to the maze nor a central point that it was protecting. He therefore used his innate sense of direction to head for where he thought the bulls would come back from their patrol, with the intention of ambushing them.
Willie and Torwell were next at the ladder. They climbed up it and at the top found Mrs. Stanley’s note, written two hours before. Willie’s Navigation roll confirmed that the position of the stars agreed with the time on their watches, so they hadn’t been in some sort of timeslip. Like Albert, they realised that they must have missed whatever the maze was protecting, so they added their findings to the note, including that they had killed one of the bulls, and re-descended.
Donald and Kohath were last to complete the initial circuit. They likewise read the note, added their own contribution, and went down to try to find the centre.
Each pair, as they proceeded, found their own dead devil-bull when they got to the appropriate point of the circuit, and found the one gap into the inner maze that they hadn’t entered before. (Everyone had previously been briefed about the way to get through a maze: keep one hand on the same wall at all times. Trouble is, that doesn’t work with nested mazes where the inner and outer sets of walls don’t touch, and this was a three-ring maze.)
Donald and Kohath were first to find the maze’s centre: an ancient temple whose centrepiece was a gilded life-sized wooden statue of a calf. More immediately important, the robing room of the temple held twenty amulets which Kohath confirmed were magical. Donning them cautiously, they found that they had no apparent ill-effects, and set out back into the maze to see if they could find others.
The amulets collapsed the parallel dimensions that each pair or individual had found themselves in. They found Willie and Torwell first by following their navigation marks – those wearing the amulets could now see the others’ marks – then Mrs Stanley before either she or the bull recovered consciousness. They killed the bull and healed Mrs. Stanley. Finally, they followed Albert’s marks and brought him in too.
In subsequent days, they explored the maze and temple, recording the hieroglyphics (which were unexpected – they are in Mesopotamia, not Egypt) and recovered the artifacts within – including the Golden Calf, which they had to bring up by the moonlight passage. Fortunately, no devil-bulls bothered anyone wearing a magic amulet. Even the devil-bull corpses down in the maze had vanished at moonset that first night.
It was Kohath who first put together the unbelievable conclusion to the adventure: hieroglyphics, and a life-sized golden calf idol? The Foundation’s researchers later confirmed his suspicion by reading the hieroglyphics: when Moses took the Israelites off to wander in the desert for the rest of their lives, some of the Jews persisted in rejecting him and his ‘vision on the mountaintop’. The Calfists went their own way, and within a month had found a river which they could follow, and take fish from, all the way to the lands where the locals already worshipped a bull-god. They saw this as proof of the power of their chosen deity, adopted their new friends’ style of worship, and also built the catacomb-temple where they secreted and protected their greatest artefact: the Biblical Golden Calf itself.
Less headline-grabbing, but possibly more relevant to the Foundation’s mission: their researchers started analysing the magic by which the Calfists had diverted individuals into their own pocket dimensions, which has all sorts of military and security potential.
The campaign will now be suspended for a while in Haggert's player's absence, Albert's player will start her new campaign in a couple of weeks’ time.