Divinations and Preparations

Eliza Gamut, famed Astrologer and diviner, acquires clues to the mysterious Valley of the Six Suns, the legendary location of the last Sphinxes in Egypt. Prepared for adventure and derring-do, a crew of brave men and women of Albion assemble to travel to ancient Aegyptus, and brave the burning sun, biting insects, Daemonic hordes and rug salesmen together!

The Courtiers attending are Eliza Gamut, Lord Walter Devereux, Lord Alexander Gray, Professor Isabel Meredith, Captain Dick Smashing and, of course, the redoutable Solomon Jones. Alexander Gray brings with him a small contingent of Horticulturalists, while Lord Walter Devereux arrives with his own regiment, prepared to do battle with the terrible hordes in Cairo.

While the less martial individuals remain behind the lines, waiting for a gap in the terrible campaign against the Daemonic hordes, Lord Walter sallies forth bravely with his troops to try and hold the Ottoman line against the legions of Hell. Eventually, the military situation is deemed to have calmed sufficiently that the expedition can be mounted; most of the troops are left behind, and some are set to clearing a path. The squad of Horticulturalists that Alexander Gray has brought with him are best occupied in mopping up the aftereffects of the Infernal invasion, and providing humanitarian aid to remove and desert locations. Lord Walter, meanwhile, takes only a small personal guard.

A Journey by Camel

Just before the Black Sun Rising prepares to depart, following the Lodestone cast by Professor Meredith, Eliza Gamut casts one last Astrological chart to ensure the safety of the journey and all its participants. The results are worryingly poor. In every cast that Eliza makes concerning the expedition, the flying ship suffers some sort of horrible malfunction. Apparently the substance of the aether and atmosphere over the Egyptian desert is so fraught following the release of Daemonic energies into the mortal plane, that there is no future in which the spirit of the ship does not sicken - or crash to the ground - or all the passengers are not overcome by some terrible berserk rage and tear each other to pieces - or the ship flies into the sun, or explodes.

Eventually, seeing no other choice, the brave adventurers leave the Black Sun Rising safely at the main camp of the English forces in Egypt, under the care of its loyal crew, and set off by foot and camel train.

The Lodestone is an immensely useful device, and without it the party would doubtless have little or no hope of locating the Sphinx they seek. Meredith has also carefully calibrated the device so that it points to the nearest living sphinx - not a statue or ornament (of which there are many, in the great ruined cities of the Giza Valley and the settlements around). Nevertheless, travel through the desert is tricky, and there is often argument with the local guides as a compromise has to be reached between the safest or best-travelled route and the most direct one to their goal. Lord Walter spends some time arguing in Turkish with the Bedouin who guide the adventurers, and their camels, through the wilderness.

Solomon Jones is surprised, some days into the first leg of the journey, by the approach of a slender young man, dressed in local clothes, who approaches the caravan apparently from the trackless desert, alone and carrying no water-bottle. The local guides huddle together on the opposite side of the camels from this newcomer, and whisper “Djinn” and other, stranger words as they stare at him. The man speaks briefly to Jones, who - despite the warnings and advice of his companions - dismounts his camel and walks out of sight in the man's company.

Less than an hour later, Jones returns, carrying a small, fragile-looking wooden box which he hastily wraps in cloth against the jolting of travel and the stinging desert winds. The box looks immensely old, and resembles an ancient reliquery.

A Surprise Attack!

The party make first for the kingdom of Sabha, where Prince Ali Omar al-Malik assures them they will be welcomed by his father, the Sultan (or possibly Caliph, or King; the number of titles in this strange land is enough to confuse even a scholar of the Ottoman ways). Their journey there passes uneventfully for a week or so, as they don local clothing and blend with the trains of refugees fleeing the devastation centred around the war on Cairo. However, disaster strikes one night as the adventurers are sleeping: an assault by slavers!

Not only slavers, but worse - slavers apparently bolstered by the rag-tag remnants of the Infernal army that had so lately assaulted Cairo. Screaming oaths in the foul Daemonic Tongue, the monsters leap upon the sleeping caravan, and the red glow of hellish magics fills the air as the members of Lord Walter's guard on watch cry the alarm - too late, too late! The fighters valiantly smash through the first wave of the assault, but suddenly the strength goes out of the Earl's guard as they see that Dame Eliza has been captured by a hideous villain who holds a cruel curved knife to her throat and shouts for them to stop. Unmanned by the thought of their commander's fiancée in danger, the men have no choice but to surrender!

In the camp of the slavers, shaken and tossed about by the rough journey over sand dunes and rocks, missing all their property - including any such devices as might be used to cast last-minute magics - the courtiers and their companions count their losses. A few of Devereux's brave guards have been slain, along with several of the native guides, and there are a few bruises among the party, but none are badly injured. However, there are two missing from the brave band - Isabel Meredith and Eliza's companion rat, Phlegm, are not numbered among the captured. Unsure as to whether they are alive or dead, or wandering the desert alone, the courtiers pray for their safety. Downcast and freezing in the cold desert night, hope is almost lost; but Solomon Jones begins a quiet but impassioned reading from Isaiah, reciting the words from memory, and each feels a small glow of hope rise in their heart.

The next day is harsh and gruelling. Under the hot desert sun, the slavers set a tortuous pace as the courtiers are forced to keep up with their captors on camel-back. Most humiliating of all, Lord Devereux and Dame Eliza have been manacled together, and the jeering slavers and their Daemonic masters take great pleasure in hurling insults and jeering comments at the couple, who do their best to bear the situation with stoically good grace.

The second evening, as the sun begins to set and the slavers make camp, the prisoners see a figure approaching. Dressed in the loose robes of the Bedouin, but clearly female - and, from the dark skin, black eyes and hooked nose, from one of the local tribes - she hails the slavers in their own language and loudly and arrogantly suggests a drinking contest, waving a bottle of some foul-smelling liquor, or possibly paint stripper. Some of the slavers growl and mutter that they should kill her where she stands, but their leader, a man with glowing red eyes and a long forked tongue, seems delighted at the idea of a game, and - pausing only to suggest some rather esoteric consequences should the slavers win - the group set to with a vengeance.

As the boasting and drinking commences, a dark shape, almost unnoticed in the moonlight, slips out of the bedouin stranger's robes and scurries across the sand. Eliza manages to silence her delight at being reunited with Phlegm, who chitters something sarcastic and promptly scurries off again, searching for keys. As the slavers are distracted by the woman, who has taken down the hood of her burnous to reveal long, flowing black hair, Phlegm returns and each of the party are quietly freed from their bonds. However, Eliza, after muttering in Phlegm's ear, signals them to wait before acting.

An Heroic Rescue!

As the drunken revelry progresses, and the adventurers grow more and more nervous - the Bedouin's accent is beginning to slip as she slurs her words - suddenly, from across the hilltop, there comes the trumpeting cry of a dragon! Those of the slavers not already rendered unconscious by the Bedouin's alcohol leap swiftly to their feet, and are just as swiftly engaged by the newly-freed courtiers, weapons in hand! As Devereux, Smashing, Gray and Jones lock themselves in mortal and vicious combat with their captors, assisted by the beautiful Bedouin woman - who shouts “Up St. Mary's!” as she draws a brace of pistols from within her robes - the welcome sight of the Horticulturalists streaming over a nearby hill, with dragon in tow, brings hope and light to the party! The mortal slavers are swiftly dispatched, and their daemonic allies begin to flee into the desert, the final survivor breaking and sprinting away when faced with the sight of Witch Jones, bible and whip in hand, declaring the Wrath of the Lord into its very face!

The Horticulturalists, summoned by the actions of Phlegm and Isabel Meredith (for the Bedouin woman was indeed she, in a cunning Conjuration disguise!), escort the adventurers to the nearest town, and leave them with assurances that they will remain in the area should any further mishaps assail them. The journey towards the Valley of the Six Suns - for there, the Lodestone in combination with information from local guides seems to suggest, can be found the last lair of the Sphinx - is fraught; rogue demons with eyes on their elbows, fought off valiantly by the Angels who accompany Lord Walter Devereux and Alexander Gray; a village of mad biting rug salesmen, who are driven off by a particularly harsh sermon from Solomon Jones; and a sandstorm.

To The Valley of the Six Suns

This last is rather more serious than it might appear, as Eliza indicates the presence of hostile spirits of the Air within the sandstorm, apparently enraged and maddened by the encroachment of demons upon their sovereign territory. The storm almost buries the adventurers as they move to seek shelter, but Eliza quickly seeks to placate the local spirits, offering them gifts of bird-skeletons and purified silver. The storm, mollified by these offerings, begins to settle and slow before any great injury is taken or water-bags punctured; but a final mischevious departing spirit does call up a particularly strong gust of wind, causing Eliza and Walter Devereux to lose their footing at the top of a treacherous dune and tumble down to its foot. They pick themselves off and dust themselves off rather hastily, laughing ruefully and uninjured.

Finally, the adventurers make it to a nameless shanty-town near the Valley of the Six Suns and its ruins. They find lodgings in the house of a widow, and Eliza begs the use of her cooking facilities to cast some sort of esoteric divination which involves lion hide, chickpeas, sand and onions. (It smells quite delicious, in addition to being - apparently - very useful for discovering precisely the nature of the riddle that the Sphinx will ask. The answer, apparently, is “life”. As to the question…

It is late one moonless night, when most are hiding within the village from the howling winds and unforgiving sands, that the Courtiers walk into the ruins in the Valley of the Six Suns, guided by divination and intuition that this must be done at the dead of night.

All are walking through the valley, talking softly together and with the scholars peering interestedly over the ancient weathered hieroglyphs, when all suddenly notice a passage leading down into the ground, between the ancient monoliths and records of long-dead kings. The site is the tomb of the Pharaoh Sufir-Teph-Rah, an ancient and mystical figure rumoured to have godlike powers and to have bred Sphinxes to guard his most secret treasures, stolen from Jerusalem. Fixed by a sudden eagerness to discover what the darkness hides, the travellers step within.

In The Tomb of the Pharaoh

The maze of twisting tunnels which greets the coutiers is, at first, disconcerting; but sheltered from the howling winds outside, and with a temperature that is pleasantly warm after the freezing desert night, they all - particularly Solomon Jones - take the labyrinth as a challenge, and begin to progress through, taking lefts and rights according to some inner sense of direction. Several times chambers open to one side or another with the soft gleam of gold, but a sense of wariness and memories of the Grail Quest prevent any from venturing within. Several times, too, the floor yawns before them to bottomless pits, or traps filled with vicious spikes, or liquids that hiss and bubble with a corrosive smell. Finally, after what seems like days wandering through the honeycombed corridors, they reach a great chamber at the centre of the maze.

The chamber is pitch black, and even the torches which the party have brought with them fail to penetrate the darkness for more than a few yards in any direction. The air smells faintly of lions, milk and perfume, and there is a sound like a fluttering of wings which confuses the ear and suggests a multiplicity of birds stirring, restless, on their perches. Finally, after advancing a few yards, the travellers are brought face-to-face with what they seek.

The Sphinx

The Sphinx is ancient and withered, with grey, tight skin stretched in a skull-mask over bone. Fur hangs loose from flanks and haunches, and though every feather in the wings is pristine and in perfect place, their colour shines like dulled and tarnished bronze where it should gleam like gold. And it is <i>big</i> - rising many times higher than the height of a man, and peering down through rheumed and ancient eyes at the adventurers as if they are mice before it.

The apparition speaks, in what the scholars in the party can only guess is an archaic variant of Ancient High Egyptian. The travellers stare blankly at each other and in some panic. The apparition speaks again, sounding a little more irritable this time, and things might turn very nasty indeed - but that an Angel, clothéd all in light, suddenly manifests itself, shining like a beacon in the darkness and sending spots into everyone's eyes. It lays a protective hand on Eliza's shoulder, and suddenly there is a sound like a bell tolling - but a bell set right between the ears. As the Sphinx speaks for a third time, everyone can understand what it is saying! The words are still in the strange, ancient Egyptian tongue, but the truth behind them crystallises in the minds of the listeners with a slightly uncomfortable sensation, like a tuning-fork just in the edge of hearing.

“What is ended by death, but endures beyond death; what can death not be without?”

Eliza quickly gives the answer that her divination has rendered up: ”Life.”

The Sphinx, however, seems enraged by this swift answer, and in a screaming like ancient bronze tablets rending themselves another, accuses the adventurers of being frauds and cheats! Alexander Gray moves to calm the ancient creature, using all his skill at calming recalcitrant dragons and sea-serpents to soothe and flatter the ancient being, which eventually settles with a ruffling of feathers which clash together like plate-armour in the proofing-house.

“Very well, mortals,” it declares, “But that which I guard has been taken from me. You must instead seek a boon.” It sounds very old, and very tired, in that moment.

Eliza makes the request, for that which they have come to seek.

The Sphinx sighs, and with a certain disappointment utters a word that makes the walls of the room glow with a soft light. For the first time, you see the ranks on ranks of sphinx-kittens lining the walls, purring and shifting their metal wings and looking at you with a certain hunger gleaming in their eyes.

The Eye; A Surprise Visitor

The Sphinx takes one up in surprisingly gentle and dextrous claws, something like those of a monkey. The creature squeals and whimpers as its eye is torn from the socket with a horrible sucking sound, and even the brave Captain Smashing finds himself a little weak-stomached at the sight. The grisly object, however, is soon in the care of Isabel Meredith, who casts her prepared Statis spell over it to keep it preserved and whole for the journey. Eager to make their exit before the Sphinx - or its increasingly restless kittens - decide they are hungry for human flesh, the adventurers quickly leave the chamber.

The group are almost back to the shanty-town outside the Valley when they hear an odd mewling noise behind them. It appears that the one-eyed sphinx-kitten has followed them out of the labyrinthine maze, and now stands some yards off with a pitiful expression, head cocked to one side and bronze wings trembling slightly in what might be pain or hope. The kitten continues to follow Eliza and Devereux wherever they go, never interfering with their business, but occasionally - if they don't kick it off - curling up at their feet and purring quietly. It can be convinced to stay away for a day or two, and can of course be locked in a room like any kitten - though some experimentation has found that it has a habit of singing an odd, fluting song at locks which it takes a particular dislike to, and causing them to melt. Phlegm distrusts it intensely, not least because of its occasional (though ineffectual, due to lack of depth perception) attempts to companionably eat him. It cannot yet fly, and its claws, though sharp, have some way to go before they are the true killing weapons of its mother. However, it does have a strong protective streak, and a habit of hissing at people who insult or threaten its masters.

After the adventures in the Valley of the Six Suns, the journey home is barely worth mentioning, and the giant squid in the Mediterranean is really no more than a passing inconvenience.

bonus.sphinx.txt · Last modified: 2008/03/08 20:02 by helen