Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Thieves of Shem - a new RuneQuest campaign

Eastern Shem, the township of Belthaar, somewhere to the east of Shushan, on the borders of the Red Waste. Four heroes are converging on the Square of the Silversmiths at midnight, for a rendezvous with dark destiny...

  • Rigby Gathorn, a thief from the Border Kingdom, seeking his fortune in the more arid lands to the south;
  • Asantha Arking, a spy from Argos, on a secret mission for a cartel of nobles but with an eye to make some profit for herself;
  • Bagwa Grey Tusk, a sorcerer from Punt, a dabbler in the dark arts, exiled from his homeland for sacrificing several villagers in an effort to lift a curse;
  • Baphtored of Shadizar, another thief, this time from Zamora, which he has fled having robbed a religious sect (more on that later!)

Rigby Gathorn, of the Border Kingdom
Rigby and Asantha got off to a bad start, when Rigby tried to steal from the Argossean spy and was almost killed. She spared him, but he owes her. Meanwhile, Baphtored and Bogwa became friends and drinking buddies when they met by chance in an inn of ill repute in Belthaar.

Rigby has been in Belthaar for a while, doing some thieving, and has fallen in with Taziz, a local thief who has whispered of his plans to take things up a notch and do some tomb robbing. Rigby has got wind that Jahwar, a local gang leader and fence, is planning to double cross Taziz when they meet to discuss the sale of some of the loot Taziz has uncovered. Concerned, Rigby enlists Asantha's aid and they head to the rendezvous point in the Square of the Silversmiths, in Belthaar's craft district.

It is midnight when they arrive on the north side of the square, and all is quiet. The shops that line the square are shuttered and silent. In the centre of the square, torchlight illuminates Jahwar and four of his henchmen standing over the still form of Taziz.

We go straight to action as Asantha sights and shoots with her crossbow, but the shot goes wide. The thugs don't notice this as they are focused on the sound of chanting coming from the southern edge of the square. Here a muscled black man is chanting and gesticulating. Jahwar sends two of his men to investigate just as the stone paving in front of Bagwa (for it is he!) begins to take shape.

Rigby takes advantage of the distraction by sneaking up on a third thug and putting him down, breaking his arm with his warhammer. He then gets into a fight with the fourth thug while Jahwar seeks to flee down a street to the east. Asantha spots this and gives chase - the two scurry off into the dark.

As the first two thugs bear down on Bagwa, Baphtored comes tearing out of the shadows (03 on his Stealth roll) and cuts one thug across the face, knocking him down. Next to them, Bagwa has conjured some kind of strange figure composed of stone, although it does not seem to be doing much, other than glowering. Still, it is enough to obstruct the thug, and gives Baphtored time to kill him too.

Baphtored now spots Asantha leaving the square and decides to give chase; Bagwa abandons his conjuring and lumbers after the Zamoran, but he's slow on his feet and quickly loses sight of his drinking buddy, becoming lost in the maze of darkened alleys and side streets. Behind them Rigby is left to deal with the last thug, which he finally does, but not before he takes a sword slash across the abdomen. One of the fallen Shemites staggers back to his feet, and seeks to flee, but the northerner is too fast for him and kills him outright with a blow from his hammer.

Asantha pursues Jahwar through the craft district, never losing sight of him, and manages to catch up with him, seeking to stab the fleeing rogue before he can escape. She forces the fence to turn and defend himself. He is using a short sword, but in the other hand he is clutching a silver dagger etched with black runes. As they duel, Baphtored arrives and joins in. Asantha gets behind the Shemite and calls on him to surrender. Jahwar declines, but not long after he drops his sword while parrying an attack from Baphtored and it skitters away behind the Zamoran, leaving Jahwar with only the ornate dagger. Seeing the knife the gang leader is holding, Baphtored asks for the obviously antique weapon instead, but Jahwar refuses. Finally, Baphtored bluffs the Shemite into agreeing to pay to be allowed to go in peace, and then grapples with him as they attempt to shake on it.

The wrestling match is unsuccessful for Baphtored, as Jahwar proves the stronger, and breaks free, leaping to try to climb up a nearby house. As he jumps, to haul himself up onto a window sill, he is brutally stabbed by Asantha and blacks out from pain and blood loss, collapsing in a heap in the street. Seeing that Jahwar is dying, Baphtored reluctantly pours his precious healing potion between the Shemite's teeth in order to keep him alive.
Jahwar the Shemite

He then introduces himself to Asantha. It turns out that Baphtored is a friend of Taziz, and was asked by the thief to attend on his midnight meeting with Jahwar, as Taziz suspected a possible double cross. Baphtored also heard from Taziz that he planned to rob a tomb and that he saw the potential for further such robberies in the future. Asantha takes the dagger that Jahwar has dropped.

The pair carry the unconscious Jahwar back to the inn where Baphtored and Bagwa are staying. Meantime, Rigby is looting the bodies in the square before the watch arrives. Sadly, he notes that young Taziz has perished from his wounds...

This campaign is being played using Mongoose RuneQuest. The setting is Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age. More as and when it happens.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Book of the Month: A Gentleman's Game, by Greg Rucka

Readers may already know Greg Rucka from his graphic novel, White Out, about murder in the Antarctic, which was subsequently turned into a feature film by Dominic Sena. Like White Out, A Gentleman's Game features a strong central female character, in this case Tara Chase, a Minder for the UK's Secret Intelligence Service (aka SIS or MI6).

Tara Chase first made her debt as a character in the comic series Queen & Country, the first two collected volumes of which I would highly recommend. Rucka wrote the script for these, although I have to say the art was so-so and the third volume was really inferior to the first two. In it Chase is a Minder, basically an operative for MI6 who stays in London but then is sent overseas to carry out special operations for the Firm which its on site agents are not trained for. Frequently this involves assassination, but not always.

Deadlier than the male.
There are always three Minders on stand by in the comics, and by the time we reach A Gentleman's Game, Tara has been promoted up to Minder One, making her the senior operative. Unlike Queen & Country, A Gentleman's Game is a novel, so there are no pictures to look at. Given the unprepossessing art in the comics, this is no great loss.

AGG was published in 2004, which makes it somewhat apocryphal, as it begins with a terrorist atrocity on the London underground, perpetrated by a trio of suicide bombers. The similarities with what actually happened in July 2005, a year later, are disturbing, right down to one of the same subway stations - King's Cross - being targeted.

AGG picks up where Queen & Country left off, with Tara now in the Minder One hot seat as the UK government considers its response, and eventually alights on a plan to assassinate a radical cleric in Yemen. However, the book is not just about Chase, but also tracks the progress of a young English Muslim convert, from religious scholar in Egypt, through to his translation into a jihadi in Saudi Arabia. The two plots run parallel with each other, although the two characters' lives intersect only twice.

AGG is a gritty book - the turf wars between the various foreign intelligence agencies are colourful, to say the least, as is the ongoing rivalry between SIS and the Secret Service (aka MI6), inevitably leading to a violent clash at Ashford International station.

It is a well-written book, and the politics and motivations of the factions involved ring true to me; AGG spends a lot of time inside the jihadi groups in Saudi and Yemen, and Rucka, an American, has obviously spent a lot of time reading up on them post-911. It is a little dated however - only three years after 9/11, Osama Bin Laden is still alive and the war in Iraq is ongoing.

There are no James Bond antics here, no gadgets. Warfare is carried out frequently at close quarters - a .22 pistol is preferred for an assassination to anything bigger in one case, and in another someone is killed with a rolled up newspaper! Having said that, when you're outnumbered 40 to 1, nothing beats a Claymore mine.

The Minders in AGG are a closely knit team, perhaps too closely knit, and seem to worship their boss Croker, who spends most of his time chain smoking and drinking malt whisky in his office, that's when he's not getting into fights with his bosses, or trading information with Angela Cheng, the head of CIA station in London, who herself has little better to do than keep tabs on MI6. British intelligence is generally presented as being buffeted between the whims of Downing Street and the commercial interests of UK companies in the Middle East, not to mention the desires of the CIA.

In all this Mossad emerges smelling of roses, as they initially pick up vital information on the location of the target, which they try to trade for a follow up hit on an Egyptian terrorist. The Israelis are painted by Rucka as the most reasonable of a bad bunch, generally cooperative, keen to get results, under-financed and generally frustrated by the constraints imposed upon them by the Americans. The Mossad agents Landau and Borosovsky steal the show as a double act, and ought to get their own series on the strength of this outing.

The Minders themselves are an odd mix; Croker admits they are hard to find, and that those most qualified for the job are frequently bright enough to decline it. Not all come from a military background, some have criminal records, and they're not above a bit of burglary, vandalism and other riotous behavior in their spare time. Rucka portrays them as psychologically messed up, highly trained but largely expendable human weapons who can be plausibly denied if they end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. This translates itself into individuals with an on again, off again relationship with their superiors, and a limited life expectancy in the field.

Is it worth reading? I'd say only if you read the comics and like those enough to continue. If not, then don't bother with A Gentleman's Game.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Stoker: First Blood - The Thrilling Conclusion!

This is a summary of a game of Night's Black Agents which I refereed this month. I'm posting this because I was not able to find any report of an actual play of the Stoker: First Blood adventure from the Edom Files collection. This contains SPOILERS. Do not read if you think you might be playing this scenario. If you are planning to umpire it, of course, it could be useful, as I will finish up with some observations. If you have not read the earlier chapters, you can start here.

The Village of Arbanasi, Ottoman Bulgaria, 1877

The Widow of Ekim Dal
As the sun began to sink behind the Balkan Mountains, the adventurers decided the time had come to beat a hasty retreat to the old mosque. Here they found the old imam was still present. Further work with him provided little else, other than that he found the wife of Ekim Dal impossible to resist. The heroes closed and barred the doors of the mosque and prayed they would be overlooked. As the sun went down, however, a ground mist arose and soon obscured outside visibility to less than 10 feet. Then, soft, feminine footsteps were heard to circle the building. It was not looking good.

In this sort of situation, there is little to do but pray for daylight. Stoker was the first to notice that the old imam had stopped muttering and was now sitting upright, clearly examining each of them in turn with renewed lucidity. The major quickly took steps to have the ancient man bound and blind folded. It was then they head a woman's voice speaking to them from beyond the door.

"Why do you forsake my hospitality, O strangers from the West," came a lilting voice in Turkish. "Why reject me and seek to flee my house?"

But there was no way anyone was going to open that door. Even when the earth started to shake and parts of the roof fell in. Plaster came away from the walls. Vambery crouched praying with the Koran held in front of him. Then the doors were burst inward and standing on the threshold of the building was a slight woman in the traditional black outer garb of an Ottoman noblewoman. She looked about 30 years old, with dark, striking Mediterranean features. She extended one hand out to the men in the mosque.

Firstly, Crosse began to suddenly feel tired and passed out on the floor. Then Vambery started forward suddenly, moving with glassy-eyed gait in the direction of the exit. "Come to me," whispered the vampire.

"Restrain him somebody!" barked Major Stoker, both pistols drawn and pointing at the creature, his teeth gritted against its malign psychic influence.

Forbes reached and seized Vambery before he could leave the mosque. The Hungarian struggled weakly but the journalist hung onto him desperately. The woman in the doorway hissed furiously. Then she turned, and retreated from them back into the mist. Vambery suddenly came back to his senses.

With the vampire gone, so the mist outside the mosque began to dissipate. Eventually it cleared away completely. The old imam was now sleeping, no longer struggling against his bonds. The night passed.

Standing watch at a window at about two o'clock in the morning, Stoker spotted a figure in the distance on the edge of the village. He was standing on the opposite side of the stream that flowed along the northern edge of the settlement. He looked like a Turkish soldier, wearing the uniform of an officer. He remained staring fixedly at the mansion for some two hours. Then, at the first crow of a cock in Arbanasi, he turned and began walking away into the mountains, eventually vanishing between the ruins of the old Bulgarian fort.

With the morning, the team crept gingerly out of the mosque and basked in the sunshine. Relieved they were still alive, they resolved to get out of Arbanasi on foot. But first they ransacked the buildings in the village for lamp oil. Enough was found to splash liberally around the foundations of the house.

Major Stoker then strode forward and set light to the vampire's mansion. As it went up in flames, the men stood back, armed and ready. Screams and cries of alarm were heard from within. Then two of the eunuchs came running out of the front door as the flames licked high up the sides of the mansion. Stoker and Forbes opened fire on them immediately and neither made it further than a few yards. The rest of the inhabitants were burned alive in the conflagration [Stability checks all round for this one - but they stood their ground].

With the mansion now collapsing in on itself, and with no other survivors emerging, the adventurers heard the sound of hooves. From the south, in the direction of Tirnova, came a column of Russian cavalry, Cossacks by the look of them, several dozen strong. Quickly, the British fled over the stone wall into the peach orchards, where they hid and watched the Russian scouts from a safe distance.

The Cossacks ransacked the village while some officers watched the burning building curiously and inspected the dead eunuchs in front of it. Eventually the Russians departed, heading north into the Hainkoi pass.

The party emerged from their hiding places in the orchard and set off cautiously down the road, heading south to Tirnova. Eventually they ran into another Russian patrol which took them prisoner. As neutrals in the conflict, however, they could look forward to a short stay in Russian custody before their eventual release, probably in Romania.

Final thoughts on Stoker - First Blood

This is probably what you would call a score draw in the vampire hunting business. The adventure is designed to serve as a back story component which can potentially be accessed by agents in a Dracula Dossier campaign. The idea is you would take a break from the main campaign when written evidence of the above adventure is discovered and play through this one shot, before returning to the principal campaign arc.

The adventure distills into two core encounters with the undead. It is fairly flexible, although most groups will likely visit the Devil's Cave before going on to Arbanasi. By the time they do reach the village, they will probably already be pretty suspicious of Ekim Dal's widow.

In my game, neither of the vampires were killed. Ekim Dal did not need to engage, as his ghouls were more than enough of a challenge for the party, while his wife exhausted her Aberrance trying to winkle the party out of their fortified position in the mosque.

Once ensconced in the mosque, they proved to be difficult to get out, particularly as she had spent points on covering her approach with mist. She could have used more Aberrance  to collapse the mosque but that would have potentially killed all inside, which was something she was seeking to avoid.

The scenario takes a while to get moving, as the party heads across Bulgaria, but it helps if a group is new to Gumshoe to get them up to speed on the mechanics before anything deadly happens to them. We probably spent 90 minutes of game time before they entered the Devil's Cave.

This is not a brilliant scenario. The scenes in Arbanasi can be very tense for the players. Failing to stop the ghouls in the cave might have been frustrating, but then again, this is Night's Black Agents - player characters cannot expect to win every battle they undertake. My other worry is that IF a party should succeed against the ghouls AND Ekim Dal, which I accept is unlikely, there may be no reason to go to Arbanasi at all. You may be left with one big fight in the Devil's Cave, and that would be that.

I need to do my homework on the combat rules in NBA, which are a good deal more detailed than Trail of Cthulhu or The Esoterrorists. The fight in the cave could have been run with much more granular action than it was; I'm not sure how much value it would have added. I still remain in two minds about Gumshoe and its ability to manage action scenes properly. NBA has more emphasis on spectacular fights, but Gumshoe was written for a more investigative game than this, I suspect.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Stoker: First Blood - The Attack of the Damned

This is a summary of a game of Night's Black Agents which I refereed this month. I'm posting this because I was not able to find any report of an actual play of the Stoker: First Blood adventure from the Edom Files collection. This contains SPOILERS. Do not read if you think you might be playing this scenario. If you are planning to umpire it, of course, it could be useful, as I will finish up with some observations.

Within the Devil's Cave, Ottoman Bulgaria, 1877

A resident of the Devil's Cave?
If you have not read the previous events and the summary of the player characters involved, go do it now. We left our heroes exploring the Devil's Cave, or Iblis Magara as it is known by the Circassian locals. They were distracted by the discovery of a sinkhole when they were rushed by two creatures, attacking from up the passage they had just come up.

Two evil looking humanoids, clad in wretched, blood-stained rags, with long claws and sharp teeth, they were unkempt and obviously dead, with large wounds on their necks, probably from a blade of some description. They attacked Vambery and Forbes, raking Forbes badly before the two men turned to grapple with them.

Vambery was completely unarmed, and staggered away, grappling for the tattered Koran he had on his person. Forbes opened fired with his pistol, hitting one of the ghouls but not stopping it. As he ducked and dived, two more ghouls appeared from deeper in the caves and charged. Stoker saw them coming and drawing both his pistols, opened fire on them, but again, they seemed relatively impervious to gunfire. The bullets were punching holes in them, and they were obviously feeling the impact, but still they came on.

One of the first pair of ghouls now climbed up the wall and along the ceiling, seemingly oblivious to the slippery limestone surface, and dropped down onto Forbes. Luckily for him, while it knocked him to the ground, the ghoul hurt itself too [bad rolling by the GM] and this delayed it enough for Forbes to shoot it in the chest, point blank. The ghoul howled in pain and began trying to savage the journalist's neck, whereupon he shot it in the head and it expired on top of him. A small victory for the press in the Balkans!

The manacled Turkish prisoner, Amanoglu, found all this too much to bear [failed Stability check] and sprang into the sinkhole, disappearing from sight with a scream. Crosse got off a shot with his rifle, to little good, and then grappled with the creatures. He was quickly savaged by the thing's evil looking claws and passed out, toppling backwards into the sinkhole.

Vambery was now on his knees, brandishing the Koran in one hand and the prayer beads in the other. He pressed the beads against the undead monstrosity, but sadly to no avail. Stoker, now badly hurt and finding it difficult to stay conscious, turned and dropped into the sinkhole rather than face the horrors any longer. With this Vambery and Forbes decided to follow their companions and also jumped in as yet another ghoul loomed out of the shadows.

Hitting the water, they were quickly swept along by an underground stream. In what seemed like a matter of only minutes, during which some of our heroes panicked from claustrophobia and a sense of drowning, the stream spewed the adventurers out via a waterfall into a small mountain lake. There was no sign of Amanoglu who, weighed down with his iron manacles, must have drowned under the mountain somewhere. Crosse was in a bad way, as was Stoker. Vambery managed to bring Stoker round, and he worked on Crosse, but it was obvious that the geologist needed rest and had lost a lot of blood. Stoker himself was not much better.

Looking out, they saw they were on the side of a mountain, facing northwest towards the Danube plain. Orchards with peach trees led down to a small village dominated by a large mansion built in the Ottoman style and a cemetary. Apart from the odd goat and chicken, nothing was moving in the afternoon sunshine. In the far distance they could see the road to Tirnova.

The Village of Arbanasi

The first order of the day was to get the wounded down the hill to the village and seek help. An old man was spotted asleep in the shade of a tomb in the graveyard. He turned out to be some kind of servant and brought them to the large house they had seen. It was obvious from the distance that the building and suffered some minor damage, possibly from an earthquake.

The player characters met the chief eunuch in charge of the household, who introduced himself as Hasan. He and his trio of eunuch assistants welcomed the foreigners and installed them in the first floor of the house which overlooked a central gallery. They brought them water, coffee and food and the men washed and dressed their wounds and sought to recover. The eunuchs explained that the house belonged to Ekim Dal, but that the local governor disappeared mysteriously last year during the Bulgarian rebellion. Now it is managed by his widow, who is currently resting, but is expected to join them for dinner. Having already encountered the undead once today, the adventurers immediately became suspicious. A quick check of the rooms they had access to revealed an absence of mirrors too.

Vambery and Stoker decided it was time to nose around. By this stage Crosse had passed out from his wounds. Vambery had a stroll around the village looking for horses or a cart they could use to escape Arbanasi before nightfall, as the village was more than 10 miles on foot in rugged mountain terrain from Tirnova. There was hardly a soul left in the village, most having already fled south. Vambery discovered a small mosque, little more than one room, within which he found an ancient imam, at least 90 years old. The man was kneeling on the floor muttering to himself about 'the lady'. He seemed out of sorts. Vambery also noticed that all the religious symbols had been stripped from the mosque.

Returning to the mansion, Vambery investigated the library in the house. Here he found evidence that the ruined fortress they could see across the valley had been used by a medieval Bulgarian clan called the Brotherhood of the Dragon in the 15th century. A book in Bulgarian also told of a strange 'blood curse' that emerged from the ground in the area, and mentioned the Devil's Cave as one potential location of such a hazard. Vambery also now heard the faint sound of a baby crying somewhere in the house.

Upon further investigation, the sound of the baby seemed to be coming from the seraglio within the house, which was off limits to the men. The entrance to the seraglio was locked but Forbes was able to pick the lock and gain ingress. He stole through the rooms and spotted a woman sitting by the window with an infant of about two: she was signing to it in a language that was not Bulgarian or Turkish. Forbes retreated unseen and repeated some of the words she was using to Vambery, who identified it as Romanian.

It was now approaching evening. A young serving girl was setting the table downstairs for dinner...for six people. The sun was beginning to go down behind the mountains...

Next: The Mistress of Arbanasi appears...and the dreadful conclusion of our epic tale!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Actual play Night's Black Agents - Stoker: First Blood

The following is a summary of an actual play session of Night's Black Agents using the Stoker - First Blood adventure contained in the Edom Files collection from Pelgrane Press. It is jam packed with spoilers - you have been warned.

The Cast:

Major George Stoker - an Irish doctor and army officer, on assignment to the Red Crescent military hospital at Shipka, Bulgaria

Armin Vambery - a Hungarian linguist and author, an expert on the Near East and Central Asia and a trusted friend of the Turkish authorities

Archibald Forbes - a British journalist and seeker of truth

Andrew Crosse - a British geologist hoping to extend his knowledge of the little-known Bulgarian geological corpus

The Road to the Devil

Major George Stoker MD
The year is 1877. The place is Constantinople. The team is assembled by Osman Hamdi Bey, a Turkish 'government official' with a taste for Western painting, who wants them to investigate rumours of a possible atrocity carried out by Bulgarian nationalists against Turkish civilians in the Balkan Mountains. Following an unsuccessful revolt by Bulgarians against Turkish rule the previous year, Russia is mobilising to invade Bulgaria and liberate it from the Ottomans. The British government does not want to see Russia extending its influence around the Black Sea and potentially gaining control over the Bosphorous. Both the British and the Turks want some evidence of Bulgarian atrocities to offset the anti-Ottoman coverage in the British newspapers. Enter the player characters, who are considered more credible than the Turks.

The group takes a train from Constantinople to the village of Hermanli where they rendezvous with bashi bazouk Turkish light cavalry led by Demir Akinji. The Turks have with them a prisoner who knows the way to the cave where a massacre is said to have taken place. A hard ride takes them on to Jeni Zagra, during which Vambery suffers horribly keeping up with the Turks and has to be treated for saddle sores by Stoker. The Irishman forms a dim view of the Turks whom he reckons are not to be trusted in a stand up fight.

At Jeni Zagra Vambery and Stoker speak with the prisoner, Kerem Amanoglu; in exchange for food he tells them he is a deserter from the Turkish army. His unit was ambushed and almost wiped out by Bulgarian rebels south of Tirnova a few months previously. He sought refuge in a cave in the mountains where he saw the bodies of men slain by the Bulgarians, six in total. He fled in terror and was later captured by the Turkish army and charged with desertion.

Over dinner Akinji advises the foreigners to take the Shipka pass road, as he fears the shorter route over the rugged Hainkoi pass may lead them into contact with Bulgarian rebels. He says these Bulgarians are evil, cursed men, beyond the gaze of God. When they are slain, he claims, their flesh burns from their bones. He calls them the Dragon Brothers. Forbes says he thinks the Turkish soldier is exaggerating and at the very least has no experience of such things. Stoker posts sentries at the inn they are staying at, but it is an uneventful night.

The next day the British decide to take Akinji's advice and ride to Shipka. It is a hard ride but they cope with it better than the previous day. At Shipka they find a large Turkish encampment. Stoker reports in at the military hospital and Vambery speaks with refugees fleeing south through the pass. They tell him that many peasants are fleeing from Tirnova south through the Hankoi pass or seeking refuge at the estate of the local Turkish aristocrat, Ekim Dal, which lies south of Tirnova. The characters manage to acquire weapons from the Turks - Stoker equips himself with two revolvers while Crosse arms himself with a Peabody-Martini and makes some flares. Sadly nobody trusts Vambery with a gun.

The next day the travelers head south to Tirnova, which they reach in a day. Here they hear the sound of the Russian guns pounding the Turkish fortresses on the Danube. There is a small unit of surly Turkish soldiers occupying a fort. Vambery notices that there are few Muslims left in the town, and that they are mainly Circassians, not Turks (exiled from Russia 15 years earlier). Many seem to be packing up and getting ready to leave.

Staying at the local hostelry, called the House of Mustafa, Vambery chats with some of the Circassians who are still there. They tell him local landholder Ekim Dal has disappeared during the recent Bulgarian revolt along with some of his men. Vambery also learns Dal was at loggerheads with his wife who now remains at the family estate in Arbanasi, as she had not borne him a child. The locals have heard of the cave that Amanoglu visited - it is called the Devil's Cave and is thought to be cursed.

The Devil's Cave

The next day Amanoglu leads the group, accompanied by their Turkish escorts, into the foothills south of Tirnova, where he shows them to the entrance of the Devil's Cave, called by the locals Iblis Magara. Crosse goes in first and Stoker insists on bringing along Amanoglu, who is still manacled. The Turkish soldiers prudently elect to stay outside. Crosse notes the stalactites and stalagmites around the cave mouth that seem to form the teeth of a huge mouth, and the fact that there seems to have been some seismic activity in the cave recently. He also notes some odd circular red marble rings in the floor. There are no signs of any bodies.

Several tunnels lead off from the cave, from one of which there is something of a breeze blowing. Vambery finds some wooden beads in a shallow depression which he correctly identifies as Muslim prayer beads while Crosse uncovers a battered and bloodstained copy of the Koran, which he gives to Vambery. The Hungarian smells a strong odour of fresh blood but cannot find its source.

One of the tunnels leading off to the south east is investigated - only to find it ends at a sharp 18 metre drop to a narrower passage below, from which the breeze is coming. Vambery hears footsteps coming from the main cave behind them, but when our stalwarts retrace their steps they find nobody.

Baffled, the explorers head down a second tunnel which leads upwards into another cave. Here Stoker and Crosse find a sinkhole which they establish drops 25 metres to water below. Crosse drops a rock down into the water to calculate the depth of the drop accurately. Vambery and Forbes are bringing up the rear, but are intent on the others, and do not hear the creatures sneaking up behind them.

With swift steps, the undead are upon them...

Next: The Attack of the Damned!