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Monday, August 04, 2014

Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign Journal: Chapter 33 - The Fires of Africa

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The investigators took the time on the journey from Sydney to Mombasa to rest, recuperate and study their notes following their narrow escape from the City of Pnakotus last session. Travelling on a Baffrey's line steamship they spent a week in Singapore due to some technical issues with the ship, then headed on to Bombay and finally arrived in Mombasa.

Mombasa travel guide, 1925
This city was Arabic in nature, with those famous narrow and redolent alleys, elaborately decorated balconies, mosques and minarets, muezzins and veils. The famous merchant city and former slave-trading centre was ancient, only a few centuries newer than Cairo itself. About 30,000 lived there on the edge of the Indian Ocean, combining bits and slabs of Arabic, African, Indian, Portuguese, and British ways of life. Pre-colonial traders built Mombasa on a coral island just offshore, for purposes of defence. A railway causeway and foot-traffic ferries connected island and continent.

As the ship docked at Kilindini harbour the docks were full of life; crowds, merchants and porters yelling for business. The investigators found a porter for their luggage and followed him up the hill and through the narrow passageways of the city to the Hotel Cecil. Once there they decided to book four rooms for a whole month, and the extravagant expenditure attracted the attention of the proprietor, Mr Charles Jordan, who offered to help them in any way he could.

Mombasa street, 1920s
Through the hotel the group arranged a local guide, and shortly later an Indian gentleman introducing himself as Thakur Jandu arrived. Jandu lead them back down into the city for lunch, and waited outside the restaurant which was signed "Whites Only". After an excellent meal the group headed back down to Kilindini harbour where they soon identified the warehouse of "Ahja Singh, Exporter Objets D'Art". They wanted to investigate Mr Singh due to him being the sole exporter to Emerson Imports (and via them to JuJu House) in New York City.

Hubert went inside the warehouse and found a cool, dark office with a service counter. He rang the bell on the counter and after a moment a short Indian man entered from a back door and smiled in greeting. It transpired that Ahja Singh was currently visiting family in India and was unavailable, but his factotum offered to help. Hubert cooked up a story about locating a missing package for Emerson Imports and the factotum left to locate a ledger (he was unusually convincing, so I let him off a Persuade roll).

The ledger revealed several packages had been sent to Emerson Imports, and Hubert's questioning discovered that the sender of the packages had been a Mr Tandoor Singh of Biashara Street in Nairobi.

The investigators retired to their hotel to discuss what to do next. After mulling over their leads they decided to pay Under-Secretary to the Governor of Kenya Colony, Mr Royston Whittingdon, a visit, to enquire about the Carlyle Expedition. Their investigation was delayed slightly as Mr Whittingdon was not at Collingswood House for a couple of days, but eventually George and Sebastian were allowed to see him.

Whilst they were waiting for their appointment the group did manage to obtain the name of a safari company in Nairobi that might be able to offer help. They resolved to look up Colonel Endicott of the Endicott Game Lodge when they arrived in Nairobi.

Two days later, in Whittingdon's impressive colonial office, complete with walls covered in hunting trophies, including a particularly impressive lion head, they learned little. Whittingdon did of course remember the Carlyle expedition, "a terrible business". The only useful information he divulged was the name of a contact in Nairobi, where the Carlyle Expedition based their safari; one Captain Montgomery of the King's African Rifles.

It was becoming obvious that they needed to move on, so they employed Mr Jandu to take them down to the railway station and booked tickets for the next day's train to Nairobi. They booked the tickets to take them as far as Lake Victoria, to put off anyone who was watching their progress.

Uganda Railway, Mombasa, 1925
The next day dawned hot and bright and the investigators arranged porters to take their luggage to the train. The seating was arranged by class and by colour. The flatcar, directly behind the locomotive and its tender, was left for baggage, light freight, and poor blacks; the third-class car was mostly left for brown peoples—Indians, Arabs, and better-off blacks. Poor whites of no status could ride more cheaply there. The last car, the one furthest from the smoky, smelly engine, was reserved for whites.

They boarded the trains first class salon car and found only one other passenger present. This would turn out to be Mr Jacob Slater, a new character played by Rodrigo's player. For now however the man did nothing but nod slightly in greeting.

As they seated themselves and waited for the train to leave George noticed a man in the crowd who was paying them particularly close attention. The man was a tall Indian, who wore a turban and had a tightly wrapped dark beard. He stayed watching the carriage that the investigators were in during a slight delay in the train leaving, then disappeared into the crowd as it pulled out of the station.

The journey would take between 15 to 18 hours. After climbing out of a narrow coastal belt of open forest and dense brush, the investigators saw the wide plains of Africa. It was still hot, but less humid. Though farms could be found, exotic animal life was much in evidence — elephants, rhinos, giraffes, lions, hyenas, herds of various herbivores, and so on — were all seen at one time or another from the train. The land was gentle and rolling, broken occasionally by precipitous ravines and canyons. Dry grass spread everywhere, interrupted by thorn and baobab trees.

The line climbed steadily. Halfway along, a great snow-capped peak could be seen to the west: Mt. Kilimanjaro loomed high in the sky, though it was fifty miles distant. As the train wound away to the west or east for a few minutes, glints of more great white mountains could be seen far off to the north.

Following a meal served in the dining car they were only an hour out of Nairobi when the trouble began. The first they knew of it was when Hubert and George heard shouting and screaming from further up the train. Then Jacob saw that the walls of the carriage behind Sebastian were starting to buckle, discolour and smoke. He shouted out a warning.

Suddenly the wall next to Sebastian's seat burst into flame, a hole opening up revealing the dark African plains racing by! A ball of flame, glinting with odd blue sparks, seemed to leap at Sebastian. George, who was standing next to the bar, quickly grabbed a soda syphon and raced towards the fire.

The flame caught Sebastian's arm and his clothing quickly caught alight, badly burning him. He screamed in shock, then slumped to the floor unconscious, his arm still smouldering.

Another ball of fire, this one glinting with red sparks, seemed to leap across a table towards George, leaving a trail of burning wood behind it. George's waistband set alight, burning him slightly, as he shouted and backed off, emptying the syphon of water over himself to douse the flames.

All aboard the fireball express!
Hubert raced to the nearby water closet and grabbed a jug of water that lay inside before running back to the fire. Jacob was panicking slightly, demanding that the carriage porter fetch some more water with which to fight the fire. The blue sparks meanwhile leaped down to the carriage floor, setting it alight and causing Hubert's shoes and trousers to smoulder.

Hubert then took a course of action I was not expecting. He poured the jug of water over himself, ran forwards and grabbed the unconscious Sebastian under the arms. He then dragged both of them outside of the burning hole in the side of the carriage and leaped into the African night, from a train moving at speed!

Thanks to a successful Jump roll, along with both characters using a Pulp Point, they survived the leap. The train was beginning to slow down as the driver had seen the fire, and the brakes screeched loudly. Hubert and Sebastian landed roughly, caught by baobab trees and still taking damage, despite the use of Pulp Points. They rolled heavily as the gradually slowing train raced by leaving trails of fire in the night air.

Inside the train the porter was trying to help, running forwards and throwing a small bucket of water over one of the fires. The fire sputtered, the red sparks dying down briefly before flaring up again. The fire was now spreading rapidly through the rear of the carriage as it tore through the night.

In response to the porter's actions the fire seemed to leap at him, engulfing him with flame as he screamed. Jacob and George continued to flee towards the front of the carriage, the fires spreading towards them. They raced out of the salon car and entered the dining carriage.

Jacob stopped and tried to uncouple the flaming carriage, but was unable to unhook the heavy chains that linked them together. George was screaming out warnings to the porters in the dining car, and between them they gathered up the pitchers of water that stood on the dining tables and the fire buckets filled with sand that stood nearby. Behind them the blue and red sparks appeared to jump the gap between the carriages, landing on the rear of the dining car and setting the wooden floor alight.

Between them George and the porters finally managed to dampen the sparks and put the fires out, but the first class salon car was completely gutted by the fire that was still raging. The train finally slowed to a stop and the other passengers disembarked and ran to help. Someone pulled a hose from the locomotive's tender.

Everyone turned out to fight the fire. To the fifty other passengers and crew the behaviour of those big sparks was uncanny, but not supernatural. When the fire was eventually put out the conductor of the train sternly chastised the investigators for carelessness with their cigars, and threatened them with damages. They would have to report to Government House when they finally reached Nairobi, despite Jacob standing up for them.

It took several hours for the carriages to be uncoupled and order restored, before the train could continue it's journey. Hubert had managed to fashion a makeshift sled from the broken trees where he and Sebastian had landed, and had dragged his companion back to where the train had stopped, rejoining the others.

Google came to my aid yet again when George decided he wanted to explore his knowledge of fire spirits in the occult, but he really knew nothing of value.

Two hours later, as the sun rose in the eastern sky they finally reached Nairobi, a new colonial town of about 8,000 people. Just beyond it Mount Kinangop rose within the beautiful Aberdare range. Mount Kenya soared a little further north and east. At an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, the region was relatively cool and dry, the views superb, the water adequate, and the soil excellent for farming. But none of that mattered to the exhausted and badly singed investigators.

Jacob, George and Hubert went to the Highland Hotel to rest, whilst Sebastian was shipped off to the Highland Breeze Hospital for treatment. They would be contacted later by officials looking for an explanation for the fire. As they made their way forlornly to the hotel Jacob Slater introduced himself properly, shedding the character of an upper class traveller and revealing himself to actually be a working-class East-ender from London. Slater wanted an explanation for what he had seen, a strange life in the fires that nature alone could not explain.

They had arrived in Nairobi, badly injured, but with a potential new ally. They would need him as the gears of government began to investigate what had happened, but for now they just wanted to rest.


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