Thursday, April 28, 2016


   “Are you with the Brass Horde or the Bastard Horde”?  With these words, Karakhim warrior Old Boggy and Karakhim thief Zubatai knew that God-Khan Gurag’s Golden Horde had been split asunder by his death.  And that, if they did not answer the steppe horsemen’s question correctly, Gurag’s death would be followed by their own.

   “Bastard,” Zubatai answered.  He surmised that “bastard” referred to Gurag-Sukh, the God Khan’s bastard son, whose forces occupied the war encamped of Kuzla Ka in front of them.  The looks on the faces of the Bastard Horde Karakhim told him he was correct, but that did not make answering the question any less painful.  

   Zubatai and Old Boggy had sworn their allegiance to the Bataan clan, now ruled over by Gurag-Bataan, the late God Khan’s daughter.  If only temporarily, if only to save the life of his comrades…Zubatai had nevertheless already betrayed his family.

    The centaur-like leader of the horsemen introduced himself as Muke, and said he was glad not to have to spill the blood of fellow Karakhim.  He was only referring to Zubatai and Old Boggy – he only acknowledged the Westerners when he asked Zubatai why the outlanders were trespassing on Karakhim land.  Zubatai lied, and told them they were his henchman.  But he told the truth when he said that they had come from Tal Skallar, where he had scouted the defenses for the God Khan and hoped to further undermine by establishing a drug trade between Tal Skallar and The Jade City in Mu Leng.

   This seemed to please Muke, so Zubatai asked him about the whereabouts of his uncle Temujin, a shaman who was last seen at Kuzla Ka and who the party hoped could relieve Ketil Gravelborn of his cursed shield, and the mysterious “hand centaur” of its apparent curse.  Muke frowned.

  “Your uncle is indeed a guest of Khan Gurag-Sukh, here at Kuzla Ka.  But he will not be for long.  He has refused to initiate the ritual to transform Gurag-Sukh into a God Khan, and for that the Khan will execute him.”

   Zubatai told Muke that perhaps he could persuade his uncle to perform the ceremony.  Muke saw the opportunity in this, and he and his horsemen escorted Zubatai and his band to an audience with the Khan.

   The party went up on a steep incline towards a wooden stockade surrounded by many hundreds of yurts.  Karakhim warriors were attended by men with the heads of horses.  These “reverse-centaurs” were said to be the byproduct of the ritual of bonding elite Karakhim warriors like Muke to their horse.  Though able to perform manual labor with the dexterity of a human, they had the intelligence of their equine ancestors, and had to be led along as slaves.

   The non-Karakhim in the party – Ketil the Dwarf, Jacques Roqumare the dandy fighter and Quofalcon Serpenthelm the thief – looked at these horse-headed slaves with bewilderment.  But the Karakhim looked at them with equal bewilderment.  For save a glowing, aging horse that carried the party’s remaining children, they all rode Rus War Ostriches.  Muke in particular seemed to think Zubatai and Old Boggy, their fellow Karakhim, were blasphemous for using birds as mounts instead of the holy horse of their people. 

   Finally the group dismounted and entered the largest yurt in the compound.  There, beyond a fire pit sat the centaur-like Gurag-Sukh, Khan of the Bastard Horde.  At one side of his throne was Gurag-Sukh’s blind bride Galdai.  At the other was Negay, his right hand man, also an elite centaur-like creature. 

   Below the throne was Kipchi, who bore the marks of a necromancer, whose arts were forbidden in Karakhim.  And next to him was a cage, with withered old man inside.  He had clearly been beaten, and had a look of terrible despair.  Zabutai immediately recognized the man as his uncle, the shaman Temujin.  Temujin’s eyes lit up upon seeing his nephew.

   Before there could be a reunion, The Khan was eager to hear of Tal Skallar.  Zubatai was truthful, telling him of the War Bears that protected the city.  The Necromancer interjected, wishing to hear about Tal Skallar’s legendary ghoul market.  Jacques tried to curry favor with The Necromancer by showing him the sigil that could gain entry.  The Necromancer started copying it unto a papyrus scroll before Jacques withdrew it.  This did not please the Necromancer.

   The Khan explained what had divided the Karakhim Golden Horde.  His sister Gurag-Bataan wished to have peace between the Karakhim, Tal Skallar and Mu-Leng.  The steppe could be a natural trade route that the Karakhim could benefit from, as it was a more direct route than The Silk Road that caravans traveled to avoid falling prey to the horsemen.

   But Gurag-Sukh believed that without warfare and expansion the Karakhim would turn on one another and destroy themselves.  Already, peace had split the Golden Horde into two. 

   Zabutai sought a middle ground.  He told them of their plan to smuggle narcotics from Mu-Leng to Tal Skallar.  This, he said, would allow both trade and war…as the citizens of Tal Skallar would grow weakened from their substance abuse.

   The Khan thought this a good plan, and offered Zabutai a chance to save his uncle if he could indeed convince him to perform the ritual needed to elevate him to God-Khan.

   Temujin shouted “Never!” and was whipped by The Necromancer.  Temujin stood firm.  Gurag-Sukh was not The God Khan’s rightful heir.  The new God Khan must have the pure-blood of the previous God-Khan running through his veins. 

   The Khan suggested that if he were not born with this blood, than it could be obtained by from his half-sister – if the party slew her.  Temujin begged his nephew and his friends not to do this.  This was too far for even Zabutai.

   The Necromancer suggested that blood could be obtained in another way.  It could be drained from the body of the late God-Khan, if they party could infiltrate his tomb.  If this would spare the life of Gurag-Bataan, Temujin reluctantly agreed.   Still, the party would need another element for the ritual – the feather of a Khiimori, a dangerous black Pegasus.

  Zabutai and his fellow outlaws agreed to embark on these quests, which greatly pleased the Khan.  As a token of good faith, he allowed Temujin to lift the curse on Ketil’s kite shield.  Temujin laid his hands on it and spoke the words of his ancestors.  As he did, an unholy black smoke rose from the shield.  With that, the curse was gone.  Ketil could remove it, and swing his axe without being weighed down by the ghouls’ dark magic.

   The Necromancer was intrigued by the sight of undead magic.  He then asked the party whether they had seen any unusual sights, claiming they could help him deliver prophecy The Khan.  The party described the giant sea turtles they had found many hundreds of miles inland, which The Necromancer said meant that the Karakhim would triumph against a naval power which would likewise flounder on dry land. 

   Then the party showed The Khan and Necromancer the evidence of the strangest sight on the steppe – the cursed hand centaur.  At this sight, the warrior Negay and The Necromancer both grew agitated.  The Necromancer ordered the hand centaur taken out of The Khan’s tent.

   Jacques had grown fond of the hand centaur, and pleaded with The Necromancer for its return.  He was only able to convince the Necromancer by giving him the sigil that allowed a man to enter the Ghoul Market unmolested by the undead.  The Necromancer took it, but refused to allow the hand centaur back inside the tent.  The Khan intervened, demanding that The Necromancer honor the bargain that he struck lest he bring dishonor on them all. 

   The hand centaur returned, and Jacques guided him to Temujin.  The Shaman grasped the hand centaur’s hand, which jutted from its neck like arm where a horse’s head might be.  As he spoke holy words, he began to shake.  The hand centaur reared back on his hind legs, but the seemingly weak Temujin held firm with his grasp. 

   Moreover, with supernatural strength Temujin pulled on the hand and arm until another arm began to emerge from the hand centaur.  A head followed, covered in what resembled amniotic fluid.  Finally the hand centaur’s full torso emerged, and soon he emerged as another elite Karakhim centaur warrior.  The Khan recognized him, and asked, “Tabo!  Where have you been these many months?”

   Before Tabo could answer, The Necromancer struck him with a dagger.  Jacques Roqumare, who had developed an affinity for the hand centaur, tried to strike at The Necromancer with his rapier.  He missed, as did his comrades as they too tried to strike the elusive magic-user.  Even when their blades made contact, The Necromancer was able to deflect them with enchanted bracers.

  Negay, The Khan’s right-hand man (or centaur, as the case may be), joined The Necromancer in combat, wishing to keep Tabo, the former hand centaur, silent as well.  His sword bounced off Old Boggy’s plate mail.  Negay cursed Old Boggy for breaking the traditions of the Karakhim with his heavy, Western armor.

   The Necromancer reached for his wand.  Fire began to emerge from its tip as he prepared to cast a fireball spell.  But he risked damaging his ally Negay, and setting the yurt on fire.  Instead, he cast a hold person spell on Ketil, freezing the dwarf in place.

   Quofalcon retreated to the rear of the tent.  In part to keep himself from being fried by a fireball, and in part so he could have room to use his crossbow.  He hit The Necromancer with a bolt.  Enraged, but out of offensive spells, the Necromancer stabbed Quofalcon.  Old Boggy, once again shrugging off Negay’s sword with his plate mail, was able to hit the Necromancer with his two handed sword.

   Zabutai called to Brutal Master, his War Ostrich, which joined the fray.  But The Necromancer slipped on a ring and magically vanished from sight.

   The Khan started taking on Negay in combat, and asked the party to find the traitorous Necromancer.  Zabutai’s uncle, the shaman Temujin freed Ketil from the hold person spell.  Ketil and the others followed a blood trail outside, only to find it led to a number of horses.  The Necromancer could be long gone by now.

    But when they saw a horse without a rider gallop away, they guessed the invisible Necromancer was riding it.  Zabutai, Quofalcon and Ketil took the horse down.  It fell on the invisible Necromancer, crushing him. As the life drained out of him he reappeared.  The party took his magic ring, wand and the bracers that deflected their blows.

   When the party returned to The Khan’s tent, they saw that Negay had been restrained by The Khan’s men.  The Khan asked Tabo, the former hand centaur, to explain what had happened.  Tabo said he’d been cursed by The Necromancer, who he’s seen with Negay plotting with a Mu-Leng wizard named Palla Ba.  Furthermore, The Necromancer had cursed The Khan’s wife with blindness to prevent her from discovering his treachery.  Enraged, the Khan beheaded Negay.

   The Khan then thanked the party, inviting them to drink the blood of Negay, as is Karakhim tradition.  They did so, but Old Boggy shit himself, while Jacques vomited all over The Khan’s wife.  Scabs quickly covered her. 

   It wasn’t the blood drinking ritual that had caused this upheaval.  As the crowd gathered to watch the ceremony, The Scarlet Curse started speaking to the party.  It told them to spread the disease they were infected with to the Karakhim in the tent, and they could not feel relief until they did so.

   The Khan’s anger returned, and he wanted to know if the party carried a plague.  Zabutai lied and said they didn’t, blaming Old Boggy and Jacques’ reactions on the drink.  Temujin backed him up and declared the party plague-free, but he knew the truth.  Later, the party would ask him to cure them of The Scarlet Curse, but Temujin said it was beyond his powers as a shaman.  Perhaps the physicians of The Jade City could cure them.

   Muke took the party to a tent where they could rest and heal, and the next morning they set out to retrieve the feathers of a Khiimori for The God Khan ceremony.  As they journeyed through the steppes, they came upon an abandoned a giant rock with the face of a man.  They asked one of their remaining freed child slaves, Braha, to sit on it, so they could test if it was a rock giant.  It wasn’t, and the boy played on the rock face with glee.  But they spotted a giant shoe in the distance, and decided not to take their chances.

   Then they found an abandoned witch’s yurt.  It was in a plateau of dried lava covered with a thick layer of dirt.  Nearby were crimson dying death worms, which the party avoided for fear of its electric bit or the acidic explosion that were known to occur when the worms died.

   They searched the yurt, finding some unidentified potions and pelts, which they took.  They also found the acid-eaten remains of what appeared to be the witch.  They took that as a sign to move on as well.

   Finally, they reached a one hundred foot tall conical rock formation with a nest on top.  It was further north than the Khiimori nest was reputed to be, but Quofalcon and Zabutai climbed it anyway.  There, they found a giant vulture.  Quofalcon spied a wand nearly identical to The Necromancer’s.  He took it, and in doing so woke the giant vulture.

   Zabutai and Quofalcon decided they could take the vulture alone, so they began descending down their ropes.  Zabutai dodged the vulture’s attack as he dangled fifty feet from the ground.  Quofalcon held the wand between his teeth.

   The vulture then dove and attacked the others on the ground.  Jacques and Old Boggy successfully hit the Vulture with their blades.  The Vulture tried to fly up to its nest, but not before grabbing Quofalcon with his beak.  Whatever damage the bite didn’t do, the fall did as the vulture dropped Quofalcon to his death.  Quofalcon still held the wand in his teeth, spitting it out just long enough to say “avenge me!”
  When the giant vulture swooped down to feast on the Quofalcon, Old Boggy delivered the vengeance the thief had asked for. 

   This was the third death the party had faced in as many days.  Khiimori were known to be dangerous creatures.  Could they retrieve a feather from one so depleted?  What about the God Khan’s tomb, reportedly occupied by bandits?  They might need to find aid if they wished to complete the quest to make Gurag-Sukh God Kahn, thereby saving Temujin from the executioner’s blade.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


Zubatai, The Karakhim thief, and Ketil Gravelborn, his Dwarven muscle, were along with the foppish fighter Jacques Roqumare the only survivors of a band of scoundrels that had left Tal Skallar to set up a trade route with drug smugglers in the Far Eastern City of Jade. 

They had taken with them Sir Unvelt, a female knight and wife of their patron Clarissa Griever, for whom they’d blackmailed noblewomen, disposed of bodies and assorted deeds that made staying in Tal Skallar unwise.  They also had with them three children who they had redeemed from Ghoul Slavery, including the savage halfling Prany, who Ketil had taken under his wing.

The party had reached a village below a monastery in the mountains that divided The Rus Empire from the Karakhim horde, which stood between them and the Jade City in far off Mu-Leng.  They had promised Clarissa they would hide Sir Unvelt the monastery, as he’d been accused of murder in Tal Skallar and she could not afford a scandal.

When they arrived at the village, it did not seem to be the safe haven they sought.  The villagers had sealed themselves in their home, and the howls of wolves could be heard, along with the neighing of horses and the screams of Karakhim horsemen and women.

Ketil and Jacques dismounted their war ostriches and headed up steep stone steps carved into the mountain, escorting Sir Unvelt to the monastery, where she hoped to be protected by Brother Gregor.  Together they had fought against Koschei the Undying in the Battle of 1,000 nights.

Zubatai stayed on ground level, telling the children to stay with the mounts as he stealthily scouted ahead to see what the howls and cries were all about.  He found himself looking at three of his fellow Karakhim horsemen, led by Monkhbat, who had the body of a horse but the legs of a woman.  Aided by a shaman, becoming one with one’s horse though a sacred right was the highest honor a Karakhim horse lord could earn save becoming a God-khan.

Gut neither Monkhbat nor her men, one of who had just been eaten, were concerned with honor.  They were too busy battling two werewolves in the narrow mountain pass behind the village.

Zubatai knew he had to help his kinsmen and let an arrow fly.  From up above, on the steps midway to the monastery, Ketil and Jacques could see the battle.  Ketil knew he’d be useless with his cursed shield, so he led Jacques and Sir Unvelt in trying to hurl rocks down at the lycanthropes, all unsuccessfully.  Jacques and Sir Unvelt started running down the mountain to enter the melee.  Ketil followed, encouraging young Prany to join the fight.

One of the werewolves grievously wounded another Karakhim warrior.  Our crew then noticed the Karakhim held two prisoners.  Quofalcon Serpenthelm, a footpad, and Old Boggy, a Karakhim veteran.  Both had been former accomplices of the gang. Having lost their comrades to Mardak Hawklight and Jotis the Knife to ghouls, Zubatai, Ketil and Jacques were glad to see them.

With the Karakhim distracted by the werewolves, Quofalcon was able to slip his bonds, while Old Boggy was able to break the ropes holding him.  Quofalcon grabbed his crossbow and started firing at the werewolves, while Old Boggy drew his two-handed sword and joined the melee on behalf of his former captors.

One of Zubatai’s arrows found its mark, and Old Boggy was able to behead one of the werewolves.  Freed from its curse, it transformed into a bald, naked dwarf.

Sir Unvelt was till rusty from being a kept woman, unable to land a blow on the other werewolf.  Neither was Ketil’s young halfling, Prany, try as he might to stab it with the little dagger his new master gave him.  Quofalcon was able to land another hit, and together with the Karakhim they were able to badly wound remaining werewolf.  But as he did against the ghouls earlier, Ketil saved the day by summoning his war ostrich Brutal Master to bit the werewolf, finishing the job.

This was no cause for celebration.  Monkhbat has lost one of her men, with yet another badly wounded.  And when the second werewolf transformed upon death, Sir Unvelt recognized it has her old friend, Gregor the Monk.  If they needed further confirmation that the monastery was occupied by werewolves, two more were headed down the mountain for the party and the Karakhim.

Monkhbat, the half-horse Karakhim agreed to let Quofalcon and Old Boggy go.  They had trespassed in Karakhim lands without a Khan’s passport.  Zubatai showed his, and but Monkhbat warned him it was outdated.  Gurag, the God-Khan that commissioned Zubatai to scout Tal Skallar had died, and a civil war had broken out among the Karakhim.

Still, Zubatai and his friends were intent on heading there.  Monkhbat pleaded with Zubatai to help the Karakhim here defend against the approaching werewolves, but instead he gathered his crew and the children, and they went off on their war ostriches through the mountain pass towards the land of the horse lords.  Only Sir Unvelt stayed behind, determined to find out what had befallen Brother Gregor, and perhaps make up for her poor showing in combat.

Our party left the horsemen and werewolves behind to head through a narrow pass to the steppes of Karakhim, which they reached at dawn.  There they found some marmots trapped as game, and a crater filled with acid, a remnant of a magical war.  They rode towards Kuzla Ka, a war camp about three days journey.

The further into Karakhim they plunged, the stranger the sights that greeted them.  A Siberian ibex that had somehow wandered far from the tundra.  Stranger still – seals, sea turtles and other creatures of the sea.  They were hundreds of miles inland, and yet here these aquatic animals were, wallowing in the hilly grasslands of Karakhim.  No one could determine what had caused this occurrence.

After party camped for the night, a giant hedgehog approached the party, watching them but not daring to get close to the light cast by their fire or their magically glowing horse.  Ketil thought fighting this cute little creature would be a good way to toughen up Prany, the halfling slave child he’d redeemed, and sent the boy forth to fight him with his dagger.

Quofalcon tried to bet Old Boggy on the combat, but Boggy would not take him up on the offer.  “Let nature take its course,” the veteran said.

Prany stabbed at the hedgehog with no effect.  But the startled hedgehog swiped in retaliation with his little claws, gravely wounding little Prany.  “Did I die bravely?” he asked Ketil.  Ketil said nothing as the life passed out of the child’s eyes.

Old Boggy was injured trying to avenge the boy, and Ketil and Quofalcon had to step in to prevent the hedgehog from killing them.  When the wounded giant hedgehog finally curled up into a ball, Old Boggy poured oil on it and lit it on fire.

By the light of the smoldering hedgehog corpse, Ketil built a cairn for Prany.  “Not a word,” he warned his companions.

At daybreak, more strange sights on the steppes.  A pile of hundreds of severed right hands.  And soon after creature with the body of a horse, but instead of a neck, a human arm that ended in a hand. 

Jacques tried to speak to the hand centaur, but it had no ears.  Finally he touched his hand to the creature’s.  The hand centaur reared back and first, frightened.  Then, it wrote the words “curse” and “help” in the dirty.  Jacques pet and reassured the hand centaur before putting the remaining freed slave children on its back, which seemed pleasing to all parties.  They lead it with their mounts towards Kuzla Ka, hopeful that Zubatai’s shaman uncle could lift the curse on the hand centaur, as well as the one keeping Ketil from parting with his kite shield.

They reached Kuzla Ka the next day, finding a giant wooden stockade containing and surrounded by many hundreds of yurts.  As they approached, Karakhim horsemen surrounded them.  “Are you with the Brass Horde or the Bastard Horde”, they asked.

Zubatai did not know how to answer.  With the death of God Khan Gurag, the Golden Horde had been split asunder.  Gurag-Sukh, bastard child of God Khan Gurag, commanded one, likely the one headquartered at Kuzla Ka.  Gurag-Bataan commanded the other, possibly larger one, to which Zubatai’s clan owed his allegiance.  Ignorance of what had transpired in his homeland while he was out scouting Tal Skallar for invasion would not be an excuse that would save Zubatai or his companions from committing treason to one or the other tribe.  They would have to answer the Karakhim war party wisely – and quickly – if they ever hoped to reach The Jade City of Mu-Leng.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Mardak Hawklight joined Jotis the Knife, Zabutai and Ketil Gravelborn as Lady Clarissa Griever once again presented her plan.  She wanted them to smuggle her wife, Sir Unvelt, out of the city of Tal Skallar.  Sir Unvelt had been publicly accused as Ariska the Executioner’s accomplice in Lady Sasha Volenveen’s murder.  Our crew had been present at the accusation, and disguised as plague doctors, they took Ariska away, murdering him in the plague house they’d acquired before disposing of his body in the ghoul market at Clarissa’s behest. 

Clarissa reminded them they were likely to be just as unsafe in the city as her wife.  She used their fear at being imprisoned as a stick, but she dangled a carrot for them as well.  Lady Clarissa wanted to re-establish a drug trade with The Jade City far in The Far Eastern realm of Mu-Leng.  If the crew agreed to smuggle Sir Unvelt out, and they reached her contact in The Jade City, they could have 10% of whatever deal they struck.

It wasn’t just opium that Clarissa peddled to her fellow aristocrats, nor the mushroom powder that Grozgull the Shrike, Sasha Volenveen’s son, had grown addicted to.  She wanted the band of thieves to bring back such narcotic wonders as the Purple Lotus and the Golden Crystal Bark.  Clarissa further sweetened her offer by agreeing to provide them with transportation by steed of their choice or caravan, and provisioning them for the long journey.

Clarissa presented them with a sealed scroll case with her order, which could only be opened by her contact in The Jade City. 

The crew wanted to know how exactly they could leave the city, but Clarissa insisted was their job to figure out.  Noticing that Ketil the Dwarf carried a cursed shield, she surmised they’d been to the Ghoul Market.  She has heard that the ghoul market was connected to every cemetery in the realm.  Assuming they used that as their means of egress from, she suggested three possible destinations. 

The first was the closest, a monastery of The Eastern Orthodox Church of the Iron Cross by the border between Rus and Karakhim, the land from which Zabutai hailed.  The monastery not only had a cemetery, but housed one of Sir Unvelt’s former comrades in arms.  Brother Gregor fought with Sir Unvelt in the Battle of 1,000 nights against Koschei the Undying.  Surely Gregor would hide Unvelt.

The next was further east, along Clarissa’s smuggling route, in a land the crew had never heard of.  Another monastery, this one dedicated to The Plagues of Pleasure, which sounded at once tantalizing and terrifying.  Having contracted the mysterious Scarlet Curse that at times left them without full control of their faculties, the party rejected it.

Finally, there was The Shrine of The Silver Python, not far from the Jade City itself.  Jotis the Knife and Ketil knew of this place, as they belonged to a secret serpent society.  Their cult wanted the shrine reclaimed, although for what profane rites they did not know.

But Ketil, still burdened by his cursed shield, wanted nothing more to do with the The Ghoul Market.  Instead, he pushed Clarissa to give up her man inside the city guard.  She reluctantly told them his name was Buri, and that he was a half-orc crossbowman who manned the city gate and might be susceptible to bribery. 

Still, the party needed to confer.  They secretly planned to take Clarissa’s scroll and then report back to Lady Dominique Orrik, who they had framed as secretly dancing in the city’s red light district by Clarissa, and for who Jacques had served as a private guard (and lover).    Together, they would expose Clarissa to Tal Skallar’s royal family.

But then, three suddenly clean - if still feral - children ran down the stairs.  Braha, a human boy. Zlava, a gnome girl with a scar that showed her to be the bastard child of the Bratva (thieves’ guild) councilwoman in charge of prostitution.  And Prany, a savage white haired halfling boy.  In an uncharacteristic bit of good will, the crew had freed them from slavery in the ghoul market at 100 gold a piece.

They had originally planned to tell the royal family that not only was Clarissa a blackmailing drug smuggler, but an employer of child labor as well.  But that would require the children being present in Clarissa’s household after they left.  Clarissa would not have it.  She was running an opium smuggling ring, not an orphanage.

The children looked hopefully that the crew would take them on their journey.  But it wasn’t their doe eyes that melted the crew’s hearts.  No, it was money once again.  Clarissa would only agree to take care of the children if the expenses were deducted from the drug deal the crew negotiated in The City of Jade.  On this matter, they refused to budge.

Instead, they donned their plague masks again.  Taking Clarissa’s servants’ cart, they hid Sir Unvelt under a pile of Clarissa’s laundry.  Clarissa rarely wore the same outfit twice, but Sire Unvelt was still surprised her wife would part with such finery…particularly a favorite outfit of hers.  Clarissa told her knight that she wished him to carry her scent with him into (temporary) exile.

The children would be props.  They’d claim they were plague ridden and had to be let out of the city, which had been on lockdown since Lady Sasha Volenveen’s murder.  Clarissa agreed to the plan, and arranged for mounts to be waiting for them outside the city gates.

Abandoning their plan to betray Clarissa, they crew set out for the city gates, and then planned to ride to The Monastery of The Iron Cross and to Karakhim and Mu-Leng beyond.  But betrayal was still in at least one of their minds.  In Karakhim, Zubatai hoped to report to his God-Khan on the defenses of Tal Skallar.  He had been sent by the Karakhim horse lords to scout the city for weaknesses in its defenses.  Ketil hoped that Zubatai’s uncle, a shaman, could relieve him of his cursed kite shield.

It was not long after they hit the streets that their plan hit a snag.  They ran straight into Sasha Volenveen’s funeral procession.  The city’s famed Ursine Guard, humanoid war-bears, led the way.  Grozgull, in chains for stabbing Ariska for his mother’s murder, was nonetheless allowed to follow behind.  But it was mostly commoners whose throngs mourned their beloved Lady Sasha, secret spymaster and commander of the militia that had kept them safe.

With or without their plague masks, they could have been recognized by Grozgull, and wanted to get away from the procession.  But suddenly the Scarlet Curse hit them each hard.  They were compelled by some unknown force to rush the procession and infect as many people as possible.  Mardak flung himself into the crowed and sneezed.  Zabutai did the same and vomited.  Jotis coughed up blood.  Ketil the Dwarf shat himself, and then smeared his feces into any stranger’s orifice he could find.

A normal crowd might have fought back.  But as each stranger was infected, they did the same to the uninfected.  In the shit-stained chaos, poor Sasha’s coffin was overturned.  The Ursine Guard, seemingly immune to The Scarlet Curse, tried in vain to maintain order. 

Having followed the virus’ command to infect others, the crew was suddenly relieved of their urge.  When Sir Unvelt peeked out of the laundry cart to see what was going on, she found Ketil and the others wiping their bodily fluids on his poor wife’s clothing.  The crew ignored his objections, and he could hardly do much about it as they approached the city gate. 

Two Ursine Guards stood with pole arms at the ready, while crossbowmen manned the guard towers.  Zubatai signaled to a half-orc on one tower by showing he had Clarissa’s scroll.

Buri, the half-orc crossbowmen, came down and told them leaving the city was forbidden.  The crew argued they had plague-ridden children.  Buri suggested 100 gold each for the adults would be enough to let them through.  Mardak didn’t have that much, and had to borrow from his fellow brigands. 

Ketil handed over the gold, making sure to smear it with his shitty palms.  Not because the Scarlet Curse compelled him to infect Buri, but just because he was pissed.  Buri was more so.  “You could have just bargained me down, you filthy dwarf!”  Nevertheless, he let the crew, the children and the cart carrying Sir Unvelt out of the city.

Out of sight of the guard towers, they met a man in Clarissa’s employ.  There, they were introduced to their mounts.  Richelieu, a glowing horse, would carry the cart.  The party was warned Richelieu would age prematurely and be dead within a week unless he was buried for a full day.  But Richelieu was the least strange creature.

The rest were War-Ostriches.  Zabutai chose Brutal Master, a red ostrich clearly bred for battle.  Ketil claimed Karrier, who though the size of four ostriches was surprisingly nimble.  Mardak wanted Damascus, who had been trained to smoke a pipe and who Clarissa’s man claimed had a nose for mystery.  Jotis was stuck with Fat One, although in actuality that ostrich was in good shape, and bent his neck down so that Jotis would not have to step in the mud to mount him.

With the children in the cart with Sir Unvelt to help hide him from any patrols, they set out to the northeast for the monastery, which guarded the mountain pass to Karakhim.  They made it half way, and after an uneventful journey, they camped for the night.

But as they slept by the glow of Richelieu the Horse, two undead creatures erupted from the ground.  Ghouls.  Not the canny traders of the market.  No, these were fearsome creatures who wore the armor of Koschei the Undying.  With battle axes in hand they charged the party.

Zubatai and Jotis hit them with arrows, but that did not stop them.  Ketil could not hit them, the weight of his cursed shield preventing him from swinging or flinging his hand axe.  In frustration, Ketil through his dagger to Prany, the wild halfling child he’d adopted, and urged him to fight.  The boy lunged at the ghoul without fear, but also without success.

Sir Unvelt had not excuse for her inability to hit the ghouls.  She had once been a hero, but her years married to Clarissa had made her soft, a kept woman, not a warrior.

Mardak was able to fell one of the arrow-struck ghouls with a dagger through its eye.  But his victory was short-lived.  The other ghoul cut cleaved him in two.  He never even had a chance to utter the spell he’d had memorized for such a life and death situation.

The remaining ghoul lashed out without any apparent rhyme.  He even swung at the children.  They were not harmed, but soon Jotis the Knife was split in two as well.  The battle only ended when Ketil mounted his war ostrich.  His curse shield did not extend to the bird, and its beak bit down and severed the ghoul’s head.

As dawn came, there was sadness and much condemnation of Sir Unvelt.  She was a proud warrior, so when her sincere condolences fell on deaf ears she took the abuse hurled at her.  The insults stopped at some point, perhaps because Ketil and Zabutai realized that, unless they counted the children, they no longer significantly outnumbered the knight.

Stone cairns were made for the dead, and Zabutai took a strand of hair from each as was the tradition of his Karakhim tribe.  He said a prayer to the sun, as Ketil wished that the gentle breeze may carry them to the happy hunting grounds.

The survivors passed the corpse of a giant ceratosaurus, but did not stop to examine it.  They reached the village below the monastery at nightfall.  But there was no time to pray for their fallen comrades again.  They found the doors to every building barred shut, and heard the howling of wolves.    They did not know what the sights and sounds that greeted them meant, but they were quickly overcome by a horrible sense of foreboding.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


When last we left our scoundrels, they’d convinced the warden of the prison of Tal Skallar to release Ariska Orren to their custody.  Dressed as plague doctors, they told the warden he had the Scarlet Curse (which they themselves were infected with), and fearing it’s spread among the prison population (and more so, to his own person), he let them go with an Ursine Guard escort of two giant bear soldiers.

Ariska Orren stood accused of the murder of Lady Sasha Volenveen, commander of the city militia and former spymaster of Tal Skallar.  In fact, our heroes had witnessed Ariska the Executioner and the female knight Sir Unvelt Gor Gothren carrying the body of Sasha Volenveen out of a house of ill repute.  The two had asked for their help, and they refused.

Now, their patron, Lady Clarissa Griever – wife of the Sir Unvelt, wished them to kill Ariska before she could implicate Unvelt.  Unvelt accompanied them, as did Grozgull the Shrike.  Grozgull was Sasha’s son, a former hero turned mushroom powder addict who they had rescued from Bratva – thieves’ guild thugs – who tried to collect his drug debt.

Once out of the prison, Grozgull stabbed Ariska.  As Ariska started to bleed out, he pointed at Sir Unvelt and said that she had helped murder Lady Sasha.  He pointed to our band of thieves and mercenaries as witnesses.

A giant bear restrained Grozgull before he could do any more damage.  Mardak the mage and Jotis the knife disappeared into the crowd.  Grozgull again asked whether Unvelt had killed Sasha.  He whipped the mob into frenzy.  Was Lady Sasha not beloved, and Grozgull not the hero of the Battle of 1,000 nights?

Jacques Roqumare, the crew’s over-the hill, foppish fighter, ignored Grozgull’s question, and went to stop Ariska’s bleeding.  The crowd began to side with Grozgull and close in on them, until they saw the party’s plague masks.  Together with Zubatai the Karakhim thief, Ketil the Dwarf and Sir Unvelt, they ushered the wounded Ariska The Executioner to their plague house.  Unfortunately, a war bear accompanied them.  The Ursine Guard could not have another death on its hands.

The crew arrived at the Plague House that Mardak had purchased from the physician Misvet Min Vale fleeing the Scarlet Curse to his native Oghma.  Waiting for them was an old man in a bird-like plague mask and the bloodied garments of a doctor or butcher.  He introduced himself as Dobromil. 

When Dobromil learned that the crew was now running Minvale’s Plague House, he told them that he was a vendor at the Market of Ghouls.  He wished to continue his lucrative trade in buying corpses.  The crew was busy with a bloody Ariska, so he gave them a scroll with a sigil he called a “Writ of Sanctuary”, and told them where to find him in the Ghul Market.  With that, he bid them farewell.

Finally inside the plague house with Unvelt (the War Bear stood guard outside), the Zubatai and the party began to question Ariska the Executioner.  Why should they not just bring his head to Clarissa Griever as they were contracted to?

Ariska begged for his life.  He said that, were they to take him to Prince Casimir, they would reward him for exposing the conspiracy that he had shamefully taken part.  Lady Griever had Sasha killed because she found out about her illicit drug trade with The Jade City, as well as her building a private alchemically mutated army.

Sir Unvelt did not like this talk and drew her sword.  But she was forced to stay her hand surrounded by Zubatai, Ketil and Jacques.  Sir Unvelt said that what Ariska said was true, she and her wife Clarissa had murdered Sasha.  But things weren’t that simple.  Tal Skallar – and the Rus Empire to which it belonged, faced two major threats.  The undead, skeletal army of Koschei the Undying, and Zubatai’s Karakhim horde of barbarian steppe horsemen.

Zubatai realized that a city pitted against each other could prove ripe for the taking.  He had been sent by his God-Khan to scout the city’s defenses, and had learned much.  Ketil pointed out that Lady Clarissa Griever had been good to them, paying them handsomely for framing Lady Dominique as an exotic brothel dancer.  With the group’s assent, he slit Ariska the Executioner’s throat.

Along with 4 other (plague-ridden) corpses the group had left behind, they shoved Ariska’s body in a cart in the back alley used to dispose of the dead.  They hauled it to a cemetery in the shadow of Tal Skallar’s clock tower and amphitheater.  There, among graves marked with the crucifix-swastika symbol of the Eastern Orthodox Church of The Iron Cross, they found a Dobromil’s family crypt.  It was marked with the white sigil on the black scroll he had given them, the “writ of sanctuary”.

Joined now by Jotis the Knife, they dragged only Ariska’s corpse into the mausoleum, leaving Sir Unvelt to guard the plague-ridden corpses.  Inside, they saw the skeletal remains of Dobromil’s family picked clean to the bone on both sides, and a large hole in the ground in front of them.

Zubatai lit a torch, and with Ketil taking point and Jotis and Jacques carrying Ariska’s bloody remains, they made their way down the whole to through a dank soil tunnel.  It appeared to be dug solely by human hands.  Or perhaps, inhuman ones, they thought, as they faced a hungry ghoul who salivated over Ariska’s corpse.

Jacques took out the writ, and suddenly the ghoul stood upright and apologized.  He led them into a cavernous chamber filled with others of his kind, feasting on bits of human flesh but also conducting business as the living might.  Well, not quite.

The Ghoul Market was filled with stranger sights than the undead.  Ghoul merchants sold magic items and fairies trapped in amber.  An inhuman sculptor his outsized body was covered in the flesh of more humanoids than they could count carved corpses into works of art and tattooed magic spells onto the living.  A drider – half-dark elf, half-spider – sold…unusual mounts, such as a flying whale that floated in liquid darkness, and regal, ostrich-like raptors. 

Far across the market, they saw Dobromil next to a ghoul selling slaves, human and undead alike.  Dobromil greeted them warmly.  He paid them 100 gold each for their corpses, with the party dragged in and out.  Painted by Dobromil in blood with his sigil on their foreheads, they were able to come and go unmolested by the flesh eating ghouls.  He offered to identify any magical items they might have, and sell some of his own, including a restorative potion. 

Dobromil said that whatever the party lacked in gold, they could always make up for by selling a bit of their…essence.  Their charm, their strength, their vitality…any bit of humanity, ghouls prized.

With all the gold they acquired, they could not buy the ostrich mounts that Zubatai desired.  He would not be able to make his fellow Karakhim horsemen envious.

But Ketil found some ghouls closing shop and willing to part with magical armor at unbelievably low prices.  He purchased a great helm and kite shield, and proudly marched to Dobromil to learn their magical properties.  Dobromil, true to his word, assess the items for free.  The helm was indeed enchanted, but with fey magic that would wear off in a day.  The shield would indeed protect Ketil more than any man-made shield, but it was cursed.  He could not remove it from his arm, and knew that trying to wield a weapon with it would be incredibly difficult.

Ketil turned to face the ghouls that fleeced him, but they’d burrowed a deep tunnel towards Gods knew where, and were long gone. 

Zubatai ushered the group over to the ghoul slaver.  Aside from his fellow ghouls, the slaver sold human children.  “Bastards”, he answered, when asked of their origin.  He assured them they were good workers, unlike the dark skinned folk of Oghma, where the Scarlet Curse had originated.  Racism evidently survived into undeath.

Each of the party members freed – or at least purchased – a slave from the ghoul.  Zubatai bought Braha, a human boy.  Ketil bought Prany, a savage halfling who at the rations Ketil offered him, at first suspiciously, and then ravenously.  Jacques bought Zlatva, a gnomish girl who dressed in fine clothes and a strange scar on her leg.

She limped up to the corpse cart along with the rest of the slave children when the party was safely outside the ghoul market.  The cart ride seemed to dry their tears, even as Unvelt berated the scoundrels her wife had hired to murder her accomplice for adopting “half the gods damned city.”

As night once again fell on Tal Skallar they arrived back at Clarissa Griever’s manse.  Clarissa did not like the look of the children, but was forced to usher them inside to avoid undue attention.  She had Unvelt and her guards escort them upstairs to be watched.

She paid the crew 500 gold a piece for successfully executing the executioner, Ariska.  But, while they’d succeeded in removing Ariska from the picture, Unvelt still remained a problem.  She’d been seen by a large crowd publicly accused by Ariska of complicity in Sasha Volenveen’s murder.  At the very least she’s be wanted for questioning in Grozgull’s attempted murder of Ariska.

The crew would be wanted for questioning as well.  They could be tied to Lady Dominique’s guard they’d killed while attempting to frame her.  Might Dominique would be suspicious that after the murder, Jacques, her guard captain had ushered intruders from her home and not been seen since?   What if Grozgull’s drug dealer had learned they had prevented The Bratva from collecting Grozgull’s thousand gold piece debt? And surely the War Bear posted outside the plague house would have realized that they had disappeared with Sasha by now.  The Ursine Guard was likely looking for them as they spoke, along with Gods knew who else.

Clarissa Griever also warned them that she believed that the gnome slave they redeemed was the bastard child of the Bratva (thieves’ guild) councilor in charge of the city’s brothels.  Clarissa recognized the familiar scar the pimp branded his property with, and she was familiar with Tal Skallar’s dens of iniquity.

Clarissa once again offered them a solution to both their problems.  She needed to re-establish her opium trade with the Jade City to the East of Karakhim.  They could smuggle Sir Unvelt out of the city.  Whether by horseback or by caravan, Clarissa agreed to pay for their transportation – even the exotic mounts at the Ghoul Market - and whatever provisions they might need.  She would not provide an advance beyond that, but would give them 10% of whatever deal they could cut with the opium smugglers.

The crew was left with a difficult choice.  They had thus far been able to find steady work in Tal Skallar without so much of a scratch.  They had a base of operations, albeit a plague-ridden one.  But how long could they elude the city’s authorities with impunity?

Wednesday, April 6, 2016


Jacques Roqumare was once a noble in Voskva, capital of the Empire of Rus.  No longer welcome in Voskva, Jacques had been forced to slum it in Tal Skallar as a sword for hire.  But he still carried himself as if he’s part of the aristocracy.  While his regal bearing skill with a sword may have gotten him the position of Lady Dominique Orrik’s household guard, it was…other skills that gotten him into her bed.

As he was getting dressed from a night of pleasuring his mistress, he heard the screams of his guards.  But it was Lady Dominique that charged out into the hallway of her living quarters over the Royal Warhorse Stables.  He followed her out, sword at the ready, only to see his brother Jotis the Knife among the intruders.

Lady Dominique asked who the intruders were, and why they had a letter with seal.  Quick thinking on Mardak Hawklight’s part convinced her that she was with a special royal task force meant to test the security of noble households.

Then, bells started tolling.  Could the militia be summoned so quickly?   Our band of thieves had only just killed a guard.  No, the number and tone of the bells indicated a noble had died.

The bells were quickly followed by an even more ominous sound.  Growling from the depths of the earth.  The Ursine Guard had been awoken from hibernation early.  The Tsar’s elite bear soldiers would soon be pouring forth from their caves.

Jacques did not give his brother and his band of miscreants up, not even when two guards under his command appeared, blocking them from leaving from the stands.  Ursula, a human fighter, and Vasken, a half-orc former monk, told Jacque and Lady Dominique that their fellow guard Gorble had been slain.  She did not know that it had been Zabutai’s arrow and Ketil Gravelborn’s knife that had finished him, despite the apparent suicide that Mardak had staged.

Jacques ordered them to spread out and search the grounds for the murderer, and asked Zabutai, Ketil and his brother Jotis to accompany him so they could report the crime to the city authorities.  They followed Jacques, but Lady Dominique asked them if it was truly necessary to confiscate her sealed letter.  She whispered to Jacques that the letter contained information that could be damaging to them.  He reassured her that he would protect her, and soon all the men had left the stables.

They found refuge in an alley in the Itinerant Scholar’s district, where learned men from all over the world came to study Tal Skallar’s unearthed antiquities.  In this alley, Jacques and his companions opened Lady Dominique’s letter, addressed to Lady Sasha Vollenveen. 

Lady Sasha’s white hair and age belied her importance.  Currently the honorary head of the city militia, the party knew she was and may still be the city’s spymaster and liaison to the Goblins with whom she forged an alliance. 

Unfortunately, they had seen Sasha dead earlier that evening, being carried by Ariska and The Executioner and Sir Unvelt von Grothern, female knight and wife of Clarissa Griever, who had tasked the thieves to break into Dominique’s stables and frame her for dancing in brothels.

Lady Dominique’s letter to Sasha read:

“My Dear Sasha,

I await the information you possess regarding Lady Orchid.  If what you say is true, and she and her alchemists are in league with Koschei the Undying, I will insist to Masha that I speak with the Prince.  Take care of yourself, my old friend.  And beware of Unvelt, I do not trust him.

With both fear and affection,

Lady Dominique Orrik”

Koschei the Undying.  The Deathless.   The name sent chills through the thieves.  Long ago, when Rus was at war with the Karakhim Horde in the Eastern Steppe (from which Zabutai hails), Prince Koschei sought help from Baba Yaga.  She granted him eternal life.  But as with everything she did, it had a price.  He was burnt to a crisp, with only his scorched bones remaining.  He became a lich, and with his army of skeletal undead driving back the Karakhim horse lords.  But then, cursed with unlife, he and his death knights turned on mighty Rus.  It was only with the help of the Bear Soldiers that they were able to be defeated.  Defeated…but not eliminated.  Koschei and his undead have been rumored to have been mounting raids for a purpose none save The Deathless know.

This was all beyond the thieves’ power and concern.  They brought the letter to their patron in blackmail, Lady Clarissa Griever, along with their report of a successful mission.

While Clarissa was not happy with the mess of a dead guard, she rewarded Mardak, Zabutai, Jotis and Ketil with 500 gold pieces each.  She did not know or trust Jacque, let alone owe him a reward.

Clarissa gave the crew words of warning.  In addition to the messy loose end of the guard, there was the bell announcing the death of a noble.  She revealed that noble to be none other than Sasha Volenveen, who they’d witnessed with Clarissa’s wife, Sir Unvelt. 
The bear soldiers would be combing the city for suspects.  They crew would not be safe in the city.

But Clarissa presented them with an opportunity.  She had established a lucrative trade in illicit substances with the Far Eastern city of Mu-Leng.  Each year, the half-human, half-animals of the city would switch social strata according to the Zodiac.  She had a deal with the Oxen-Men, but needed a deal with the Cock-Men.  If they went to Mu-Leng in her stead, she’d give them 10% of whatever deal they could strike.  She even offered them safe passage outside of the city – horses if they wanted to travel the direct route through Zabutai’s Karakhim steppes, or a Caravan if they wished to travel the Silk Road through the arid deserts of the south.

Just then, a flustered Sir Unvelt entered.  She looked nervous when she saw the party, and asked her wife what they were doing here.   The crew informed Clarissa of their encounter, and how Sir Unvelt had asked them for help with Sasha’s body.  Sir Unvelt admitted to finding Sasha’s body and trying to help dispose of it, and that her accomplice, Ariska the Executioner had been apprehended.  Furious, Clarissa ordered her wife upstairs.

She rewarded the crew for their honesty by offering them another opportunity.   If they could infiltrate the city prison and find a way to dispose of Ariska – who might implicate the crew as well as her husband – she would pay them extra.  They balked at the job initially; they were all too familiar with prisons and didn’t wish to return.  Clarissa reminded them that she couldn’t guarantee any cut of the drug trade if Ariska’s testimony jeopardized any of their positions.

While the crew debated, Ketil Gravelborn sneezed.  All but Mardak soon felt them impossibly ill.  Ketil vomited, Jotis and Jacques felt weak, and Zabutai had a sudden outbreak of…gangrene?  All of them felt a sudden urge to be near crowds. To infect others.
Clarissa drew back.  The plague was in her house!  But despite the crew’s weakened state, she needed them to take care of Ariska the Executioner.  She gave them the name of a physician and offered to spare no expense for their treatment if they left immediately.  With Sir Unvelt as their escort, they made for the physician on their way to the prison.

The crew tried to reach the doctor by cutting through the Fortune Teller’s district, where this adventure had started.  Zabutai fell through a manhole into the city’s sewer, and soon found himself face to face with an albino, jewel encrusted crocodile.  Another mutated monstrosity?  Or a valuable royal pet.  The croc snapped at Zabutai, who scrambled up a ladder.  He tried to fire his bow at the beast and claim its jewels, but he missed.  The crocodile slithered back into the sewers and the party thought it best not to pursue it in their weakened state.

Unvelt and the thieves reached the Ostler District, where visitors to Tal Skallar kept their horses. The majority of Dominique Orrik’s Imperial Warhorses - those not shown at the stables over which Jacques and his guard presided (when Jacques was not pleasuring his mistress) were housed there as well.  In the shadow of The Mosque of The Formless God, they saw a nobleman being chased by two mutated thugs.

They recognized the nobleman as Grozgull the Shrike.  Son of Sasha Vollenveen, and father of Masha, wife to the city’s regent, Prince Casimir.  Grozgull was once a hero, having fought in the battle of 1,000 nights against Koschei the Undying.  Now, he was addicted to mushroom powder and evidently the Bratva, the local Mafiya, in the form of an inhumanly fast elf and a stone skinned gnome, was out to collect his drug debt.

Grozgull begged for his help, and the crew intervened.  They tried to buy Grozgull out of his drug debt, but the elf told them to mind their business.  When Zabutai pulled his bow, the elf charged at him with unnatural speed.  Ketil loosed his own arrow.  As the elf dodged Zabutai’s missile, she caught Ketil’s in the eye and was killed instantly.  Jotis dispatched the stone skinned gnome with his sword, severing the mutant thug’s arm.

The crew found 43 gold pieces, a flask with an unknown liquid and an elephant tusk knife.

When Grozgull learned they were off to confront his mother’s killer, he offered to help them infiltrate the prison.  He knew the warden.  The crew made Grozgull confess that his drug debt was owed to Artalas, one of the six leaders of Tal Skallar’s Bratva.

Once again on their way, the crew found the charcoal-skinned doctor, Misvet Minvale, in a house filled with the sick, the dead and their loved ones.  But they didn’t need his treatment…being near a crowd, they started sneezing involuntarily.  Having infected those who weren’t already ill, the effects of their mysterious illness vanished just as quickly as they had appeared.

While Dr. Minvale couldn’t offer them aid, he could give them a diagnosis.  He believed they, like many of his patients, had what the Rus referred to as The Scarlet Curse.  This plague had apparently originated in Oghma, the jungle city-state where the doctor was from.  There had been no cure found there, but perhaps the renowned physicians of Mu-Leng could rid them of the Scarlet Curse permanently.

Dr. Minvale seemed in an unusual hurry to leave.  He offered them his house for the measly price of 500 gold.  When the crew accepted, the doctor gave them a deed, took an already-packed bag and left with no concern for the welfare of his patients.  The crew showed even less concern, evicting the sick and the family members who tended to them.  The dead they kept, for they had a plan.

Donning the bird masks of plague doctors, they finally arrived at the prison.  There, the bear soldier’s Ursine Guard let Grozgull and the crew into the prison, but kept a watchful eye on The Shrike.  While they had fought with him in The Battle of 1,000 Nights, they were under orders not to let him kill Ariska the Executioner until it could be learned whether he was part of a conspiracy.

The prison spiraled down like a funnel, just like Tal Skallar itself.  At the very bottom, Grozgull introduced the crew to Fat Balto, the wooden-eyed warden.  The warden wished to see Ariska suffer for the murder of Grozgull’s mother Sasha, but was under orders from Prince Casimir not to kill him until a new executioner was hired.  He would, however, let Grozgull question him.

Fat Balto seemed wary of the plague-masked crew.  Grozgull said that they had saved his life, and in return they hoped to reach a deal with the warden to study the prison’s corpses in order to cure the plague. 

Mardak then surprised the warden and Grozgull by saying that Ariska had been infected with the plague.  When the warden recoiled, Mardak said they would keep Ariska at their plague house.  Fat Balto agreed; under the condition that two bear soldiers accompany them.

Soon, the crew found itself outside the prison with Ariska as their prisoner, accompanied by Grozgull, Sir Unvelt and two Bear Soldiers as crowds gathered to jeer the alleged murderer.

Suddenly, Grozgull pulled a dagger and stabbed Ariska.  Wounded, Ariska claimed Sir Unvelt had poisoned Lady Vollenveen.  And, as Ariska started to bleed out, he claimed the crew was witnesses who could back up his claims.

What would the crew say?  Who would Grozgull believe?  Whose side would the bear soldiers or the angry mob take?  The crew had talked themselves out of some sticky situations, but it seemed inevitable that more blood would be spilled this night.  

Thursday, March 3, 2016



  Our story opens in the city of Tal Skallar.  Surrounded by dunes of ash, Tal Skallar is a city that spirals down into the ground like a funnel, each neighborhood a concentric circle that descends deeper into the earth.  Its mines once served the Imperial war effort.  Now, what some might call adventurers, others looters, ply what the miners unearthed in a lucrative, if dangerous ancient antiquities trade.

   One such band of scoundrels found themselves wandering around the Fortune Tellers Ring late one night.  In the shadow of Locksmith’s Tower, Ketil Gravelborn the thief found himself sneezed upon by a tavern wench.  He immediately felt a sickness that, while not debilitating, was clearly something more than a simple sneeze should have brought on so quickly.
   Ketil, accompanied by the thieves Zubatai and Jotis the Knife and the frail mage Mardak Hawklight, followed the woman to the Pleasure Ring.  There, they spied a man in executioner’s garb and a knight dragging the body of what appeared to be a drunken friend though the streets.  In the shadow of the Eastern Orthodox Cathedral of the Iron Cross (for where better to minister to those in need of salvation than the amdist dens of iniquity), our band left the drunks to their business and followed the infectious wench into her tavern.

   While Ketil kept a watch on the wench, the others paid their cover charge and watched an exotic dancer clad only in a bejeweled ceramic mask prance before a leering crowd on stage.  They recognized her as the noble Clarissa Griever.  When she was done with her act, the beckoned her over to their table.

   There, they threatened to blackmail Clarissa.  She paid them some gold, but gave them an intriguing counter offer.  There had been rumors circulating in Tal Skallar for some time that an aristocrat was performing in the brothels of Tal Skallar.  Clarissa offered to pay them more if they would frame another noble for her scandalous behavior – the beloved Dominique Orrik, breeder of fine imperial warhorses.

   They accepted.  She warned them that, should they cross her, they’d have to deal with her spouse, the knight.  Unvelt Gor Grothern.

   As she left, Ketil approached the wench who sneezed on him.  Appearing quite ill, she identified herself as Myria.  “The Wretched”, added the bartender upon who she has also sneezed, and didn’t look well himself.  She had no answers as to the cause of her illness, only apologies for infecting the dwarf.   She asked him if he’d heard “the voices” urging her to always be around others.  When he said no, she told him his fortune, some nonsense involving being awarded for a coin trick.

   With no clue to the nature of his illness, Ketil left along with others as they went to find Dominique in the stables in the Ring of Itinerant Scholars.  Outside, they once again saw the Knight and The Executioner standing over the body of their friend.  They asked for help, and it became clear their friend was not drunk but dead.  Poisoned, they claimed, in the very brothel from which they emerged.

   The Knight, who introduced herself as Unvelt, pleaded with the party for help.  Mardak and Ketil recognized the old woman as Sasha Volenveen, a former spymaster, militia captain and liaison to the Goblin Kingdoms.  They asked that they convey a letter she was carrying while they made Sasha’s remains received a dignified burial.  Already in a web of intrigue, they declined.  Ariska Orben the executioner warned that if they didn’t keep quiet about what they saw, they’d find their heads on his chopping block.

   Our heroes began to make their way to the Lady Dominique’s stables.  They passed the Tal Skallar’s Palace, a Kremlin like building at the very bottom of the city that was a pit.  It was surrounded by poor working-class structures, as the regent wished to be “among his people”.  Some of these people seemed stricken with the same illness as Ketil and Myria.

   They arrived in The Scholar’s Ring, home of Lady Dominque’s stables.  There, they made their way through a throng of people outside Tal Skallar’s prison, surrounding a scaffold erected for tomorrow’s beheading.  Suddenly, six mutated rats emerged from the sewers.  They split up, three each attacking the two most attractive men in the crowd.  Our band ignored their pleas for help, and the rats fled after disfiguring the beautiful faces.
   Finally, the roguish companions stood before Dominique’s fine stables.  Two private guards stood watch at each of the two entrances.  Taking advantage of the commotion cause by the rat attack, they snuck around the back to a narrow alleyway between the stables’ rear and the earth the city had been carved from.
   Zubatai and Jotis the Knife climbed to the second story window which presumably led to Dominique’s private quarters.  Unable to pry the window open, they smash it quickly and let themselves inside a richly appointed hallway lit by expensive alchemical globes.

   Downstairs, however, one of Dominique’s guards comes round to check on the noise.  Ketil put his axe in the stable’s wall, and, pretending to be drunk, started pissing on it. 

   The guard drew his rapier and, picking up Ketil’s axe, demanded to know who defaced the stable’s wall with it, and why?  Ketil claimed he found the axe already in the wall, but the guard never even mentioned the ace for it.  Seeing the dwarf possesses a shield, he asked where Ketil’s weapon was.  The Dwarf revealed his dagger.

   Mardak passed out, pretending to be drunk.  The guard poked him with his rapier, not fooled.  He demanded the mage and the dwarf come with him, and threatened to relieve Ketil of his manhood if he did not stop pissing on the wall.

   Above, Zubatai felt he cannot risk the guard discovering their enterprise.  Although loyal to his Khan, he felt no compunction about letting loose with his short bow and putting an arrow through the guard’s leather doublet.  Ketil finished the guard off with his dagger, nearly beheading him.  After taking his gold, Mardak pulled the arrow from the guard and replaced it with the guard’s rapier.  He then wrote a suicide note in the guard’s blood, not thinking how the guard would have stabbed and then beheaded himself.

   Zubatai and Jotis The Knife hauled their comrades up to the second story with a rope.  There, they picked a lock and entered the office where Dominque conducted the stables’ business affairs.  They planted Clarissa’s exotic mask on Dominique’s desk, imprinting it with Dominque’s wax seal.  Taking an envelope sealed with Dominique’s crest from the desk, they prepared to leave when they heard a guard below yell “Ursula!  Vasken!  Come quick!   Something happened to Gorble…”