“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.