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.