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.