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.