THE BOOK OF SCOUNDRELS PART THREE: MERCHANTS OF UNDEATH
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?