Two hooded figures sat calmly in a dark room. Rich tapestries surround them, all but unseen in the dimness, muting all outside noise. For a few brief moments, the rustling of garments, and the subtle whisper of breath are the only sounds to be heard. Then, barely audible at first, a dull steady sound began to fill the room, and its source, a crystal ball that sat between the two figures, slowly displays a group of crodlus plodding through the sand under cover of darkness, ridden by Crimson Talon’s newest recuits.
“Good, the ritual worked."
The wizard did not acknowledge that the other man had spoken; it was quite obvious that the ritual had worked.
“Keep an eye on them, I want to see what they are doing…”
The six recruits left Ormpur as discretely as they could given the bulk of their gear and of their drake-like mounts. The creatures, trained as mounts by the inhabitants of the City of Saffron, did not disappoint, easily crossing the vast crocus fields surrounding the city, and reaching the arid steppes of the Western Shaar at the end of two days of travel. The riders contemplated when and where to begin setting up camp that evening, unaware of the tiefling brigands moving out of the sand towards them. The ambush was led by a powerful hobgoblin warmage, who used force spells to inflict massive damage, and was bolstered by packs of vicious little drakes, who clawed and tore at the beleagered group. Taken completely unawares, the recruits were slow to rally at first, and by the time that they had regrouped, Lucius the Red had been incapacitated by the swarming drakes, leaving the group without a healer. Lucius’ fall gave the team much needed motivation to press that attack, with Cotazym and Ashlan quickly knocking out three of the tiefling ruffians. Choosing not to restrain the lethality of their blows, Roe, Vondal and Tristan made short work of their opponents, leaving a trail of corpses in their wake. The dispersal of a last swarm of drakes by means of a particularly flashy spell from the genasi swordmage marked the end of the battle.
While Cotazym did her best to help Lucius, the rest of the band tried to ply information from the surviving bandits, with some members trying to be diplomatic, and others preferring to go the route of out right intimidation. One of the tieflings categorically refused to help his captors, and to his dismay, one of his peers, more concerned about survival than loyalties, revealed that they were rebels of Ormpur tasked with gathering resources for the rebellion by harassing caravans and travelers. The recruits discovered that even though their leader had a military background, they themselves were but simple residents of the City of Saffron who were fighting against the usurper and the foreign occupation of their city in his name. The planetouched let slip some information about the modus operandi of the rebels and the name of one of their hideouts, the Laghing Jackal.
With their captive at the limit of what he was willing to betray to survive, Ashlan and Cotazym believed that he, and the surviving ruffians could be released, as they did not posed a sufficient threat to merit their deaths; Roe, Tristan and a recently awakened Lucius, disagreed, pressing for their captives’ executions. Lucius brought up that the tieflings had seen their faces, and knew about their main objective, making them liabilities. The group quickly decided that in keeping with the mission’s requirements for discretion, it would not be possible to let their captives live. Vondal, only wanting to leave the place, and get some rest, had been waiting for the group to reach a decision. His axes met with the skulls of the poor prisoners before they could draw breath to beg for their lives.
The man seated next to the wizard smiled as he watched the dwarf end the life of the three bound prisoners. “Ruthless and focused on the mission, as we like them,” he said, raising his glass, as if to the toast to the kills, before taking a sip of a dark, richly colored red wine. He readjusted his feet on the small table to the left of the crystal ball, and returned his full attention to the scenes unfolding before him.
The group left the next morning, and as they rode deeper into the Shaar, the dry, sun-bleached remnants of steppe grass slowly gave over to sand dunes and rocks. Besides the very occasional small lizard skittering across the hot sands, there was no obvious sign of life around, however, the desert provides for those who know how to see its bounties. Making use of her remarkable foraging skills, Cotazym was able to provide the group with fresh food in the form of lizards, scorpions and roots which allowed the sellswords to keep more of their rations for the inevitable emergencies that plague their new line of work.
On their fourth night in the Shaar, while the light of Selûne was hidden by clouds, an scaly humanoid emerged from the sand, grabbed Tristan and tried to pull him below ground. As it struggled and ultimately failed to drag Tristan away from the group, a motley crew deformed creatures burst forth from the sand and joined what was now a battle.
The dwarf ranger scanned the scene for a moment, and then strode towards the largest creature, flatly informing his fellows that the plaguechanged dwarves were indeed Anakore and Hejkins, nocturnal hunters and underdark aberrations. As the information registered with his newly awakened team mates, Vondal dispatched his chosen target with a furious series of blows, leaving a crushed and lacerated mass in a large pool of blood.
The recruits faced off against the three other creatures, and were surprised by the powerful electric abilities of the leader of the monstrosities. Tristan almost met his end when it used his telluric field on the opponents while they were close to one another, but the paladin avenged himself by killing the three hejkins while their chieftain was overcome with an illusion cast by the wizard. The chieftain quite literally tore himself to shreds trying to fend off the attack of imaginary creatures.
With all of the creatures dead, the group took some time to dress their wounds. It was during this brief downtime that Cotazym noticed something near the spot from where the Hejkin chieftain had appeared – a spear. Its haft covered in gold thread and plumes while its head was engraved with a lion. Appreciating the tactical advantage of fighting with the weapon, Lucius claimed it, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it had magical properties.
After a night of rest, the soldiers returned to their crodlus and rode for another day, reaching an oasis that had been mentioned by their boss. They noticed that a large group of humans had settled around the oasis, and quickly scouted ahead to see with whom they would be dealing. The group was clearly made up of nomads from the honorable Lion Tribe, and the recruits decided to approach the tribesmen openly. They were rapidly surrounded by hunters armed with spears, but were not overly concerned given the nature of the Lion Tribe. After requesting a meeting with the leaders of the tribe, they were led to the middle of the camp and were offered food and milk. A few hours later, a guard came and led them to the biggest tent in the camp, a tent covered in ivory and in markings likely distinct to the Lion tribe. Inside stood the Lion’s two leaders: Adjola the chieftain and Ehiodze, the shaman.
Questioned about the events surrounding the theft of a box by gnolls, the host confirmed what the mercenaries had been told by their employer and provided details about the perpetrators. It was indeed gnolls, from the Hungry Fangs Tribe, that had raided the caravan owned by the “Merchants of Death”, a dishonorable company selling and designing weapons, and much hated by the Lions. Unfortunately, the incident happened in a zone considered taboo by the nomads and probably plaguechanged: the Black Oasis. The area was often used by the weapon dealers as a test site, and while Adjola offered to guide the Talons’ recruits to the zone, she refused to have any of the Lions accompany them into the Black Oasis, as they were forbidden to enter it by their traditions.
The shaman, who had remained silent during most of the discussion, whispered in his chieftain’s ear, his eyes locked on Lucius’ spear. Adjola asked the young soldiers where they had found the weapon, identifying it as Nguruma’s spear, an important weapon of the tribe which had been lost when one of their best hunters failed to return months ago. Realizing the importance of the spear, Lucius offered it to Ehiodze who in turn gave the group a long sword with a hilt made to resemble the wings of an eagle. The blade, a farbond spellblade, had been found on a dead body earlier that year, and since it was a weapon made specially for swordmages, Ashlan was the one to claim it.
The next morning, the sellswords left the oasis accompanied with a few hunters who guided them towards the taboo area that was about a day North of the tribe’s encampment. As the travelers grew closed to the Black Oasis, it became apparent why the nomads would not want to venture inside the zone: the ground looked as if it had been pulled out of the earth and used to erect an 80 feet wall around a section of the Shaar. The only access to the valley hidden behind that terrible wall were three fissures carved into its surface. Following the indications of their guides, the soldiers went inside one of the fissures, hoping that they might catch the gnolls and quickly finish their mission, but knowing that it would not be so easy.
It took them a little less than a day to pass through the breach, and were it not for a grove of spider cacti, they might have been made even better time. After destroying the dangerous plants from a distance, they approached the cacti only to find the body of a gnoll bearing the marks of the Hungry Fangs tribe. Having confirmed that they had chosen the right path, the group pressed on despite their exhaustion, advancing until finally rest could no longer be postponed. The next morning, Ashlan found tracks that confirmed the presence of a large group of gnolls with a caravan similar in size to the one carrying the mysterious box they were charged with bringing back. Later that day, another set of footprints were found, and the mercenaries quickly discovered that this new set, like the gnolls’ tracks, led to an abandoned trading post that seemed to be the spot chosen by the Hungry Fangs to negotiate the sale of the stolen crate. The camp was guarded by gnolls and by humans dressed as nomads; Vondal was able to identify the latter group as rebels from Ormpur. The tension between the two groups was palpable, even from distance, and it seemed deepened by the fact that most gnolls that were not on guard duty were participating in a ceremony that would end in human sacrifice and anthropophagy.
Eager and capable as individuals, but untested as a group, the sellswords went into action. They had evaluated the minutiae of their situation together before striking out on their own, with nary a plan among them. As a result, a number of them were spotted by guards, and their fervor very nearly cost them their mission. As they escaped in the desert, using a path showed by Cotazym, they stumbled upon a party of gnolls led by a priest of Yeenoghu, the Butcher King. The creatures were tough, well experienced fighting together, and put up more resistance than the thieves’ had anticipated. The violence of the pack’s hits almost brought down Tristan who was saved by Lucius and his experience as a combat medic while Vondal, Tristan and Ashlan were engaging the archers, spearmen and the shaman. The sellswords struggled with their foes who were magically kept from the brink of death just long enough to lay in a few more of their brutal attacks. Unfortunately, Cotazym own spells were ineffective against the devoted followers of the demon prince of savagery but in the end, using Lucius’ leadership and a team effort, the Crimson Talons’ new recruits prevailed, bringing down the pack and fleeing with the crate and a prisoner.
After a good night of sleep and some healing, courtesy of the Red Knight, they interrogated the gnoll and were able to confirm that the Hungry Fangs had stolen the mysterious box in order to sell it to rebels from Ormpur at a high price. The gnolls did not know what was inside the box, simply assuming for the most part that it was some kind of new weapon designed by The Branch, a company known to operate in the Shaar. The creature did not know who had given them the information about the caravan, or who had made contact with the rebels to invite them to purchase the weapon, but he supposed it was someone with an interest in seeing Ormpur fall back into the hands of the Church of Tiamat, maybe one of the cities in the Border Kingdoms. During the return trip to Ormpur, Cotazym identified the magical items found on the gnolls and was able to confirm that the box was indeed the one they seeked. The dryad wizard claimed the green robe of protection while Roe showed interest in the beautiful rapier with a basket hilt in the shape of the dragon with multiple heads. The assassin even admitted that the sword seemed familiar, bolstering the sense of “deja-vu” that he had had earlier in the mission.
Upon reaching the City of Saffron, the party met with Blue Ghost who immediately took possession of the crate and sent item well guarded.inside the city. He invited his soldiers to the ruins of the temple to Tiamat which served as the Talons’ main camp. The dilapidated mansewas already showing signs of being restored to its former glory, but this time, said glory would be that of Tempus the Foehammer, and of Red Knight, his daughter. The spymaster ordered them to bathe, rest and enjoy a good meal from the mess before joining him for a drink, and to sign of their contracts. Wasting no time, the sellswords quickly found themselves within a large tent filled with delicious food and drinks, listening to Sergeant Maerwatch give them the run down on the army’s main leaders, as well precious advice about who to contact if they ever needed something.
After an exquisite meal – although to be fair, anything would be exquisite after days eating lizards, scorpions and roots – the group visited Blue Ghost’s tent to sign a contract that seemed very straight forward and honest. Tristan insisted that a clause about his objection to killing children be included, something that their new superior officer accepted with a large, predatory smile, making clear to his newest recruits that when such tasks were required, he had others at his disposal. Once the six soldiers had signed the contracts, he offered them one last drink before sending them back to the barracks for a good night of sleep. They were officially members of the Crimson Talons serving as scouts and in special operations. A new mission would wait for them in the morning.
The hooded figure got up as the crystal ball became blurry once again. “They are efficient when they finally manage to work together, but it always seems to be a matter of desperation rather than preparation. It would seem that this team requires a hotter fire in which to be forged. If our future operations to succeed they will need to be tempered. Let’s see what hunting vermin in the street of the city will do to improve their teamwork… If they are fortunate, the Red Lady will counsel them…”