Trumps of Winter

31 - The Carrion Heretics

Mika brings vengeance to a ghoulish stray flock.

Before the feast ends, Kazimeer accepts an invitation to remain in the Gloaming for a few days to discuss umbral astrology with Sire Inkwether. The others pass through the gate. Arimna tells them that they did well — not perfect, perhaps, but certainly well enough to make an impression. Gennadiy notes that they might not have wanted to do too well, and encourage the nocnitsa to try keeping them around too long. Armina smiles at the observation, offers the bogaytrs further congratulations, and then departs on her sleigh.

The three return to their inn and take a rest. In the morning, they find a present from Arimna waiting for them — four glasses of Lyodspar Reserve, an ice-distilled brandy made for the pleasure of Queen Norevna herself. The three gladly portion out the bottles, and decide to drink the fourth in Kazimeer’s absence.

That day passes uneventfully. Gennadiy asks after the “Bald Wolf” of the Huntsmen, sussing out whether or not the officer might be helpful in removing his captain from power. His conversation with his uncle winds up running far too late into the evening, with far too much liquor consumed.

Mika jolts from sleep that evening with the sensation of cold, bony fingers closing around her heart. She recognizes the sensation as a call from the Lich Queen. She throws on her clothes and sets out into the icy night.

She finds the Tyruin shrine to Namaluk in the High Tyurin district — the Shrine of the Frozen Saints. The worship area is empty as Mika enters. She kneels before the altar, and before the triple block of ice with the humanoid forms faintly visible within, and performs the ritual offerings. As she completes the offering, a sister of the faith emerges from the back — young, but older than Mika, and with the gentle half-skull makeup of a lower-ranking priestess.

The sister looks at the items on the altar and respectfully asks if Mika is a chosen daughter. Mika nods. The sister smiles hesitantly, and says that they may be in need of her. Mika asks if she can speak with the elder; the sister says that the elder is ailing, but she’ll inquire. After a short wait, Mika is escorted into the clerical quarters. There she meets Olchaska Blacklimbs, a gaunt old woman with faded frostbite scarring on her hands, resting on a couch. The old woman smiles approvingly, seeming to recognize Mika’s status as a chosen daughter at once. “You must be here to set things right.”

The elder priestess tells Mika that a group of the living dead has strayed from the path. Underneath the prison in Solemnity, a small band of ghouls occupy an abandoned stretch of tunnels. For years they cooperated with the Namalukii priests. The priests would bring them food from time to time to keep them from roaming, and concealed their presence; in return, the ghouls offered piety and loyalty, and would carry out the occasional sentence of vengeance on prisoners who had evaded sterner retribution. The ghouls’ former chief, Slatejaw, was a canny and pious old fellow — but Krastach the Butcher, their new leader, is a heretic. He leads the other ghouls in service of Innuku, the demonic prince of hunger, and has gone so far as to bare his claws against the Namalukii. The younger sister, Yiria Namalevna, undoes her robe at this, and shows Mika four purplish, slowly healing claw marks across her side.

Mika promises to set things right, and assures the others she won’t travel into the den alone. “One of my friends loves fighting ghouls,” she says, “and the other just likes killing.” She tells Yiria to meet her tomorrow at the gate to Solemnity, and departs.

The next morning, Mika tells the others over breakfast that they have a mission to kill ghouls. Gena is not thrilled at the prospect, but he and Anfisa agree to assist her. They gather their gear and set out.

Yiria guides them to the prison, specifically to an abandoned tanner’s shack on the slope below the prison walls. Inside the shack she shows them a lift, still in operation, that lowers the bogatyrs to the tunnels below.

The lift rattles its way down the deep shaft to a storage room. Gennadiy carefully checks under the arrival platform for ghouls while the others scan the exits. One door is wedged shut with debris; the other seems functional, and recently used.

They take the recently used door into a workshop, where hungry eyes gleam back at them. Half a dozen ghouls crawl into the lantern light, their pale flesh painted with jagged fang-like shapes. “Ah,” hisses one, “the food delivers itself.”

Mika throws back her hood, revealing a freshly shorn skull, and the facepaint of a full skull mask, the Aspect of Vengeance Revealed. She rebukes the ghouls for daring to stand against the living hand of the Queen, and commands them to clear the way — they have one chance to set foot back on the proper path, or to be sent howling into the void. The carrion-eaters slink back, cowed, and one falls back through a door. As the ghoul scrambles away, a laugh comes out from the darkened hallway beyond.

The bogatyrs follow into the hall, which is set with old cells. Gena stays in the doorway and keeps the light on the ghouls to ensure they don’t recover their courage. Anfisa and Kostya move to another door and guard it while Mika investigates the laugh. In one of the cells she finds a ghoul — or most of one. The creature’s arms and legs have been chewed away, leaving just a torso and a head that grins with a mouth full of gray teeth like broken stones. “Ah! The Lich Queen’s vengeance has arrived at last. I am delighted to have endured long enough to see your arrival.”

The dismembered Slatejaw offers what information he can. The rooms they inhabit were built for a cruel tsar, and abandoned after his death. Krastach the Butcher holds court in the feast room that overlooks the torture chamber and the fighting pit. Mika thanks him, and promises the ghoul that she’ll give him a chance to see the heretic ghoul’s downfall.

Slatejaw nods eagerly. “Cell six,” he whispers. “There is a gift from the Lady. But beware the sword… it bites.”

Mika investigates the abandoned cell. Under the bench she finds a moldering bundle of cloth and a scabbarded sword. The cloth contains a bone ring, marked with a pattern of swords hanging like icicles, which Mika immediately dons. The sword seems untouched by the elements — grimy but unrusted, and its greenish-black scaled scabbard is still strong and flexible. Anfisa recognizes it as a spartoi blade, something that was surely born from a dragon’s tooth. She takes the blade carefully and belts it to her waist.

Thus braced, the bogatyrs move to the door that Slatejaw has indicated leads to the feasting room. Anfisa gestures, and Kostya pushes the door down. The bogatyrs storm into the torture chamber. Their light picks out decayed racks and rusted braziers, and a raised platform that serves as the far wall. A pair of ghouls crouch behind the torture equipment, and atop the platform three powerfully built ghasts look down on them. The largest wears a necklace like a bear trap, a metallic mock-jaw, and is marked with painted fang-like scars. A small, lean ghoul leans over the edge, a long tongue lolling out.

Krastach is not as impressed by Mika’s threats, but the bogatyrs stand equally resolute against the corpse-eater’s promises of carnage. The Butcher announces that he grows bored with the conversation, and gestures for his man-eaters to attack.

But it does not go well for the ghouls at all. Anfisa and Kostya swiftly dispatch one of the ghouls down below, and Gena sorely wounds the other. The ghasts leap down into the torture chamber, one of Krastach’s fellows unleashing a bone-rattling howl and the other attempting to claw Anfisa apart. The sole ghoul remaining above extends its unnatural tongue out like a cave fisher, attempting to draw one of the bogatyrs close.

Then Mika invokes her power.

It is as though Namaluk herself manifests in the room for a moment. The bogatyrs feel something as if something immense and cold, drawing a breath — and the vital essence of animation goes with it. The wounded ghoul and the two ghouls flanking Krastich all collapse immediately, nothing more than distorted meat.

And like that, the battle becomes one-sided. The Butcher lashes out with more desperation than fury, and even as more ghouls skitter into the room from the nearby fighting pit, they are unable to keep their would-be demonic prophet from being torn apart by Gena, Anfisa and Kostya. The reeling ghast tries to turn and guard himself from the vicious night bear, and Gennadiy takes the opportunity. His firebrass axe cleaves up from under Krastach’s jaw, severing the huge ghast’s face. The ghoul reinforcements are ripped apart almost cursorily, and the tongue-lashing ghoul scampers away into the dark.

Gena kicks open the door to the workshop. The ghouls they left there cower and grovel as they see the bogatyrs walk away from the scene of carnage. Mika demands they return to the fold, and the corpse-eaters claw away their flesh where it’s been painted with Innuku’s marks. Thus satisfied, Mika returns to the cell where Slatejaw lies, and throws the severed jawbone of Krastach the Butcher down before him. The dismembered ghoul does his best to reach the bone and eat the flesh.

Mika contemplates the luckless yet devout Slatejaw. She considered the process of sending him into the void, but then old stories of talking bones surface into her memory. She contemplates a macabre ritual of the faith, weighs it carefully, then turns to her friends. “You might want to leave for this part,” she says, and Gena is happy to oblige.

Once Mika is alone, she performs a ritual to bind the animus of Slatejaw to his skull while the ghouls flense away its flesh. When she returns to the light, it is with the still-sentient skull of an enraptured Slatejaw in her pack.



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