Trumps of Winter

35 - Ghost of the Shrike Knight

Old scars reopen in Miska.

It’s early afternoon when the bogatyrs leave the Golden Tsar’s palace. They agree to set out for Miska as soon as possible. They spend two hours packing, gathering supplies, acquiring bear food, and otherwise preparing.

Yerek answers his summons partway through, excited and startled. He asks if they’d heard the news — the Rogue has struck again! After leaving the summit, he went to the Giided Tombs, subverted the guards, stole an artifact from one of the crypts, and vanished along with his representative and the guards. All of Tyurin is shocked, and everyone wants to know whether Casivir the Betrayer is simply acting on an old family rivalry, or if he’s choosing to undercut the Throne in favor of the Moon or the Donjon.

When their preparations are complete, the bogatyrs ride two miles outside the Tyurin walls. There they unwrap the deck of portals and carefully draw the Moon card. The card vanishes, a shimmering portal appears, and the group steps through.

They emerge onto a forest road, wide enough for a large cart. A slight gap between the trees on either side shows a cloudy sky. The winter air is much milder than it was in Tyurin or on the western steppe; a faint dusting of snow hides in the deepest root crevices, and no more. As the group gets their bearings, they hear music to the northwest.

They follow the sound along the road to a small village. The townsfolk have lit fires and brought out tables of food, and appear to be about to celebrate an evening wedding. The ceremony stands around a young oak tree, less than a couple of years grown, in the center of the town square. As the group moves into the village proper, an armored ogrinka wearing a Miskan road-warden’s badge intercepts them. He announces himself as Korgoslav Karkovich Ironglove, and demands to know the traveler’s business. They assure him they mean him no harm, and at his request bare their arms.

The ogrinka warden apologizes for his suspicion, but says they can’t be too careful these days. Bands of Tsar Gorinstal’s men have been sighted moving north of the neighboring elven kingdom of Galespire. He introduces them to a few of the village elders, who welcome the travellers and insist they stay for the wedding celebration, and a visitor from the woods, the talking she-bear Cinnamon (who scoffs at the “unintelligent” Kostya). Gena recognizes the mark on some of the barrels of mead set about, and realizes they must be in the meadery-town of Honeythorn.

The wedding begins shortly thereafter. The bride, pretty though she is, has asymmetrical scars across her face and arms, as if from repeated knife wounds. The three bogatyrs — for Mika has vanished again — note that a few other young men and women in the village have similar scars. They move to the table of wedding presents and leave a few gifts of their own. Anfisa leaves a bottle of fine brandy and a purse of gold, while Kazimeer discreetly asks after the bride and groom’s birthdays so that he can begin a horoscope.

During the ceremony, a great wind rushes through the village. A phantasmal image forms around the young tree — a much larger tree, with the corpses of men and women impaled on branches sharpened into stakes. Screams break out among the villagers as the bride, looking up from the tree, begins to bleed from her numerous scars. Then the wind is gone, and the phantom tree fades… but the bride’s gown is still stained with blood. Her groom holds on to her, reassuring her. “It’s okay,” he says. “She’s dead. She’s dead.”

The bogatyrs turn to the baffled Road-Warden Ironglove, who admits he doesn’t understand what’s going on. The aged priestess joins them and begins to explain. She tells the story of Shesdiny Kuloshneva Salvalk, sworn vassal of Tsar Govroska, knight of the Black Chalice, known as the Shrike Knight. She was once the governor of Honeythorn and the woods around it. She impaled those who rebelled against her, and scarred the faces and bodies of her squires and handmaids to keep anyone from falling in love with them and taking them away. The Shrike Knight was overthrown a year and a half ago, after the fall of Govroska, and the priestess notes that she met a… “poetic fate.” She was buried a month later with full ritual to prevent her from rising as one of the undead.

“Well,” says Gena, “someone may have woken her up.”

The bogatyrs immediately gather their things and recruit Ironglove to guide them to the Shrike Knight’s keep. Gena downs another mug of mead, leaves a poem under a purse of gold among the wedding gifts, and they depart.

They ride for an hour and a half north before they find a toppled lamp post among the growth at the side of the road. The post marks an overgrown road leading deeper into the forest — the path to the Shrike Knight’s hunting lodge. As the bogatyrs follow the path, four lights appear in the darkness ahead of them. The lights coalesce into burning skeletons hanging in midair, and then the apparition of a blazing coach forms between them, the skeletons impaled on hooks at the four corners. The coach races down the road toward them, and the bogatyrs and the road warden ride into the trees for cover. The carriage screams past them and then fades into nothingness.

They march another quarter-mile, and the gates to the hunting lodge estate come into view. As the group draws closer, a skull hanging from a tree unhinges its jaw and shrieks. Kazimeer shatters it with a bolt of ice before the echoes can die out.

They push past the gates. The Shrike Knight’s lodge is a long-burned ruin of charred timbers, save for a large coachhouse standing near the gate and a stone tower crowned with rusted metal thorns.The bogatyrs first check the coachhouse, and find nothing inside. They choose to leave their horses there.

As they cross the courtyard toward the tower, another unnatural wind stirs into a small spiral. Human and animal bones pull free from the ground, lit by a ghostly glow that forms into a spectral whirlwind. The phantom aggregation engulfs Gennadiy, chilling his flesh and biting at him with a dozen mismatched skulls. The necromantic conjuration might have torn apart hardy townsfolk, but the bogatyrs swiftly overmatch it, shattering its bones and scattering its wraithly essence.

They catch their breath and push open the door to the stone tower. The wooden floors are long burnt and destroyed, but a stone staircase still runs around the inner wall to the roof. From above, a voice drifts down: “I invoke you, I implore you, I bind you. I invoke you, I implore you, I bind you. I invoke you…”

The bogatyrs charge up the stairs. They emerge onto the stone roof to see a single man, dressed in the garb of a traveling minstrel, holding a ritual knife in one hand and a dirt-smeared skull in the other. Several vaguely human phantoms shimmer into being next to the chanting man, and as they drift toward the party, Anfisa and Kostya are among them.

Gena is still lunging forward and Kazimeer still gathering power as the man completes his chant. “In the name of the Doomstar, I bind you, Shesdiny Kuloshneva Salvalk!” Another ghostly figure appears, but the difference is profound. The entire rooftop is bathed in a grave chill, emanating from the armored spectre with a great bloody wound in her breastplate. She surveys the intruders, and lunches for them.

A brutal conflict erupts. Gennadiy charges the necromancer as Anfisa, her brother, and the ogrinka warden tear through his phantom bodyguards and Kazimeer looses empyrean forces. The spectre of the Shrike Knight moves to intercept Gennadiy with a terrible shriek that rattles the bogatyrs to their souls. It takes only a few passes for Anfisa and Gennadiy to realize that the Shrike Knight is perhaps more terrible in undeath than she was in life. The wounded necromancer casts a spell, turning his flesh into ghostly matter and sinking through the floor, as the spectre stabs Gena through the heart.

Gena reels back, and for a moment feels a dreadful pause before his heart beats again. He raises his shield and braces. Behind him, Kazimeer runs back down the stairs into the burned tower, sighting the wraith-form necromancer descending through the central space. Kazimeer conjures a psychic bolt that passes directly through the ghostly mage. He shocks back into solidity, and plummets to the stone floor with a hideous crunch.

Anfisa, Kostya, and Gennadiy desperately exchange blows with the Shrike Knight. Gena has one foot in the grave before the spectre flinches away. She glances at one of the rusty iron thorns at the outside of the tower, and then flees through the battlements.

Back inside the tower Kazimeer races down to the necromancer’s broken corpse, hastily pulling free the knife and the skull. His companions come pounding down the stairs after him, shouting for him to send her back and put her to rest. Kazimeer tries to focus on an answer. He contemplates altering his sleep spell, and casts about his memories of the Vizier’s books… how does one lay a spectre to rest? He remembers only the importance of “something appropriate”…

“The thorn!” shouts Gena.

Kazimeer races back up the stairs. Gennadiy charges with him while Anfisa, Kostya, and Korgoslav Karkovich spread out to guard the lower tower. As Kazimeer reaches the roof, he makes for the nearest long hooked iron spike. He leans out across the battlement, and below him he sees the Shrike Knight’s spectre rising up towards him, eyes wide and teeth bared. Kazimeer takes the skull in both hands, and impales it on the end of the thorn. The spectre shrieks one final time, splintering apart like a dropped mirror, each phantom shard dissolving like mist as they fall back into the night.

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