Spring comes to High Miska, and with it the date of the bogatyrs’ reunion. They gather at the Bear King inn. Gena and Yerek are first to arrive, and Kazimeer the next. Anfisa appears in the company of Kostya, Gullet, and Iazmina. Finally, Mika rides up on an aged gray mare, which she turns loose in the street.
The four confirm that it’s time to leave, and that Valgrad will be their next destination. The deck of portals should take them directly into the city if they draw the Sun card, because its owner — Elbeska of the Higher Nine — claims no territory outside the capital’s Cathedral District. Iazmina affirms that she’s still willing to travel with them, as does Gullet and Yerek (to varying degrees of enthusiasm).
They visit the palace, and find that a number of their Miskan allies have gathered in the tsaritsa’s audience hall to see them off: Huntmaster Koden, Captain Ironjoy, Irska Redhoof, Vasil Vargavich, Holak, even Roadwarden Korgoslav Karkovich Ironglove. Tsaritsa Kascha thanks them again for all their efforts, and they thank her for Miska’s hospitality. She provides them with a final gift, a draught of water taken from a hidden well in the Kosvodd that has potent healing and purification power. The bogatyrs make their farewells, then draw the Sun card from the deck of portals and step through.
On the other side is chaos.
The bogatyrs find themselves on the pedestal of a hippogriff statue, one of the endpieces of the grand bridge over the Sorad River. Around and below them, a desperate battle. A small force of Volyar warriors stands where the bridge meets the streets of the eastern bank, led by a tall, white-haired woman in hetman-quality armor, and assisted by a burly bear cavalryman hurling firebombs into the opposing ranks. Those enemies are the undead — squadrons of skeletal warriors on each of the three adjoining streets, and a small unit of ghoul skirmishers that have clambered atop the bridge itself to strike from behind. To the north, the bogatyrs sense as much as see the dominating presence of the undead legion’s commander — a liche in the armor of a long-dead lord, a blackened sword in one hand.
Anfisa immediately sends one of the tripling arrows at the deathknight, following it with another of her regular shafts as Gullet jumps off the pedestal into the battle. Gennadiy charges through the fray directly for the undead commander. Kazimeer conjures the power of the stars to make a number of the unliving soldiers recall what it was like to sleep. Mika is the last to move, torn between the necessity of the cause and her role as a priestess of the goddess of undeath.
The skeletal soldiers are fast and dangerous, suffused with the necromantic power of a master, but the bogatyrs are far finer still. Gena and Anfisa suffer only glancing hits as they split into the melee. The deathknight is another matter — Gena manages to parry one of his strikes, and still feels part of his life force ebb away. He retaliates with a furious riposte that cuts deep. Anfisa fights in a different direction, attempting to cut a path through the thickest mass of undead who block the street to the Cathedral District. Kazimeer supports them with more sorcery, while Mika terrifies some of the nearest undead with her supernatural presence. Even Yerek launches a few arrows, while Iazmina swoops down to pick up the occasional straggling undead and drop it in the river.
Mika raises the ghost-summoning horn to her lips and calls on undead troops of her own. The spectral warriors plunge into the fray, though their opponents appear to be equally strong. The press of bone pushes further into the Volyar ranks, and the giant-blooded hetman falls. Her bear-riding lieutenant is quick to scoop her up. Mika spits out a curse of disgust at the Volyar woman’s weakness, and casts a healing spell to stabilize her.
Then a rumbling underfoot grows even louder, and a strange metal engine bursts through a nearby building. The conveyance seems fashioned to look roughly like a bulette forged of steel, but running on treads that immediately crush a dozen skeletons under the juggernaut’s weight. The “jaw” in the prow of the device opens, and flame gushes out of hidden nozzles, pouring over more of the undead. Then a hatch in the back of the metal beast opens, and a dwarf woman sticks her head out, blinking surprisedly at the bogatyrs — Aidalore, emissary of Golen Kar, last seen astride a clockwork hippogriff en route to Miska. She nervously grins at the heroes and then drops back inside, resealing the hatch.
Gennadiy rallies during the distraction, striking harder and harder at the deathknight. A spell from Kazimeer strips away the last of the animating force, sending armor and bones clattering onto the street. The remaining ghouls panic at the loss of their commander, and bolt away across the bridge. Mika spears two with her icy needles, and the last survivor dives into the river — a poor decision, as the water rises up like a fist around it, crushing it into paste that drifts with the current.
Anfisa and Gullet keep carving forward, as Aidalore’s metallic siege engine grinds more skeletons under it. Soon the main street is clear, and the last of the undead attackers are dispatched. The Volyars work on triage for their casualties, Gena assisting. Thanks to Mika’s magic, the hetman is able to stand and take charge again. She thanks the bogatyrs and Aidalore for their assistance, in particular wondering at the bogatyrs’ arrival from nowhere. The butcher’s bill is six fine Volyar veterans dead and more than that wounded, but all things considered, it would have been much worse.
The giant-blooded Volyar introduces herself as Hetman Varya Votevna Winterbones, and her bear-cavalry lieutenant Okvar Chenesky. She asks Okvar to guide the bogatyrs to the Cathedral District while Aidalore stays to keep a watch until reinforcements arrive. “Gorinstal is going to offer to put some of his men here with us,” she says, “and I don’t trust him.”
“I don’t, either,” adds Gennadiy.
Before they leave, Mika examines the corpse of the deathknight. She confirms to herself that it was a pawn of the Skull, and recognizes the sword as a barrow-blade, blackened from long centuries in a burial cairn and suffused with necromantic energy. The priestess takes the deathknight’s scabbard and buckles the barrow-blade around her own waist.
Okvar rides his bear with the bogatyrs as they head towards the warded portion of the Cathedral District. They pass down a stretch of rubble — “the Ruin’s Road,” Okvar calls it as he asks the bogatyrs various questions. Gennadiy takes charge of the conversation, as he is accustomed to doing. He asks Okvar for all the information he can get about the conflicting bands fighting over the scarred capital. Among other things, Okvar mentions some Tsar Gorinstal’s forces — “about twenty personal guard, some more camped at the territory’s edge. We don’t know their full numbers. We have a lot to keep track of.”
Okvar also describes some of the card-scarred areas they’ve seen. Statues animated with the power of the Key. Valgrad survivors bound by strange oaths laid by the Knight card, a street where anyone walking down it is stricken by confusion thanks to the Idiot’s power.
“Are there other card-marked areas we should be aware of?” asks Gennadiy.
“Yeah. Everywhere.” Okvar cranes his neck, then rides to a nearby cross-street and points down the way. A large mark, faintly shining, stretches across the cobbles of the street, and the bogatyrs recognize the pattern — the face of the Ruin card, the size of an alewagon. “They’re all over,” says Okvar quietly.
The heroes reach the central section of the Cathedral District. The Sun’s warding isn’t visible, but they feel its presence as they pass through it. The central hill and the various temples standing around it are jarringly out of place — they seem just as they were before the Disastrous Draw, a portion of the city that has completely ignored the ruin and scarring all around. A number of people and beasts move in and out of various buildings and even a small orchard-park near the temple to the nature gods. “So who do you want to talk to first?” asks Okvar. The heroes choose the Sun.
Okvar takes them to Ninespires, the grand cathedral to the Higher Nine, where Elbeska holds court. Among the people waiting outside they note half a score of warriors in Gorinstal’s colors, at least two of whom are clearly Branded. A pair of templars open the cathedral doors for them.
The interior of the Ninespires temple seems restful, even warm. More templars are inside, as well as an assortment of warriors, soldiers, and envoys from around the realm. As they draw near to the central portion of the worship hall, they see ten more of the Branded gathered. A woman dressed in robes, the Sun card about her neck below her holy symbol, is speaking with man in full armor. As the bogatyrs draw near, the man turns. For the first time in quite a while, Gennadiy and Mika find themselves face to face with the Iron Tsar, Doryevni Gorinstal — the Donjon.