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.

View
30 - The Graywash
The bogatyrs perform a nocnitsa tradition of sanctioned burglary.

The bogatyrs assemble and meet Arimna at the Summer Bridge before dawn. She greets them all, and once they appear ready, holds a small object toward the arch and whispers a few words. The pre-dawn shadows stretch and lengthen, and the color of the darkness in the gateway changes subtly. They ride under the arch, and pass into the Gloaming.

The shadow-world is immediately different. Though not lightless, the sky is dark as if clouded over, slowly churning like a storm that will never come. The city of Tyurin is almost entirely absent — only a few shoddy towers stand here and there on the strangely steeper, sharper hills. The Summer Bridge they rode under is entirely absent, with only a rickety arch covered in thorns to mark the gate. A small and crooked castle sits on the largest hill where the Tyurinov palace would be, narrow banners flying from its towers.

Four nocnitsa, mounted on shadowy ember-eyed steeds, wait on a nearby slope. All are dressed in bleakly elaborate trappings of aristocracy, clearly three chernazy in attendance to Lady Gloomsaddle. The four evaluate the arriving bogatyrs, and the chernazy lightly discuss wagers amongst themselves, arguing the odds of the mortals managing to accomplish a fine Graywash.

Gennadiy catches the attention of the female chernaz, a woman wrapped in tarnished and heavily detailed armor with a high gorget like a wrought-iron fence. The chernaz, Dam Shacklesight by name, offers Gennadiy a cloak woven of solid shadow to better hide his shining armor. In return for the cloak, she requests a music box known to be in Bleakmouth’s possession. Gennadiy thanks her, and attempts a bit of flirting as well, though his overtures splinter against her dour facade.

Another chernaz, a younger-seeming male wearing robes quilted with odd distortions of astrological sigils, addresses Kazimeer. Sire Inkwether admits a fascination with stars, and is most intrigued to speak with an astromancer who has actually seen the living stars of the mortal world. He offers Kazimeer a shadow cloak as well, and makes no particular request for recompense.

With the ice broken, Gloomsaddle and her knights offer a few more casual well-wishes. Sire Inkwether admits along the way that he has an informant of sorts in Bleakmouth’s castle, and should be able to measure how well the Graywash goes. Arimna then takes the mortal heroes aside and wishes them good luck as well. She notes that there are five targets that would be particularly impressive and appropriate acquisitions: the music box mentioned by Dam Shacklesight, the banners from Bleakmouth’s throne room, the decorations from his saddle and harness, an ever-full decanter of vinegar to flavor his food, and an enchanted bedspread that keeps him comfortable at night. As the four prepare to ride to their target, she offers a final warning to beware of the willows.

The bogatyrs ride down through the hills, to the area that would be the lands south of Tyurin. They pass tangled forests and a sullen river that feeds into the cold Winterquag Marshes, where Sire Bleakmouth has his estate. They take stock of the terrain from high ground. Bleakmouth’s manse squats on an island rise in the marsh, bordered on three sides by water and by a forest on the fourth. A single bridge crosses from the main road to the island, though a few scattered huts in the marshes suggest that various peasants — nocnitsa or otherwise — might have boats or rafts of their own.

The bridge leads under a gatehouse, and the four opt not to risk a conflict with the guards posted there. They settle on the forest approach, which would bring them into the rear of the estate. But the fey wood is treacherous, and Anfisa doesn’t notice that one of the willow trees is moving before it crosses the path and strikes her. The bogatyrs lash out as quietly as they can at the two animated willows, and Kazimeer is relieved when the winds of his sorcery give him ice and not thunder. They destroy the pair of malevolent trees without taking much damage; Kazimeer freezes one solid, and Gennadiy hews cleanly through the second with his firebrass axe.

The four make it to the treeline without Bleakmouth’s nocnitsa noticing them. Anfisa is the first to cross to shelter behind a weathered smokehouse-like structure, and the others follow suit, leaving Kostya to watch the horses. As Gennadiy begins to pen a variety of notes assigning the theft’s culpability to the Huntsmen, Anfisa spots the mercenary leader Yelgor Greencap among his men in the front courtyard.

Stealth remains the priority. The bogatyrs sneak into the main manor through a back entrance to the kitchen, freezing just in time before the two nocnitsa servants preparing a meal notice them. The four wait for the servants to leave the kitchen carrying an opening course. They swiftly purloin the decanter on the table, and Mika spikes the tea for the second course with a pinch of the most potent digestive-affecting herbs in her possession.

The group then moves to the base of the largest tower in the manse. They attempt to sneak up to the second story, unsuccessfully. Two nocnitsa guards jolt awake, but before they can leave their chairs, a sleep spell from Kazimeer sends one back into his midday dreams. Gena and Anfisa quickly beat the other one into submission. They bind both of the unconscious shadow fey and prop them back in their chairs “at their posts.”

They continue up the tower to the highest floor, where a single door blocks the path into what is assuredly Sire Bleakmouth’s sleeping quarters. The door has a shoddy-looking lock but an ornate door-knocker in the form of a grinning gargoylish face, its lolling tongue the movable knocker. Kazimeer immediately suspects a trap, and examines the knocker further. He confirms that it would likely call out an alarm if not properly bypassed. The sorcerer “disarms” the sentry by plugging its ears with cloth, somewhat to Gena’s skepticism. But the trick seems to work, and they open the door without causing an outburst.

Bleakmouth’s room is decorated in the threadbare finery suiting a noble without much means. A form, matching the _chernaz_’s description, lies sleeping in the bed, a thick dark bedspread drawn over it. Anfisa creeps into the room slowly, and over the course of a few tense minutes, meticulously pulls the bedspread away without waking the nocnitsa.

As Anfisa makes her way silently back to the door, Gennadiy looks around the room for one extra bit of potential plunder. He settles on a small, curious bottle made of expensive-seeming crystal among Bleakmouth’s toiletry. But as he pulls it away, another oddly-shaped bottle next to it loses its balance and falls to one side with a loud clink.

Bleakmouth sits bolt upright. Gena remains motionless, the hood of his shadow cloak keeping him invisible, as the chernaz looks blearily around. Bleakmouth slides out of his bed and approaches the side-table, and as he focuses on the disturbed toiletries, Gena throws a punch.

Even with the advantage of surprise, the nocnitsa isn’t felled with a single blow. Anfisa charges back in to help Gennadiy. Bleakmouth draws a short shadowblade with remarkable speed, but despite his fey agility, the chernaz in his nightshirt is no match for two armored and fully alert bogatyrs. They subdue him, knock him unconscious, bind him in his bed, and hastily creep back downstairs.

They reach the bottom floor in time to witness a minor disturbance, as four Huntsmen — scramble from the manor, racing down to the edges of the marsh in clear dietary distress. Mika makes a note of the efficacy of her tea, and the bogatyrs take the opportunity to purloin Bleakmouth’s banners (featuring the device of a dead snake coiled around a spider) and a portion of his silverware as well.

As the robbery plays out, Anfisa keeps watch on the gatehouse over the bridg. She sees a nocnitsa leaning out, watching the turmoil among the evacuating mortals, and notes that a snake-tailed raptor rests on the fey’s wrist — a cockatrice. She moves quickly to the stable without being spotted, and takes the fine stirrups and bridle set with precious stones. She then rejoins the other three emerging from the back of the manse, and they all make for the treeline to complete their escape. A shadowy bat departs the manor and flies over them as they go.

They ride back to the gate, and discover a pavilion has been set up near it, where Lady Gloomsaddle and her three chernazy are enjoying a small outing. Sire Inkwether, the shadowy bat at his side, seems to be settling the Graywash wagers with his fellows, who all seem to be in reasonably good spirits. The group apparently did surprisingly well, even given the point deduction for the Bleakmouth scuffle. The nocnitsa invite the mortals to share a meal with them, seating the mortals at a smaller table. Gena hands the music box to Dame Shacklesight, along with the letters he’d written with the intention of incriminating the Huntsmen. “You see we had a plan,” he says.

As the bogatyrs navigate the meal, careful of any treats that might reputedly bind them to the Gloaming, Arimna tells them a little more of what she’s learned. Apparently Bleakmouth and Yelgor’s plan was to build up the Huntsmen’s repute until the point that they could earn a commission to guard the Gilded Tombs of Tyurin. Once securing that post, they could “invite” the nocnitsa into the tombs, allowing them to steal some of the treasures buried with past tsars. Arima says that in particular, Bleakmouth was interested in the tomb of Tsaritsa Aletsya Moonblessed. She was buried with an axe that, according to one divination, is destined to split a second crown.

View
29 - Lady Gloomsaddle
The lady of the Devoured Moon makes her appearance.

With their meeting place in one of the more upscale portions of Tyurin, most of the bogatyrs spend a little time dressing accordingly — Gena gets appropriately polished, and Kazimeer purchases a new robe, but declines the elaborate hat designed to complete the ensemble. Mika chooses the dress of a foreigner, and asks a few discreet questions about the site of their meeting. The Prince of the North, she learns, is favored by those who wish to keep their meetings private. She also learns that one of her former ladies-in-waiting, a discreet and genuine friend named Lasva. Thus prepared, the four set out.

Once they enter the inn, Mika recognizes Lasva at the bar, and carefully avoids her former lady-in-waiting’s gaze. Gena moves between the two to shield his companion, and in the process is surprised to notice his uncle Brunya sitting at a table. His uncle doesn’t notice him before the group is ushered into one of the back meeting rooms. The room is surprisingly comfortable despite the excessive fire blazing in the fireplace, and a sideboard is laden with delicious refreshments that swiftly find approval with Gennadiy. The pale-skinned Arimna, seated in a plush chair, gestures for them to be welcome.

As Armina begins to explain her perspective on the situation, Kazimeer begins to lose his concentration. Something tugs at his psyche until he leaves the room and steps out into the street. There Otr’s owl familiar descends and leaves a small bundle with him — a door-knocker, shaped like an owl’s head, with four short nails protruding from it. Kazimeer spends some time puzzling over the strange gift.

In the meantime, Arimna tells the other three that she’s observing the situation on the other side of the gate, in the realm of the Gloaming. The local nocnitsa, she explains, are currently embroiled in one of their intrigues. Several of their chernazy, something of a knight-like station, are vying for the position of Lampbearer to the Court of the Devoured moon. It seems likely that one of them is pacting with humans who have passed through the gate, though Arimna is not yet sure what the chernaz in question would gain from the exchange.

If the bogatyrs were interested, Arimna might put them in a position to impress Lady Gloomsaddle, or at least to make the attempt. The nocnitsa noblewoman is apparently mostly interested in hunting, and a shared hunt might win her favor. Simply sneaking through the gate and attempting to resolve their issue quietly might also work. Offhandedly, Arimna mentions that bringing the lady a present, such as a mortal bear, might please her. When Anfisa stiffens at the suggestion, Arimna calmly apologizes, stating that she didn’t know that the huntress was “attached.” “The bear is like… family,” says Mika.

Kazimeer rejoins the conversation in time for the debate over next steps. The group decides that it would be best to resolve the situation subtly — if subtle doesn’t work, they can go more public, but it’s impossible to start public and then move to subtlety. They propose the possibility of bringing Lady Gloomsaddle out for a hunt in the mortal world, where the Devouring Moon courtiers needn’t be aware of their intrigues. Arimna agrees to try arranging such a hunt if a suitable quarry can be found. The bogatyrs thank her, and discreetly depart.

Gennadiy breaks from the others and surprises his uncle, who is still in the inn’s main room. The two talk family affairs and business, until Gennadiy warns his uncle to avoid dealing with the Huntsmen and Brunya responds with some consternation. In the attempt to build more connections between eastern Lokva — where the Iron Tsar holds dominion — and central Lokvan territories such as Tyurin, he was hoping for some reliable associates. During the conversation, Uncle Brunya mentions the name of Hovrisk, the Bald Wolf, a Kos outcast who’s associated with the Huntsmen but might not care much for Tsar Gorinstal.

Anfisa spends her time investigating possible targets for a hunt — to say nothing of a venue. She learns that it’s possible to purchase a license to hunt in the tsar’s wood, particularly as the Golden Tsar seems to have relatively little taste for the sport. As a result, a particularly dangerous boar named Silvereye has been generally left to its own devices deep in the forest.

The four gather for the usual breakfast and planning the next morning, Gena blinking away sleep after an all-night reunion with his cousins. They agree on Anfisa’s plan to acquire a license and lead Lady Gloomsaddle on a hunt for Silvereye. Mika goes to inform Arimna of their plans and ask the emissary to deliver the invitation to Lady Gloomsaddle. Gennadiy picks out a selection of fine boarspears. Anfisa arranges for the hunting license, and tells the chief warden to have their deputized guide and escort meet them at sunset.

That evening, the bogatyrs and their warden guide wait by the edge of the forest. The sky darkens, somewhat setting the warden on edge at the prospect of hunting at night, before two horses trot up the path to the woods’ entrance. Arimna the Ever-Cold sits sidesaddle on a pale horse, but seems almost mundane next to her companion. A grey-skinned woman with a raven’s nest of inky hair, dressed in dark leather, sits atop a shadowy charger with eyes like embers.

Arimna performs introductions; the Lady Gloomsaddle seems relatively unimpressed, though she does study the mortal trees with some interest. Gennadiy hands out the boarspears, but the nocnitsa noblewoman declines; rather, she extends one hand, and a shadow runs from it as if lengthening in the setting sun, forming a spear of her own. Mika decides immediately that she wants a shadow blade of her own.

They enter the woods, and the hunt is tricky going at first. Under the canopy of the trees, there’s very little visibility. With the aid of Kostya’s nose, Anfisa eventually finds a boar-trail of the appropriate size. Once the scent becomes strong enough, Kostya plunges through the underbrush to flush out the boar. A pained roar soon rings out, and Anfisa pursues, the other bogatyrs close behind.

Though the boar Silvereye isn’t as dangerous as the hydra killed by Tarska the Slayer, it’s still a horse-sized danger that shrugs through the first exchange of blows with Gena, Anfisa, and Kostya. Lady Gloomsaddle leaps from her horse, but fails to impale the boar with her shadowy spear. While Kazimeer finds his own boarspear difficult to wield properly, Mika invokes the spirits of the fallen to strengthen the hunters. Arimna, for her part, seems content to watch from a distance.

Silvereye scores Anfisa with a tusk, and in return she and Gennadiy lay grievous wounds on the boar. Lady Gloomsaddle is the one to finish the beast, thrusting her spear directly through the boar’s blind eye and into its brain. The nocnitsa muses for a moment, smiling, and finally says, “Satisfactory. Now. What is it you want from me?”

The bogatyrs explain the nature of the arrangement, as far as they’ve discovered, and that the nocnitsa disruptions are likely to cause an unwanted stir in the mortal realm. Gloomsaddle bristles at the thought of the unwanted trouble.

“Bleakmouth!” she exclaims as they finish. “I had thought him up to some scheme… it must be him. Very well, then. I will pronounce Graywash. If you are so interested in this affair, mortals, I will grant you the right of first attempt at carrying out sentence.”

View
28 - Twilight Invitations
A battle against nocnitsa and a strange emissary.

Dark figures leap from the shadows, slashing at Kazimeer and Mika with knives that barely seem to reflect light. Kazimeer blinks away with the power of his cloak, and Gena charges in to intercept the shadowy attacker. From the other side of the street Kazimeer invokes a hasty incantation, and several of the Huntsmen collapse into magical slumber. But the bogatyrs’ numerical advantage is immediately negated as more of the lean, shadow-cloaked figures appear.

The apparent Huntsman leader, Havek, closes with Kazimeer while shouting at his companion Renyod to join in. Renyod shakes his head, stepping back; “This is not what I signed up for!” As one of the crossbow-wielding Huntsmen shakes himself awake, Havek takes a swing at Kazimeer, and receives a stinging blow from the sorcerer’s metal dodecahedron familiar for his trouble.

The dark-cloaked newcomers move with a strange and flowing grace, not quite like mortal humans.A glimpse at sharp and inhuman features with shade-grey skin reveals them as nocnitsa, a band of shadow fey — the sort of thing that might come through a shadow-marked gate. They mark Gennadiy, Anfisa, and Kostya with small strikes that flow almost like water, and the wounds sting with a cold ache that feels like poison.

As skilled as the bogatyrs are, the nocnitsa are not like anything they’d previously faced. The fey evade slash after slash, even the magical attacks, and switch targets with ease. A bolt of obfuscating dark strikes Kazimeer, who feels a terrible compulsion to strike out at one of his colleagues. He tries to minimize the damage by throwing a javelin, but the spear strikes Kostya with surprising force, and Havek takes the opportunity to mark the sorcerer’s metallic skin with a sword blow.

But the nocnitsa’s movements can’t protect them forever. Anfisa’s sabers strike the solid body under a cloak, badly wounding it. As the bogatyrs rally, the Huntsmen suffer dissention in their ranks as one of their number falls back into an ally and his comrade demands that he return. The rattled Renyod stays put. Mika channels power to mend Kazimeer’s wounds, and the sorcerer blinks away and injures another nocnitsa with a spell. Mika then mends her own wounds with an invocation that draws out a portion of her enemies’ life forces for her own.

Anfisa claims the first nocnitsa casualty, cutting her opponent down and charging into a second, Kostya right behind her. The second shadow fey drops to a bone javelin. The mercenary Havek assesses the situation, then bolts for the alleys in a stream of profanity. Gena mocks him as he goes, then returns his attention to his nocnitsa foes. Anfisa charges the recovering crossbowmen, concussing one, as the third nocnitsa falls.

The final nocnitsa chooses to flee. It races for the alley, throwing an obfuscating bolt at Gennadiy. It escapes in the confusion as Kazimeer subdues the last of the Huntsmen rank-and-file. The bogatyrs vainly search for some sign of the dark fey, but there are far too many shadows to conceal it. Then a shout rings out: “What in the FUCK is going on here?”

A golden-armored patrol of the Tsar’s guard appears on the site, and demands answers. The Huntsmen and bogatyrs offer entirely different accounts of the event, and the interrogation descends into furious argument after Gena spends a little time baiting the mercenaries with Havek’s cowardice. The guard march both parties to their district quarters and bring them below ground level, though they refrain from putting either side in cells before the matter is settled. The reluctant Huntsman Renyod mentions that the company’s captain, Yelgor Greencap, had recently taken a strange grimoire as a ransom payment from a captured sorcerer.

When the captain finally arrives, he speaks with both sides, and seems to lean toward the bogatyrs’ version of events. Their case is aided by the arrival of Otr Grimbrow, who vouches for their honesty. He then takes Kazimeer aside and says that the shadow gate is a problem, but should optimally be handled without the Golden Tsar learning of it.

As Gena exchanges more insults with the Huntsmen, Kazimeer rejoins his fellows and offers to demonstrate their proof. The mercenary guards are left in custody as a patrol of guards escorts the bogatyrs back into the streets.

The bogatyrs bring a light to the door that Havek and his partner had attended, and show the shadow mark to the captain. Mika translates the pictogram as “mind” crossed with “veil,” implying confusion or enchantment. The captain agrees to lock up the Huntsmen on the charge of drunken brawling, giving the bogatyrs time to assemble their case — and to get some rest.

The next day the bogatyrs work at devising their next move. Mika recalls a former Huntsman Company acquaintance who might still have contacts in the company. Gena focuses on the news that the Donjon is making the Huntsmen an offer, and suggests spreading the news around — it would be unlikely to make them many friends in Tyurin. Kazimeer focuses on the marks copied from the Summer Bridge, recognizing an astrological sigil for the new moon next to a glyph that might represent a waterfall.

They return to the bridge so that Kazimeer can examine it for further clues. While there, an elaborate horse-drawn sleigh passes through the streets, bearing a pallid woman wrapped in heavy furs. The noble-seeming woman ignores most of the gawking populace around her, but catches Mika’s eye — and winks at the young girl.

Mika slips through the crowd after the unusual woman. Once it stops at a tavern, and the lady’s footman vanishes inside, Mika draws near with the mannerisms of a street urchin hopefully trying to polish the sleigh. The lady’s servant returns holding a steaming mug, which stops steaming within moments of her taking it in a gloved hand. The elegant woman takes one sip from the newly cooled drink, then addresses Mika.

She names herself as Arimna the Ever-Cold, an ambassador from Queen Norevna. Though she has attended the tsar’s court, she also has an errand to speak with the local nocnitsa. Her interest is in the original pacts formed when the Summer Bridge was built, ensuring some peace between the mortal world and the denizens of the Gloaming. She has since learned that one of the darkling fey’s knights is acting beyond his usual borders, forging quiet pacts with humans — no doubt Yelgor Greencap of the Huntsmen.

The lady’s footman returns from a second trip into the tavern and hands Mika a hot, delicious-smelling game pie. “Come and speak with me later,” Arimna says as she gestures for her driver to move on. “Perhaps I can arrange for a diplomatic pass of your own.”

View
27 - In the Bridge's Shadow
Questions about shadowy gates lead to shadowy plots.

As they discuss their findings about the state of Tyurin, Mika is clearly discontent. Her cousin, Tsar Barakir, is admired to inconvenient levels. She relates that his populace’s loyalty is strongest in those who have seen him speak most recently — in all likelihood the influence of the Throne card.

Kazimeer explains some of what he knows about the Deck. The Trumps, he notes, seek out holders aligned with their purpose. The Knight requires loyalty; the Ruin adheres to a destroyer; the Vizier is bound to wisdom. From what Kazimeer has learned, the Throne is a card of grandiose splendor. If the Golden Tsar claims that his bloodline is what ties him to his Trump, he is likely mistaken or lying. The Throne grants otherworldly charisma to a holder able to meet its requirements for grandeur — and Mika is not thrilled to consider that it might reject a subtle and incognito holder outright. She decides to reconsider, or at least postpone, her plans for winning the Throne as a Trump of her own. The bogatyrs then head to their beds.

Over a hot and satisfactory breakfast, the bogatyrs receive two messages. The first is an invitation for Gennadiy — his colleague Captain Byelnikov is planning to attend an opera in three days, and states he’d be honored if Gena would join him. The second is the return of Otr Grimbrow’s owl familiar. The owl, speaking again with Otr’s voice, tells Kazimeer that Seer Rostov of the Church of the Higher Nine would like to speak with them regarding the events of Istvar and the star-callers there.

Gennadiy takes the time to have his armor polished to a fine sheen. Then the bogatyrs proceed to the temple. Seer Rostov meets with them, mentioning the fine reputation they have earned, and asks them to describe the battle of Istvar. Gennadiy and Kazimeer relate the tale, sparing few details — and in Gena’s case, embellishing the struggle’s glory by a few more shades.

When the story is complete, and Seer Rostov has made his observations on the affair, Kazimeer asks if he knows any lore regarding the gate on the Summer Bridge. Kazimeer shares what he knows of the gate’s legend. Rostov mentions that it seems fey by description, and performs a short divinatory trance. The Seer says that the gate is protected by shadow marks, written in darkness that blends with any other shade thrown over it.

The bogatyrs thank him for his support and depart. Kazimeer finds an alchemist to purchase a few flasks of phosphorescence, and then they head for the Summer Bridge.

Even with the help of the liquid phosphorescence and long poles to raise it, it takes some time to check the arches of the bridge for the mark. Gennadiy spends a bit of the time composing a poem in the Knight’s honor. The search faces interruption when a band of mercenaries arrive to question the four. Gena recognizes them as members of the Huntsmen Company, a band known for their thorough approach to problem-solving, now hired to serve as additional guards for the district. In the course of their conversation, Gena manages to gravely offend the Huntsman officer. Both sides decide not to escalate the situation, and they depart in mutual acrimony.

Finally Kazimeer’s light banishes the shadows from one of the bridge arches’ stones — but not all of them. The marks of pure shadow writhe slightly in the light. Kazimeer notes an obscure astrological reference to a new moon, but does not recognize the other glyphs. He copies them down for future reference.

Anfisa splits away from the rest of the group and travels into the lower-class district called Humility, examining the protective charms hung at door after door and window after window. She asks after the witch-bundles, and gradually uncovers a story of increasing tension. The Huntsmen have been placing increasing pressure on the residents, which would have been trouble enough alone. But in the last week, people in Humility have been running mad. The most recent afflicted was a butcher who ran wild after sundown last night. The Huntsmen arrived immediately, preventing him from doing too much harm — but Anfisa finds the speed of the reaction suspicious. She returns to her companions and informs them of her findings. The others agree that it might be a good idea to return to the district after sunset, to see what they can discover for themselves.

That evening, Gena heads to his appointed dinner with Captain Miyar Byelnikov. He leaves off Yerek in a servants’ tavern across the street, and visits the prestigious Golden Sun establishment. Miyar effusively greets his comrade, and treats Gena to a fine dinner. The two spend some time talking about Commander Valyevna, coming just short of openly competing to praise her more effusively. With enough drink in him, Gennadiy stands up and recites his new ode to the Knight, and receives great adulation from the impromptu audience. He calls the successful evening there, and heads out into the cold night for the Humility district and the others.

In the meantime, Anfisa, Mika, and Kazimeer have spread out to watch for movement. The district’s civilian population retreated into their homes shortly after sundown, and only the guards move through the streets. The three bogatyrs spot a few four-person patrols — then a pair of Huntsmen, traveling with a dimmed lantern. While Anfisa watches from the shadows, one of the pair approaches a closed door and appears to draw some kind of mark on it.

Anfisa emerges from the shadows, Kostya at her side, and confronts the two Huntsmen. Mika and Kazimeer join her. The two Huntsmen hold their ground, claiming authority and asking if the bogatyrs are threatening them. One puts a small whistle to his lips and blows, and another whistle answers from nearby.

Another four Huntsmen arrive — and so does Gennadiy, drawn by the whistle. With five on one side, counting the bear, and six on the other, the two groups assess one another. The bogatyrs call out the mercenaries, making a show of knowing about how the shadow marks draw fey creatures from beyond the gate. The Huntsmen bluster back, admitting nothing. Partway through the conversation, it becomes evident that the mercenaries are waiting for something.

Then a cold wind blows through the street, and the shadows lengthen.

View
26 - Tyurin
A winter’s visit to the city of the Golden Tsar.

After the rest of the night on the steppe, the next day the bogatyrs and the Goryadons return to Volinka. Gena insists on having the Goryadons visit the hetman’s home and identify the captive; so that he can be freely surrendered to the Mountain of Steel, and then they spend the night at the Moon and Stars.

They take the false Goryadon with them and ride the next morning. In two days, they reach the Mountain of Steel again. The tent city has largely dispersed, but Yerek is still camped nearby, and greets his rescuers. The safe return of Vashtil is cause for celebration, and the Goryadons are very interested in the tale of his abduction. The High Swordfather himself interrogates the captive, who — somewhat surprised — elaborates on the plot to distract the town long enough to delay potential pursuers. With luck, the Hammer-Saint would have been mostly to Trakengrav before anyone discovered the truth.

The High Swordfather places his hand on the captive’s brow and delivers a powerful binding: he is to go out use his hands to make things, until he has balanced out everything that he’s helped destroy. The former Black Snowflake shudders, and turns to obey. “Give him some tools,” says the High Swordfather. “And a coat!” adds Gennadiy.

Once the modest feast is complete, the bogatyrs discuss their next plans. They go over several possibilities, but now that Anfisa has an errand in Tyurin from Hetman Tarska himself, she takes Mika’s side. The four agree to use the deck of portals to travel to the Throne’s domain next.

The next morning they collect Yerek and tell him to get his things together. They ride an hour to the east without telling the scout their purpose. Yerek is astonished when the Throne card produces a gateway in the air, swirling in whorls of gold. With a little persuasion, he follows the bogatyrs as they step through.

They arrive at a crossroads in hilly land, where a pair of caravans are arguing over right-of-way. Anfisa has Kostya push his way through, which only confuses the snarl further. Gena manages to get the two caravans sorted, with the bogatyrs ahead of both. Yerek, who has been looking around him in wonder, proclaims that they’re 12 miles south of Tyurin itself.

As they begin making their way north, a crested white owl flies from the city’s direction toward the group. It lands on Kazimeer’s saddle pommel and intones in a sonorous voice, “Kazimeer. It is well you are here. Contact me when you have the leisure.” The owl then takes flight back for Tyurin. Kazimeer recognizes the voice — Otr Grimbrow, a sorcerer in the Vizier’s employ who was dispatched as envoy and advisor to the Golden Tsar.

The group reaches the outer gates of Tyurin, where they pay the small entry fee and converse with the guards. Gena asks about inns and receives a few recommendations — the Tsar of Destiny, the Golden Sun, the Red Banner, the Wounded Bear, the Tsar’s Nightingale. Anfisa stresses that the inn must be willing to cater to her bear.

Anfisa heads to the Westhill district to deliver Tarksa’s message. She finds Hetman Kolvitsa Featherteeth in a training arena called the Iron Theater, giving lessons to several of the city’s young warriors. Kolvitsa reads the message, then regards Anfisa. “This tells me that I’m to test you.” Anfisa shrugs and responds that she’s ready at any time.

Kolvitsa directs one of the swordsmen to hand Anfisa a pair of practice sabers. Five of the students then surround her. She starts out with an almost lazy attack, forcing one of her opponents to retreat and nurse his bruised knuckles. Then the other four attack, demonstrating the coordination they’ve learned. Anfisa takes a number of painful blows before she rallies. She unleashes a spiraling storm of blows, scattering the remaining four and leaving them groaning on the mat.

“Hm,” says Kolvitsa. “Let me know when you’re settled in a place to stay.”

Upon Anfisa’s return the bogatyrs decide to take lodging in the Silver Saddle, an establishment in the Low Tyurin district that reputedly has excellent stabling. Anfisa turns Kostya over to a scarred, eight-fingered Volyar to be groomed, and heads for the bathhouse.

Gennadiy and Mika both head out to gather rumors, although in different circles. Gena visits a few taverns, particularly those catering to soldiers and merchants. He hears that the dashing young captain Miyar Byelnikov represents the Knight’s counsel in Tyurin, and also that there’s a fair amount of mercenary work as various aristocrat families pay to undercut their rivals.

Mika circulates in her signature subtle fashion. She hears tales of a talking serpent that escaped the tsar’s menagerie; of a thief-lord’s treasure hidden somewhere in the walls of the Solemnity Prison; of Tsar Barakir’s plans to go on pilgrimage to Valgrad and pay respect to the Sun when spring comes. Whenever she talks to someone of the Golden Tsar himself, the response is usually respectful. If the person in question managed to recently see Tsar Barakir in person during an address, their respect increases to reverential tones. The evident power of the Throne card and its aura of regal charisma gives Mika some pause. However, its influence is not omnipresent, judging by the rumors of dissent — the thick cluster of aristocrats is wearing away at some of the populace, who have little love for the Golden Tsar and his hangers-on.

Kazimeer travels to the palace, answering Otr’s summons. The guards escort him in, where he draws some curious looks from the palace’s residents and staff, and take him to Otr’s quarters. The somber sorcerer greets Kazimeer warmly enough, and asks to hear of his travels. Kazimeer shares his stories, then asks after the news of Tyurin. Otr tells him of rumors of the Cult of the Mad Star, rooted somewhere within the city’s upper crust — the ranking priest Seer Rostov is doing his best to investigate. A young girl, apprentice to a moneylender, has shown recent talent, though the precise nature of her gift is as yet unmeasured. And finally, Kazimeer takes particular interest in Otr’s tale of an arcane gate said to be hidden in one of the Summer Bridge’s arches. The gate is said to open when the heavens are right, but the stories surrounding it are very imprecise.

Once he leaves the palace, Kazimeer makes his way to the Summer Bridge. But by that time, night has truly fallen, and his conjured lights are too erratic to allow him to conclusively identify any subtle marks that might identify the gate. He returns to the Silver Saddle, where the other bogatyrs have also reconvened to discuss their options.

View
25 - Pursuit
The bogatyrs chase down the Hammer-Saint and are chased in turn.

Mika spends a careful amount of time observing “Grebsky the Free-Handed” — or as she knows him, Grenetz, a former fixer and interrogator for the Black Snowflake who she often saw visiting the order’s head in Valgrad. Once she’s certain he isn’t up to anything that could immediately harm her, Mika sets out to catch up with the others. She arrives in Molinka in an early morning, and follows her companions’ trail to the Moon and Stars inn. She slips through the front door in time to see them dragging their captive upstairs, and follows afterwards. When the interrogation begins, the others are only somewhat surprised to see her appear as if she’d been present all along.

The captive is notably resilient. He shrugs off threats, claiming that the Black Snowflake will do far worse to him than anything the bogatyrs describe. When the bogatyrs offer to simply release him, he insists that he won’t be able to find safe harbor before his colleagues find him. “If it was that damn easy to outmaneuver them, you would have found the other informant in Volinka by now, wouldn’t you?”

They secure the captive and go to search the town for clues of the departure. Gennadiy asks after Grebsky’s caravan and discovers that they didn’t seem to have any unusual shifts in numbers while they were in Volinka. Mika manages to discover a man who saw something odd while he was slipping home from a neighbor’s wife. He says that there was a small group of people lowering large bundles from an upper-story window to the rear of the inn and carrying them to the northern gate. He found it disturbing, but didn’t mention it to anyone at the time as he didn’t want to admit where he was.

Anfisa finds the tracks, and follows them out of town. Eight sets of heavily burdened footprints become eleven less-burdened; she surmises that three captives were carried out, and then made to walk once they were in the open steppe.

They return to the inn and gather the false templar. They call on Hetman Gromundnya, who is happy to see the bogatyrs who hunted with Tarska the Slayer. He is a little less pleased that they ask him to take a former Black Snowflake agent into his care, but Gromundnya is a loyal ally to the Mountain of Steel. He promises to keep the agent safe and wishes the bogatyrs luck in rescuing the Hammer-Saint.

The four then set out in pursuit of the Goryadons’ abductors. The trail leads first to a lone farmstead on the steppe, where the farmer swears tight-lipped that he’s seen nothing of the travellers. The bogatyrs deduce the man is clearly lying, but from fear. After a casual ride around the farm’s perimeter to look for signs that the abductors are still present, Gena throws the farmers a few coins and they ride on.

It’s growing dark on the evening of the second day when they spot a fire a mile away on the steppe. They ride straight for it. The other party does not assume the best, and arrow fire greets the bogatyrs. Kazimeer conjures a slumber on some of the archers to halt the fire as they close, and soon they can see that the warriors around the fire have the piecemeal trappings common to the Ruin’s raiders.

Two lightly armored reavers lift blades in either hand, while a heavier orc-blood hefts a two-handed axe. As the riders draw near, they hear one of the reavers ask “Goryadons?”

“No,” snarls the larger one. “Kill ‘em.”

Gennadiy engages the big warrior with a shout of “For Goryador!” The two reavers move into a blade-dancing stance; one lunges at the bear-riding Anfisa while the other dashes at Kazimeer.

Mika conjures a vast spectral, skeletal hand that gleams in the dark before two of its fingers flick out and pierce a pair of the raiders. They falter, and the grievous wounds to their psyche leave them easy prey for the bogatyrs. As the lesser raiders start pulling themselves awake, one of them dashes over to the Goryadons who lie bound near the fire, knife drawn. Kazimeer repeats a second sleep spell, and the would-be hostage taker falls.

With the berserker and blade reavers dead, none of the Ruin’s raiders are left conscious. Anfisa and Mika begin walking among the sleeping warriors and finishing them off. Gennadiy, still cognizant of the code of Goryador, waits for one to wake up and take his feet. The ingrate lunges at Gena once he has his consciousness, only to die to a sorcerous bolt from Kazimeer. Gennadiy sighs.

The bogatyrs free the three Goryadons from their bonds, who immediately thank them. Hammer-Saint Vashtil is a powerful man, but with twisted legs; he walks slowly and is not much of a combatant. Anfisa advises the party to move away from the bodies, which are sure to attract predators. They set up a second camp not too far away, and in the morning they begin the trek back to Volinka.

With Vashtil able to ride, they make better time than the Ruin’s band did. But during the day, Anfisa sees a flying beast in the air behind them, keeping mostly in the same direction until it loops back. Though it’s too far away to properly identify, she spots what appears to be the body of a winged quadruped, something like a griffon.

That night during Anfisa’s watch, she learns its identity. A two-headed giant, draped in bits of piecemeal armor that echo the forges of Trakengrav, comes running out of the night to attack. As it does so, a flying beast swoops overhead, strafing the party with long iron darts — a manticore!

Gena and Kostya answer the ettin’s challenge. Anfisa fires a tripartite arrow at the manticore, but only one of the tripled arrows finds its mark. Mika calls on the spirits of the restless dead to aid the group. The scattered remnants of lost horsemen find their way to her spectral beacon, flooding the party with strength. As Kazimeer readies a spell to strike the manticore, another figure drops from the darkened sky — a gargoyle, scraping its stone claws against his metal skin.

One of the templars, Russun, moves to engage alongside the bogatyrs while the other stands guard over Vashtil. But the stars turn against him — Kazimeer conjures a chaos pulse of lightning, and it streaks into the templar’s back, striking him to the ground.

The gargoyle is the first enemy to fall when another spell of Kazimeer’s wipes away its mind. It stiffens up, freezing into an incongruous statue in the wild western steppe. The ettin and the manticore are not so easily felled. Gennadiy’s latest shield helps preserve him from the giant’s merciless blows even as they stagger him, while Anfisa is all but mauled by the manticore’s paws. Mika draws deeper than ever before, and sends a wave of power across the battlefield. A sudden cold seals the wounds of her companions, even stirring Russun back to wakefulness.

With that the bogatyrs exact their revenge on their attackers. A vicious slash from Gena’s saber cuts away the back of the ettin’s knee, forcing it to kneel before him. He puts all his might behind his next strike, cutting one head away entirely and nearly severing the next with the same strike. The ettin falls forward even as Kostya leaps onto the back of the manticore, dragging its wounded form low. Anfisa takes the opportunity to lash out with both sabers, and the manticore’s head rolls free of its body as well. When the silence falls after the battle, it is complete — not even an echo returns from the wide darkness of the open step.

View
24 - The False Templar
The scent of deceit hangs over a Hammer-Saint's absence.

The post-hunt celebration lasts for a full day, and the tent-town’s supplies are sorely taxed in the process. Gena and Anfisa in particular enjoy their seats near Hetman Tarska. Kazimeer, musing over the possibility that his vision foretold the remains of Tozhoris, approaches the Slayer and asks about the nature of draconian death curses. Tarska replies that he has no personal experience with them — Buresk was the only known dragonslayer in his day, and Tarska wasn’t present for that hunt. For all that has come of it, though, the Slayer notes that Buresk’s so-called madness may well have been the price of Tozhoris’ curse.

That day, Kazimeer receives a query of his own. An alchemist by the name of Azrady approaches the celestial sorcerer, who he claims to know by reputation. He asks for assistance in returning to the elven hold uncovered by the starfall, and in transforming the petrified medusa in the vaults back into living flesh. As payment, Azrady offers a scroll inscribed with a spell to conjure phantom steeds. Kazimeer agrees to at least discuss the matter with his allies. He and Gena and Anfisa discuss whether or not it’s worth opening the vault and attempting to destroy the gargoyles as well.

A new caravan appears late in the day, and with the cold winds coming, it seems likely this is the last one to appear before the tent-town disappears for the winter. Mika vanishes into anonymity within seconds of spying the caravan master, one Free-Handed Grebsky. Kazimeer and Anfisa note a different, familiar face — the bandit Ludova, last survivor of the Ghosts of Stolyich Field, now with her hair dyed red and serving as a caravan guard. Kazimeer simply ignores the former bandit. Anfisa hails her and offers to buy her a drink, and the other caravan guards congratulate Ludova on her stroke of luck.

Ludova accepts all the same. Over their drinks, she tells of moving westward and eventually finding employment. She expresses her gratitude for Anfisa’s mercy, and in return warns the Volyar bear-rider — Free-Handed Grebsky cannot be trusted.

Nothing more is seen of Mika that evening, though Gena finds a terse note in his pocket explaining that she cannot be recognized. The group also hears that Grebsky brought a message to the temple — apparently Hammer-Saint Vashtil has fallen ill, and must remain in Volinka until he can travel again. A few inquiries turn up that Grebsky’s caravan remained for five days in Volinka before setting out for the Mountain of Steel, which the bogatyrs find very suspicious.

In the meantime, Gennadiy asks Hetman Tarska about gargoyles, and what sort of precautions he’d take if he had to fight a medusa. The Slayer’s response is unhelpful — apparently with the Comet card’s power, he prefers a glorious frontal charge in almost every situation. The bogatyrs decide to accept Azrady’s offer all the same, and the next morning Kazimeer, Gennadiy, Anfisa, and Kostya accompany the alchemist to the elven ruin.

They set Kostya to look after the horses while they use a rope ladder to descend — the three see no reason to show the alchemist where the hidden entrance lies. The ruins are quiet, and more thoroughly picked over than before. Once they reach the pedestal where the elder elemental’s eye once rested, Azrady uses a chunk of quartz and a few unusual distillations to emulate the power source. The result is weak, but the elven light-stones give off a dim glow again. Azrady says that it should be enough to open the vault door.

Shortly thereafter the party stands in the vault level. Azrady binds his eyes with gauze and opens the door to the cell where the stony medusa rests. The bogatyrs wait outside, eyes averted. They hear the sounds of Azrady’s alchemical ritual, and then the hiss of breath. A woman’s voice speaks in a peculiar, graven tongue, and Azrady responds in the same. The two converse in the old elemental speech until she seems to assent. Azrady offers her a coat, and then presents Kazimeer with the promised scroll. With that the bogatyrs promptly leave, having no more interest in the gargoyles or risking the medusa’s temper.

They return to the Mountain of Steel long enough to leave a note for Mika, and then they set out again — this time for Volinka. They ride expertly across the steppe, arriving at the walled settlement in two and a half days without injuring their mounts.

Volinka boasts only one inn of note. But the Moon and Stars is large enough to accommodate a caravan, three even if they were small. The middle-aged Volyar innkeep exchanges flirtations with Gena, and the bogatyrs hire three separate private rooms. Even Kostya is welcome, although he must sleep in the common room. They set their gear away and have hot stew for dinner. Gennadiy regales the other patrons with tales of the hydra hunt that evening. All three of them note when a lone man dressed as a Goryadon templar comes downstairs, collects three meals’ worth of food, and quietly takes it back upstairs.

The three retire for the evening. Before midnight, Gena receives a visitor; the innkeep Izra brings him a warm drink, and he invites her in. Some time later, the two engage in pleasant conversation. Izra mentions that both Vashtil and the other templar fell ill, and the third sees to all of their needs. He hasn’t let anyone from the inn into the room to so much as clean, purportedly to keep them healthy as well.

Gena relays this information the next morning, while the innkeep’s daughters show mild embarrassment regarding their mother. The bogatyrs resolve to distract the templar and examine the room for themselves. When the templar comes down to collect the day’s breakfasts, Kostya moves over to the stairs and blocks them as Gena slips upstairs. Kostya feigns a brutal hangover, and the others caution the templar against disturbing a bear in the throes of such illness.

The ruse gives Gena the time he needs to investigate the room. He finds nobody within at all. A single bucket is crusted with the remains of uneaten food, and there’s enough clothing and personal effects for a single person. He scouts through the desk and belongings for incriminating effects of correspondence — suspecting the Ruin the whole time — but a careless step knocks over the chamberpot, making the room a bit less pleasant. He retreats to the hall to wait.

Once the templar has grown sufficiently impatient, Anfisa recalls Kostya. The Goryadon carries the tray of breakfasts up, but stops at the top of the stairs when he sees Gennadiy by the door to his room. Gena says he needs to go in and talk to Vashtil, and then makes to open the door. But the templar doesn’t take his bait in the expected manner — he drops the tray and bolts back down the stairs.

It does him little good. Anfisa tackles the fleeing templar while Kostya blocks the door. As the innkeep Izra begins to swear, Gena reappears and announces that Vashtil is gone, and the templar had something to do with it.

Their captive is not a cooperative one. He swears at them repeatedly, insisting that they have no idea who they’re fucking with. They note that his hair is dyed and his skin’s been tinted to a darker shade. With another word of reassurance to the alarmed inn staff, they drag the false templar upstairs to question him further.

View
23 - Tarska the Slayer’s Hunt
A hunt for the Ruin’s spawn in the company of the Comet.

The day after the hunt for Anfisa’s father, Anfisa and Tyor set out to track the witch who’d also pursued him. Her tracks lead through a few stands of trees to a small open bald on the slopes of Corpse-Chewer. There they discover the remnants of a ritual casting — cracked bones, burnt wormwood, and a thaumaturgical circle gouged into the earth. The witch’s tracks vanish from the center of the circle. As best as Anfisa can determine, she was carried away by some flying creature called by the ritual, most likely a huge carrion bird.

Anfisa bids her father farewell, and holds Russa to her promise to watch over the bear during his hibernation. Then she, Gennadiy, Mika, and Tyor make the trek back to the Mountain of Steel. They find that in their absence, Kazimeer has already added his own augmentations to the wand wrested from the astrologer Ulvo, banding it in hardsilver and marking it with further star-runes.

A week passes. Kazimeer makes excellent use of the temple forges, and creates two more enchanted baubles. Gena gathers what rumors he can, though they are a very mixed bag in this isolated part of the world. Anfisa spends time hunting, and Mika vanishes to her own ends.

Towards the end of the week, the tent-town erupts into a ruckus — Hetman Tarska is coming. The residents hastily make their stalls as presentable as possible, while the complement of wandering warriors gather to catch the Slayer’s eye. Soon enough, the Comet arrives. Tarska is tall and scarred — at least a foot taller than Mika and Anfisa remember him from years ago — and he rides a massive, white-maned blue drake. Three others ride with him, Including a storm genasi that Kazimeer recognizes as Cheznya, another sometimes agent of the Vizier.

Hetman Tarska rides through the tent-town, acknowledging the many warriors who ask him for a hunt, and proceeds up to the temple complex, with the bogatyrs and several others following. There he calls for Ilya Stakovir. The forgemaster arrives shortly thereafter and presents the Slayer with a bundled greatsword, commenting that it was a tricky bit of repair work. Hetman Tarska thanks him, and then removes a large axe from his drake’s saddle. The axe’s blade is blackened and cracked, something that Tarska attributes to the burning blood of a mighty polar wyrm. Ilya takes the axe with a smile, and says it’ll be ready by the time Tarska needs to drop off another weapon.

After that, the Comet settles in to relax in the temple’s outer area. He converses with several of his hangers-on about the hunt, then calls out Anfisa by name. He praises her for her hard work, and then acknowledges Gennadiy as well. During the conversation, one of the kitchen staff appears with food and drink for the Slayer — the bogatyrs’ captive from the Ruin warband. The clearly terrified former brigand delivers the tray and then slips away back to the kitchen, and if he isn’t grateful that Gena chose not to mention his former errand to the Comet, he certainly should be.

Hetman Tarska is still holding court when Tyor arrives. The scout tells the Slayer that he’s been able to confirm the rumors, and locate the spawning pool. “Then the hunt is on,” grins Tarska. When Gena asks what they’re hunting, the answer is an intimidating one — dragonspawn. The offspring of Vilich Valyask Vozmei herself.

Tyor provides more details. The Ruin is a heedless mother, and would as soon let a clutch of her drake offspring be wiped out as grow to become possible trouble. She laid eggs in a cold mountain lake some time ago, and now the hatchlings have become large and strong. To complicate matters, some of her troops have taken it upon themselves to guard the spawning pool. Tarska declares that the hunt will begin tomorrow, and each of the bogatyrs is welcome.

The Slayer’s hunting party sets out into the mountains the next morning. As they draw near to the clutch’s location, Tarska asks Anfisa to join Tyor among the scouts. She and the other scouts investigate the sharp canyon leading into the hollow where the lake lies, and discover an ambush set up along the mountain slopes. They return and report that the Ruin’s troops are expecting them.

Tarska decides to deal with the ambush in typically direct fashion. He bids Anfisa to pick a team and head up the left slope to deal with the archers there, while Tyor does the same for the right. Anfisa chooses Gennadiy, Kazimeer, and Mika as expected, and they make a push as Tarska leads the remaining hunters through the center. The bogatyrs take a few minor wounds from bolts and arrows as they rush the ambushers, but once they hit the archers’ line, they give much better than they receive with fire and sword and claw.

Down below, an armored figure stands in the center of the enemy line and calls out to Tarska. She wears the scaled armor of a dragon-templar, and the power radiating from her makes it clear she’s another of the warriors born from the dragon’s teeth. Tarska accepts her challenge with a laugh.

Above, Gena’s new firebrass axe continues to heat as the battle fights, until it finally catches fire. He finishes another opponent well pleased. Mika plays dead when struck with a crossbow bolt, then snaps off a bone javelin to impale her attacker in response. With that, the bogatyrs have vanquished their half of the ambush while Tyor’s band is still fighting. They decide to aid the other flankers — Gennadiy, Mika, Anfisa, and Kostya rush back downhill and up the other slope while Kazimeer prepares and then fires a masterfully placed astrological bolt from one mountain to the other, striking a soldier down. The others help Tyor’s band mop up expediently, and Mika is able to save the life of a bleeding hunter.

The fight between Tarska and the templar Furybrand is conclusive — one warrior has the power of a Trump, and the other does not. Tarska strikes off his enemy’s head, and then turns on the other members of the Ruin’s troop. The ambush shatters completely at that point; taking stock, three hunters of the Comet’s party lie dead, but ten times that number are dead on the Ruin’s side. The party sets aside the bodies of the honored dead before pressing on.

The lake nestled into the mountains’ hollow is cold and dark, with tiny fragments of ice around its shores. The hunters enter the valley, and spread out as they draw nearer to the shore. A draconian head on a serpentlike neck breaks the surface of the water, followed by another, and then another — until the lake is teeming with them. Four hydras advance out of the water, one of them the size of a mammoth. Tarska charges the largest, and the bogatyrs run towards a five-headed beast on their left.

The hydra snaps at each of them in turn, drawing blood — though it seems to dislike the taste of Kazimeer, and focuses more on the meatier combatants from then on. The bogatyrs struggle to find purchase through the drake’s heavy scales, but after another exchange, Anfisa finds a perfect opening. She viciously cuts into the gaps between heads, carving open a tremendous wound — but the blood runs and clots, and a sixth head pushes its way out.

Draconian jaws bite at them again and again. Gena strikes down another head, and two more grow in its place. Another powerful blow, and the hydra now snaps at the bogatyrs with eight heads — but it seems fatigued and slow-moving. They press the attack until the beast’s heads are flagging — and then Kostya leaps upon it, and snaps its spine with a vicious bite.

As the dead hydra weakly thrashes, the group glances across the rest of the battlefield. The other groups of hunters have taken losses, but the hydras are in worse shape. Hetman Tarska fights alone among a forest of snakelike necks and dragonish heads, and where the blood flows from his wounds, it has caught fire. He strikes into the heart of his foe, and when he slays it, the card at his side pulses. A powerful remnant of the hydra’s strength rushes into him like a hungry ghost. He roars in triumph, and the hunters press the advantage to finish the other hydras.

Finally the lake’s hollow is still again. Gennadiy recovers the fine korzalka he’d set aside, just as other hunters break out liquor of their own to toast the fallen. Two hunters are dead to the hydras — one torn in half — and a third has lost a hand, but the Comet speaks proudly of their valor and of the glory they’ve earned in the next life. Then the ugly business of trophy-taking begins. Anfisa skins the hydra they slew, taking a head for herself and enough teeth to make a necklace. Kazimeer recovers an unbroken portion of the spine and the beast’s heart. The hunting party lays their dead to rest, and stops to do the same for those who fell in the Ruin’s ambush, then returns to the Mountain of Steel in triumph.

View
22 - Corpse-Chewer Mountain
The road to Anfisa’s father is winding and bloodied.

Kazimeer wastes little time commandeering one of the forges to begin his work. The other three see nothing of him, or of Saschka, for the next day. Mika gathers rumors on the Golden Tsar who holds the Throne card, and the current states of affairs in his city of Tyurin, where many aristocrats have gathered to back him in his bid for the Grand Tsardom. She also takes note from afar of Borgro Blackhammer, a half-orc mercenary said to have recently gotten on the wrong side of Tsar Gorinstal.

Anfisa declares her intention to search for her father — if the leshy Grandfather Darkroot’s information is true, then the mountain he spoke of, Corpse-Chewer, is nearby. Gena and Mika offer to accompany her on the way. The three inform Yerek of their plan, and Yerek shares some of the rumors he’s gathered over the last day. In particular, he notes that the “mountain devils,” a local name for the goat-headed capricaurs, have been very agitated in the last few days.

The three depart the next day, cutting between mountains for a shorter route. A little past midday, as they draw close to Corpse-Chewer, angry bleats echo through the valleys. The three take a defensive position around the stream they’d been following uphill. As they brace, a Volyar scout appears from uphill, racing for his life. A small band of capricaurs leap from stone to stone down after him, shouting in their braying voices. “Raiders! Kidnappers!”

The bogatyrs step up to defend the Volyar. The mountainside skirmish plays out quickly. The female leading the capricaurs and one of her axe-wielding warriors single out Mika as a witch, and pursue her fervently. Though the bogatyrs take some punishment in the brawl, they defeat the “mountain devils” without serious injury.

The scout thanks them for their intercession and introduces himself as Tyor. He says he was scouting the area on the behalf of Hetman Tarska, following a small band of interlopers. He offers his services to the three for as long as they remain in the mountains, unless they happen across something that would require him to get immediate word to the Comet.

Tyor helps lead the bogatyrs further into the mountains. Before long, the scout finds an interesting set of tracks — the recently left hoofprints of several capricaurs, a woman, a man, and something that leaves odd impressions like small truncated tree stumps. The tracks head toward the south face of Corpse-Chewer, which according to family lore, is where Anfisa’s ancestor befriended a bear of his own.

Their route leads them to a winding path up a stone promontory. Partway through the climb, they notice a small band reaching the base of the promontory below them — a woman leading a massive hooded man, a humanoid with an awkward gait, and half a dozen capricaurs. The bogatyrs set up a chokepoint at one of the switchbacks on the path and wait for the rival travelers to arrive.

When the woman’s band catches up, Anfisa sees several telltale trappings of witchcraft about her — most notably, the amulet around her neck set with an eye. The bogatyrs ask her her business, and she replies that she and her fellows are here on a hunt. She then asks them their business in turn, and they respond that it’s none of her business. “Well,” says the witch. “That’s rude.”

The witch surveys them a bit longer. It gives the bogatyrs time to evaluate her band — it seems to be an animate, wooden-limbed scarecrow along with the hulking warrior, and the capricaurs don’t seem entirely at ease with their companions. But in turn, the witch shows a flash of recognition as she regards Anfisa and Kostya. She evaluates the inevitable conflict for a moment, then turns to her hooded escort. “Vol,” she says, indicating Gennadiy. “Is that man prettier than you?” An angry snarl escapes the hood, and the brute lunges forward as the witch directs the capricaurs to attack.

The bogatyrs focus on the scarecrow first. The witch demonstrates the magic of the evil eye as the capricaurs and Vol attack Anfisa, Gena and Kazimeer. Mika spears two of the “mountain devils” with one bone lance, but their fellows nimbly run up the slopes to bypass the main melee to attack her.

Anfisa easily overmatches her capricaur opponent. Gennadiy is badly bloodied by the time he defeats the brutish Vol, while Mika slays a capricaur with her saber rather than a spell. The deaths clearly dishearten the witch, who turns and flees while the scarecrow defends the route. Anfisa and Kostya leap past the scarecrow after her. Gennadiy finishes the job of cutting the witch’s construct down, then moves to help out Mika, Kazimeer and Tyor with the remaining capricaurs.

Anfisa and Kostya are much too fast for the witch. Out of desperation, she takes the only escape gambit she can — she leaps off one of the slopes and tumbles down the steep rock to the next leg of the promontory path. Though an arcane shield protects her from the slash of Anfisa’s saber, she is clearly battered by the time she tumbles down the next two slopes. Three switchbacks below, she limps away from the promontory and into one of the patches of woods littering Corpse-Chewer’s south face. Anfisa shakes her head and shrugs, and she and Kostya return to where the others are binding their wounds and prodding at the corpses of their fallen opponents.

The path up the promontory leads to a cave, out of the late fall wind, just as the Okhotnikskaia family legend had it. A small firelight gleams from within.The bogatyrs find a woman within tending the fire; she seems to be in her fifties, with many braids and the rude dress of a mountain hermit. As they approach, a low snarl comes from the shadows, and a massive night bear steps up to guard her. She warns the newcomers to be careful, for the bear is having difficulties remembering who he is.

Anfisa steps forward and makes it clear — the bear, with silver streaks and a nasty scar on its face, is her father under a curse. The woman introduces herself as Russa Artorevna, and claims to have taken Corpse-Chewer under her protection. She could tell there was something wrong with the cursed bear, and that he had a human intellect that is starting to lose its hold. Russa suggests that it might be best if he went into hibernation for the winter, and could dream of his former life. With the Carrion Eye coven in play, Russa promises to watch carefully over the elder Okhotnikskaia. Thus satisfied, Anfisa accepts the offer of hospitality, and the three bogatyrs and Tyor rest the night in the southern cave.

View

I'm sorry, but we no longer support this web browser. Please upgrade your browser or install Chrome or Firefox to enjoy the full functionality of this site.