Trumps of Winter

36 - Perska and the East Wind
The bogatyrs investigate several things, such as drinks.

Gennadiy, Anfisa, and Kazimeer gather up the dead necromancer’s effects: a satchel with 319 gold coins; a pair of tarnished silver candlesticks with a fish-skeleton motif; a mummified, gilded, and bejeweled severed hand; and a knife with an ornate decoration on the blade. Kazimeer notes the peculiar pattern on the knife as reminiscent of an unfamiliar constellation. They gather wood from the forest, set a pyre in the stone tower for the body, and finally leave the hunting lodge.

The village of Honeythorn is still awake when they return, with nervous villagers on watch. Road-Warden Ironglove announces that the threat of the Shrike Knight’s return is ended. As the villagers begin to accept the news, the wedding celebration resumes and redoubles in fervor. Gennadiy stays up and regales the townsfolk with tales of the battle into the wee hours. He winds up staying the night in a fine guest room belonging to one of the better-off families, while Anfisa stays with a family that will accept Kostya.

Gena wakes up the next morning to find a note has been slipped under his door. It reads “I’ll catch up,” in handwriting he recognizes as Mika’s. He joins the others for breakfast, where they share information on the “minstrel” who passed through town. When the disguised necromancer visited Honeythorn, a local woman with a penchant for drink put him up for the evening. Nobody remembers the woman, Martya, attending the wedding.

The bogatyrs pay a call on Martya’s home to find the door latched and the fire out. They finesse the latch and enter to find her unconscious on the floor by a table, where a half-empty bottle of illyist and a pair of cups remain. Kazimeer discerns from her peculiar pallor that she was the victim of an enervating necromantic spell that struck her comatose.

After some quick medical attention restores her to consciousness, Martya tells the story of her guest. She admits that the two of them started drinking mead and his illyist. When she was properly inebriated, she started going through his things while he was out using the bathroom. She discovered a strange knife and a human skull in his backpack, and he returned while she was still trying to put them back. He spoke a word, she felt very cold, and then she remembers nothing more.

Gena examines the bottle of illyist on the table. The bottle itself has a fancy relief of an amphisbaena, which he recognizes as the mark of the Double Venom distillery. The bottle’s cork has an astrological glyph on the underside, which Gena shears off and passes to Kazimeer. The sorcerer studies the mark, and slips into a contemplative trance. He identifies the mark as a glyph of the Drowned Man, a hidden constellation which is reputed to eclipse traditional constellations in times of dire portent.

The bogatyrs spend the rest of the day and another night in Honeythorn. They leave the next morning, with Mika still absent. They accept Korgoslav Karkovich Ironglove’s offer of guidance to the next town, and the ogrinka regales them with various stories along the journey. The ride along the forest road is peaceful, though they do cross paths with another road-warden, a half-elf named Yosian. Yosian greets them peaceably and recognizes Anfisa as someone who’s done hunting along the river.

Ironglove and the others relate the story of the Shrike Knight’s ghost and the minstrel-clad necromancer who raised her. In return, Yosian tells them that there’s some rumors that a witch or even a coven has reached out to Ruguta the Red Crusader, potentially making a pact with the Black Chalice renegade. With the news that the bogatyrs are likely to fight against several enemies of the realm, the half-elf offers Anfisa six arrows enchanted with a lignifying effect. Gennadiy returns the favor, passing several of his deadliest arrows to the road-warden. With that, both parties bid each other farewell and continue.

Korgoslav Karkovich Ironglove explains about the Red Crusader as the forest thins and they pass through the fields on the outskirts of Perska. Ruguta Falkevna Trossotyr was knighted into the Black Chalice, and given Perska as her domain. She was openly pious, practicing a slightly warped philosophy that assumed loyalty and conviction would vindicate necessarily bloody deeds in the eyes of the Higher Nine. Ironglove points out the keep overlooking the southern portion of the town as her seat, and a freshly planted orchard as the former site of a tourney-field she established. The group also notices a number of weathervanes adorning the town, as well as the spectacular stone bridge crossing the river.

As they move into the town proper, Gena thanks the ogrinka road-warden for his assistance, and asks if he might be able to join them for a drink. “Drink!” The bogatyrs look down to see that the shout came from a thick-bodied wolverine that has fallen into step alongside the group. “Excellent idea! Drinks!”

Road-warden Ironglove greets the wolverine, Gullet, and politely bows out of the invitation. Gena tries to deflect the wolverine, but Gullet has none of it. “You think you’re tough because you’re so fuckin’ tall? I’ll tear your fuckin’ nuts off!”

Despite Gullet’s bloody-minded profanity, the beast doesn’t seem genuinely angry or malicious, and Gennadiy finally agrees to buy the wolverine a drink. They visit the finer establishment on the south riverside, the East Wind. The innkeeper is not initially glad to see Gullet entering with the strangers, but the color of the bogatyrs’ money, of course, alters his disposition. Gena purchases a drink for the wolverine, and says “You’ll have to earn the others.”

“What? No fuckin’ way. I’m not wearin’ a fuckin’ tutu for you. Not again!”

“I meant information,” smiles Gennadiy.

“Oh. Okay.”

Gena buys drink after drink for Gullet, who talks garrulously about the uprising against Tsar Govroska. He describes the Perska uprising against Ruguta the Red Crusader, and how she fled the field rather than fighting until the end. As he tells of other battles (many of which feature “tearing their fuckin’ nuts off”), he mentions a creature that he describes the greatest and most powerful talking beast of Miska — the ancient owlbear Uncle Ripper, who taught the Tsar and his nobles that some woods were not for hunting. “He took their heads off as easy as tearin’ off a testicle!”

Gennadiy floats a number of topics of conversation as this continues, and watches the innkeeper’s reactions. The innkeeper doesn’t respond interestingly to the topic of the Double Venom or to other intimations of the Mad Star cult, but he does answer a few simple questions once asked. He describes the scholarly boyar of Perska and relates that Redshield Keep is now abandoned, save for a crafter that moved in to examine the Red Crusader’s forges and armories.

Partway through the conversation, a pair of familiar faces enter the East Wind. Kovor and Zilya, the mercenary cohorts last seen in Zelezka, greet the bogatyrs enthusiastically. They drop into conversation with Anfisa, telling her about the latest rumors about the Ruin’s movements, and that if any warband is in Miska, they likely are close to the southwest town of Schuka.

The bogatyrs pass the afternoon with food and drinks, and eventually prepare to rest for the evening. Gullet staggers out into the night, pausing only to slap a paw on Kostya’s shoulder. “You’re okay,” he says.

The next morning, the group goes to visit the boyar of Perska. The boyar’s page is somewhat alarmed to see the small band of armed individuals, but a guardsman recognizes them by reputation. They enter and meet Boyar Saanal Mothwise, an elf of gentle demeanor. They ask if they might use his library. Mothwise is obliging, though he does apologize in advance for its small size.

The boyar takes them to his office, with a library consisting of two large bookshelves. Though the pickings are not what the group had hoped, Kazimeer does notice that the boyar has three books on astrology. Two of them are simple texts, but one is fairly obscure: The Eightfold Firmament, which has a respectable section on hidden constellations. Kazimeer reads about the Drowned Man, a star-sign which carries cultic significance among superstitious riverfolk. He also learns that the sign features in certain rituals, in particular a grim rite to bind a drowned girl’s spirit as a rusalka.

While Kazimeer peruses The Eightfold Firmament, the others chat with the boyar. He talks with them about the crafter Tirafir, whom he seems to trust despite a few eccentricities. Tirafir is apparently responsible for making many of the town’s replacement weathervanes, which were confiscated and melted down in the time of Ruguta Falkevna Trossotyr. As for the Red Crusader herself, she has not raided the town since being deposed, though there have certainly been sightings of renegades wearing red armor. Boyar Mothwise notes that there seems to be little cause for concern that she would attack the town openly, given her limited resources. Gennadiy mentions the prospect of her allegiance with the Donjon, and in much more sober tones the elven boyar admits that would be a different, and much more dangerous situation.

View
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.

View
34 - The Summit
A gathering with more Trumps than expected.

The bogatyrs drag Havek back to the Westhill district, striking him about the head now and again to keep him pacified. As they draw closer to the chapterhouse where the remaining Huntsmen are under house arrest, Havek futilely attempts to bargain with his captors. They alternately mock him, threaten to strike him, and ignore him.

When they reach the Red Tears’ perimeter, Gena greets Sergeant Orskin again. The sergeant escorts them to Hovrisk, acting commander of the Huntsmen, and the group hands over Havek with the assurances that they’ll see no more of Yelgor Greencap. The bogatyrs then depart, but not before Gennadiy invites Orskin to dinner with himself and Captain Byelnikov.

Over the course of that evening, each of the bogatyrs receives a formal invitation to the summit, to accompany one of the various ambassadors — Otr Grimbrow, Arimna the Cold, Hetman Kolvitsa Arrowteeth, and Captain Miyar Byelnikov. They write their individual acceptances.

They meet their sponsors the next morning and gather at the palace. Guards escort them to the western wing, where they enter a large meeting room with twelve stations set about a huge table. Each station is marked by a painted card in a stand, representing one of the Trumps. The ambassadors each take a seat, and their aides and escorts stand nearby.

When the eleven visitors and their retinues are in place, a herald announce the tsar’s arrival. Tsar Barakir Torevich Tyurinov, in the lavish regalia of the Golden Tsar, is a surprisingly baby-faced man, who would seem almost harmless if not for the dominating presence that radiates from him. A single guard in elaborate armor and a full helm stands behind him as he takes his seat at the head of the table.

The tsar opens the summit by thanking all the assembled attendees, and declaring two orders of business. The first topic is the shattered capital of Valgrad, and the movements of the foes there. Captain Byelnikov reports that the Prince Kulyich the Deathless and Rukvaas the Damned — the Skull and the Flames — seem to have made an alliance, as their forces are moving to flank the Cathedral district where the Sun resides. The Skull’s troops, as expected, are focusing on the catacombs, while the Flame’s agents are working to secure the imperial library.

Most of the other dangerous icons have followers in play in Valgrad as well. Kolvitsa declares that the Ruin’s bands are mostly in the noble neighborhoods, perhaps searching for unclaimed plunder. Otr reveals that the doom-cultists of the Idiot seem to have an interest in the royal observatory.

“What of our other enemies?” asks Gennadiy. “The Donjon and such? Will they join this alliance?”

Doctor Morezhka, the speaker for Elbeska of the Higher Nine, says that she believes it unlikely that the Iron Tsar will move directly against the Sun. To move against the realm’s foremost living saint would be to destroy his credibility among the people. As for the Void and the Fool, neither have demonstrated an openly strong presence in Valgrad — a few ogre raiders and scavengers, nothing more.

Miska then speaks up, asking what Tsar Barakir would have the assembly do. The direct question causes a stir among the delegates. The Golden Tsar considers and then says that if he had the unqualified support of all others, he would take the capital and rebuild.

The bogatyrs spend the following discussion taking stock of where the various representatives and their patrons may stand. But partway through the conversation, Arimna Ever-Cold raises her voice and addresses the Golden Tsar. “You said there were two issues for us to discuss today,” she says. “Is it time you addressed the second?” Her expression is not curious, but evaluating.

Otr Grimbrow rises to answer the assembly. Alsvedun the Magnificent, he says, has divined an unusual possibility from the Vizier card. With the right artifacts, and the right spell, the Deck could be magically reunited. Each of the cards would leave its holder, taking its power with it, and the Deck would return to the state it was in before the Disastrous Draw.

The news causes a great stir among the assembly. Otr continues, saying that Alsvedun knows most card-holders would be unwilling to cooperate. He also acknowledges that it would be a sacrifice — reunifying the Deck would take things beneficial and baneful out of the world, averting tragedies and miracles alike. But it might replace the current conflict with a conflict that could more easily be resolved… for better or for worse.

Arimna adds that the reunification is not the only possibility: a similar spell might be used to reshuffle the Deck, so to speak. Each card would find a new holder. There would be little to gain from such an event, but a few might pursue the option — those who feel they could claim one of the cards in a redraw, and those who might simply enjoy the upheaval… such as the Jester.

The discussion is still in full animation when a loud caw interrupts. A crow leaves its perch on the chandelier above, and drops a small thimble on the floor. The thimble grows as it rolls until it’s the size of a wine barrel, and as it comes to a rest, a withered hand emerges. An old woman pulls herself from the thimble — Grandmother Yedza, holder of the Euryale card.

Grandmother Yedza chides Tsar Barakir for not inviting her to the summit. She then waves a hand and says she’s not here for trouble. The Golden Tsar regards her stiffly, then bows his head slightly and steps to one side, offering her his seat. The ancient witch cackles appreciatively, and accepts his hospitality.

As she settles in, Yedza announces that she’s been approached by others — the sort who also weren’t invited to the summit. The Ruin asked permission to move some of her people through Yedza’s wood. She sent “one of her pretty dragon boys” to ask nicely, but his followers were rude and trampled one of her gardens. The Grandmother chuckles malevolently and mentions that they did not ask for a promise of secrecy. So she decided to pass along the word.

The old witch claims not to know the Ruin’s purpose in Miska. But she does know something else. The Donjon has sent some of his Forgiven into Miska as well — searching for the Black Chalice itself, the artifact that Tsar Govroska’s knights swore their loyalty on. Yedza chews thoughtfully on some unknown tidbit as the various emissaries contemplate the implications. With the cup, Tsar Gorinstal could potentially bring the surviving members of the Black Chalice order into his fealty, giving him strong followers with old ties and great knowledge of Miska.

Yedza cackles again, and gets up, pulling away parts of the table as she does. She bids the assembly a mocking farewell, then climbs back into her thimble. The thimble shrinks again, spinning on the floor. The crow swoops down and picks it up, then flies through the wall and is gone.

The summit spends a few minutes in confusion before the chaos deepens. The aide standing with Katissa the Fisher speaks up, addressing Tsar Barakir. As Katissa steps almost deferentially to one side, the young man asks if the Throne is going to go to the aid of his rival the Moon. Barakir’s gaze narrows as the aide draws back his hood. Then he inhales sharply.

“Casivir”.

Prince Casivir the Betrayer smiles back at his cousin. Barakir tenses, his knuckles resting on the table. The Golden Tsar thanks the assembly for coming, and says that perhaps it would be best to adjourn and inform their various patrons of the revelations.

As the group breaks up, the bogatyrs reassemble. They all agree that the time has come to visit Miska — where they can oppose a dragon and a Donjon.

View
33 - Hunt's End
The dark fate of Yelgor Greencap.

After two days spent in study and discussion of the Gloaming’s secret stars, Kazimeer bids farewell to his host Sire Inkwether and exits the portal back into the sunlit world. He rejoins his comrades at their breakfast only to discover that a week and a half has passed in mortal time, and the summit is tomorrow.

The group also learns interesting news regarding the Huntsmen. Last night, the mercenary company suffered a bout of infighting. Some are reported dead, others missing, and the survivors are in lockdown, watched over by their overseers the Red Tears. Kazimeer opts to write a letter to Otr Grimbrow to relate the latest news concerning the Gloaming.

Gena travels back to Westhill to work on ensuring that the Ten Brothers don’t misinterpret the loss of one of theirs as the fault of Uncle Brunya and his operation. Once he’s satisfied, he drops by to converse with Miyar and then visits his family. Anfisa takes a lazy day and visits the bathhouse. Mika pokes around hunting for rumors, and Kazimeer writes down his notes on time distortion between realms. During the process, Otr’s owl returns to him, bearing a message that the trouble with the Huntsmen is cause for concern.

Otr arrives in person shortly thereafter. He says that he has performed a divination, and it points toward more trouble from the shadow. Yelgor Greencap is likely to use this grimoire again to summon more assistance. According to one tale, a man offered up his whole family to the Faceless Tailor, and the Gloaming lord came to his call in person. Kazimeer quickly assembles his comrades to explain the potential danger.

Gennadiy sets out to contact Hovrisk and see what the Huntsman lieutenant might know. One of the city sergeants overseeing the house arrest turns out to be a fan of his books, and gladly escorts him in to meet the Bald Wolf. Hovrisk relates a tale of Yelgor sacrificing one of his own men, offering the man’s face to something out of shadow. This was the final straw for Hovrisk and many other Huntsmen. They rebelled against their captain, and while they battled his loyalists, Yelgor, Havek, and roughly a dozen others escaped. Hovrisk notes they probably fled the district by going into the sewers, where they could bypass district gates.
Gena examines the area of the ritual, and notes a few scraps of fine clothing: apparently Greencap cut apart an elaborate dress as part of the conjuring. The material seems to be particularly fancy costuming, though with affordable materials. Gena turns to depart, and asks Hovrisk if he has any message for his former captain. The Bald Wolf shakes his head. “Sounds like you’re giving him the right one.”

Once Gennadiy returns to the others with his findings, they discuss the possibility of tracking the rogue mercenary. They try a few tailors, none of whom remember taking any commissions of that nature. However, the remnants appear to be from the sort of dress that might be used as an opera costume. Mika also checks the area around the Summer Bridge, where she uncovers a few reports of people showing up at the archway gate, shouting for a few minutes, then swearing profusely, and quickly leaving. They deduce that Yelgor’s working relationship with Sire Bleakmouth is at an end.

The investigation leads to The Grand Hippogryph, Tyurin’s most notable opera house. The group manages to talk and bribe their way in, several hours before the shows are scheduled to begin. Gena takes a bouquet as part of his cover. As they start looking for signs of passage, Gena notices some of the halfling staff are reliably keeping an eye on him.

He approaches a halfling woman tending to the vases of flowers, and offers her a bloom from his bouquet. She bows politely and attempts to place it in the vase by her. “No no,” Gena stops her, “that’s for you.” She looks him up and down and raises an eyebrow. “No offense, sir, but you’re too tall for me.”

Gena asks the halfling if they’d noticed anyone stalking about who was wearing a green cap. She shakes her head, but admits that there was a largish group of men who entered the opera house during the early hours, and they largely looked like trouble. Gena says the group is after them, and the halfling shows them to the wardrobe area.

They explore the opera house’s wardrobe department, through rooms of walk-in closets and large mirrors. Kostya growls a warning in one room, as Kazimeer notes something odd in a floor-length mirror’s reflection. Gena pushes his way into a walk-in closet, and his hand meets a living, but unseen form.

The enemies are instantly upon the bogatyrs. Another of the Faceless Tailor’s dressmaker dummies leaps from among the costumes, scarring Kazimeer and nearly Mika. Several Huntsmen drop from whatever spell of invisibility was keeping them concealed and leap to the attack. The fight is chaotic and messy. The group focuses first on the dummy, and once it’s wounded, Kazimeer obliterates it with a firebolt, sending burning shards into the racks of dresses.

Anfisa cuts down several of the less-skilled Huntsmen. Mika calls a hex to strike at the minds of Havek and a nearby soldier. Gena puts down another, and then closes with Havek. Both men attempt to end their old grudge, but Havek’s probing attacks fail to draw out the weak point he’d anticipated.

Kazimeer conjures another spell and exhales a cloud of poison. Four of the Huntsmen stay on their feet for only seconds before they drop dead. One makes a run for it, while Anfisa and Kostya cut down one of the lieutenants.

Gena continues to force Havek back, demanding to know where Yelgor is. The Huntsman admits his captain’s around — “But you can’t see him, can you?” Gennadiy smashes him against a wall with his shield, knocking Havek senseless. With no opponents standing, they hastily join Kazimeer in extinguishing the fire.

They investigate the odd reflection and note that the mirror has some sort of space beyond it. In a small, bare room, Yelgor bends over a book, studying its pages while some sort of faceless troll thing stands watch over him. No other exits seem to lead from the mirror-space. The bogatyrs wonder about smashing it — would Yelgor have any way out? Certainly if the only one with him was another shadow-creature, he would be left with no offerings for the Faceless Tailor. Gennadiy argues against it, in part hoping to take Yelgor’s cap as a trophy; Anfisa argues for the poetic justice of such a fate.

Finally they reach an agreement. Gena taps on the mirror with a mailed fist. As Yelgor turns around, eyes wide, and struggles to sprint for the mirror, Gena smashes the glass into slivers. The shards show the panicked expression of the mercenary captain before it fades and they become simple reflective glass once again.

With the Huntsmen’s captain left to his unknown fate, the bogatyrs make to leave. Gennadiy hands a pouch of coin to the halfling who watches them exit the wardrobe rooms, to pay for the damages, and they drag Havek away to meet his own dividends.

View
32 - Ice-Vocht and Vendettas
A day of sport, smuggling, and murder.

Gennadiy spends some of his free time socializing with Captain Miyar Byelnikov. Over tea and cards, they reminisce over time spent fighting together and the political demands of the present day. Gena puts forward the name of Boyaritsa Rovina Kurzkov as a potential ally of the Knight — having had the honor of assisting her in a difficult time, Gena says that she could prove a strong friend if allowed to grow into her power.

Uncle Brunya also invites Gennadiy to dinner, and makes a point of extending the invitation to Gena’s companions. Gena accepts, as does Anfisa (on the grounds that they feed her bear). Over a pleasant dinner, Brunya reveals that he was hoping to recruit the two of them into a game of ice-vocht. The ice is now thick enough for the first ice-vocht match of the season, which always involves the aristocratic families sponsoring a truly competitive match. This year the Blue team is sponsored by the older families of Tyurin (the Golikoy and Kyelvarin in particular), and the White team is largely bankrolled by newcomers (especially the Cheynakov and Reynitsy). Though Brunya would have liked to work his way onto the Blue, he has settled to try and make an impression among the White. If nothing else, the miserly Cheynakov are glad to have someone else offering to hire some of the players.

Gena and Anfisa both agree to the proposal. Gennadiy manages to recruit Miyar as well, figuring that the Knight’s captain will be both a strong physical candidate and an impressive local personality for the team.

Mika spends some time conversing with Slatejaw, learning a few things about the former ghoul’s unlife. When she meets Gena again, he lets her know about the ice-vocht game. Mika decides that even if magic isn’t permissible in the competition, she still deserves a spot on the team. She persuades her way into playing for the Whites. For the next day, the bogatyrs spend some time practicing their ice-skating. Gena cuts open a patch of ice well away from the match location and makes an offering to the spirits of the water, just in case.

The turnout is excellent on the morning of the match. There are many skilled athletes on both sides, especially with the recruitment of Miyar. Much to the group’s disgust, they note a familiar face wearing familiar green headwear — Yelgor Greencap, also a member of the Whites. Still, the bogatyrs help the Whites take an early lead. Both Anfisa and Gennadiy are forces to be reckoned with in the larger scrum, and Mika manages to steal away the chalice at a vital moment and score the first goal.

During a second scrum, Gennadiy takes a shoulder block from one of his own teammates and hits the ice. The blade of an ice skate descends, though he rolls aside before it can do more than break the skin. Yelgor Greencap smirks down at him, then offers a hand up. The Huntsmen’s captain offers a not-that-heartfelt apology. Gennadiy brushes it off as he stanches the bleeding, and then returns to the ice.

The bogatyrs’ presence continues to bolster the Whites all the same. They maintain their lead throughout the match, and claim victory. After the match, Gena hunts down Yelgor and offers him a hand. The Huntsman captain refuses the handshake and leaves while Gena has his neck wound treated by the presiding priestess of Lirsiv.

Uncle Brunya praises Gena and his friends. He says he managed to make an excellent sale to Vetsa Reynitsy, who was impressed by the performance of Brunya’s recruits. He then proposes a bit of light, nicely paid work: escorting a shipment into the city. He admits it’s a very small thing, but Tyurin’s daylight tariffs are crippling in winter, and the Ten Brothers — a local criminal element — are going to want a cut at night. The bogatyrs’ presence could see to the latter. Gena agrees to float the proposal, though he warns Brunya that he’ll still have to pay the others. Anfisa and Mika do end up agreeing, even though the job’s beneath them.

That evening the bogatyrs, still missing Kazimeer, bring the wagons through the Westhill sally-gate. The guards, likely paid off, pay them no real mind. They have less luck with the Ten Brothers. A pack of the “cousins,” low-ranking members of the Brothers, close off the wagons in a ropebraiders’ alley.

Gennadiy decides there’s no time for any of this. “Cousins,” he says, “this is not the night.” He throws them some coins. “Have some drinks on me.” The thugs stare into the eyes of a man who has fought alongside the Knight and the Comet, and stood against giants, a hydra, and the living dead. They scoop up the coins and fall back into the shadows.

Then they start screaming.

As the bogatyrs are drawing their blades, dark figures flit among them. Anfisa, Mika, and Gena all reel from sudden slashing wounds. Their assailants perch briefly in the dim light, revealed as… dressmaker’s dummies, mannequins with long scissor blades where their fingers should be. A third creature lurches out of the dark at them, a twisted, burly thing in oddly stitched black rags with its features shrouded under a hood.

Mika rolls under the wagon to evade one of the dummies. The hulking remnant tears into Anfisa and Kostya, badly pummeling both of them. The second dummy’s blades find gaps in Gena’s armor. Mika is forced to call on the power of her goddess to heal the band, keeping them in the fight.

Gena’s firebrass axe bursts into flame, and he chops smoldering wounds into the dummy facing him. Mika hurls a bone lance into its faceless head, and it crumples. The second dummy stabs Mika in retaliation and moves around to attack Gennadiy. While Anfisa and Kostya rally against the remnant, Gena finishes the second dummy. Mika throws a lance into the remnant, Gena joins the fight, and Anfisa and Kostya take the opening to tear it to shreds.

The bodies leak out shadowstuff, leaving behind wood and cloth. The bogatyrs throw the remains into a trash fire to dispose of them. Mika meditates on the scraps of the remnant, summoning the knowledge of ghosts. The dead tell her of a powerful creature of the Gloaming, stronger even than Lady Gloomsaddle — a figure called the Faceless Tailor.

The bogatyrs find the body of one of the Ten Brothers’ cousins, cut nearly in half by one of the dummies. Once they’ve ensured that the shipment of wines has safely reached Brunya’s storehouse, Gena returns to try bringing the cousin’s body to those who’d mourn him. He has no luck, though, as nobody willing to take responsibility for the corpse can be found in the middle of the night.

The bogatyrs finally get some well-earned rest. After they finally wake, as they gather the news of the morning, they hear that some sort of trouble has overtaken the Huntsmen.

View
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

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.