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.