Trumps of Winter

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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21 - The Elemental Eye
The secrets of the elven hold revealed.

With the last of the rival explorers lying still, the bogatyrs start to check over the corpses. Their attackers seem to be a mismatched band of travelers wearing steppe-appropriate clothing, but there seem to be no Volyar or other locals among them. Anfisa goes over the tracks to learn more. Outside the now-bloodstained hall, she finds an extra set of tracks in the dusk, and follows them to one of the second-level workshops. The room contains several sets of packs and other supplies, rope and excavation tools — and a scruffy ginger-haired man with his wrists bound, sitting against a wall. The man blinks at her, and asks if she’s “one of their friends”.

Anfisa cuts the man loose, and he follows after her as she continues to check the level for other living creatures. He explains to her and the others that he was contracted to lead the group from Horograd out to the steppe, and they bound him and threw him out of the way after they reached the ruin. They intended to convert him, at knifepoint or worse, once they found what they were looking for. He reclaims his knife, and picks up the formerly blazing axe that one of the seekers was wielding against Mika.

The bogatyrs sift through the rival band’s supplies, and find a satchel of particularly interesting papers. Part of the contents is a collection of scrolls, which indicate an astromantic ritual to call a star down from the sky — and a few blank sheets showing signs of having held the prepared portion of the ritual. They also find a journal written in an astromantic code, which Kazimeer begins to leaf through. The principal point he learns is that the band used the star to point the way to something referred to as the Eye — and as he suspected, they were cultists of the Mad Star.

The bogatyrs descend down to the room where the meteorite is half-embedded in the floor. The room seems to have been a laboratory with a variety of tools, perhaps for manipulating elemental earth. A strange statue crouches near the single door out, rough-hewn and vaguely resembling a robed elf with snaky hair.

Gena gets to the business of prying the meteorite free. As he works it away from the cracked indentation with a crowbar, the floor trembles slightly. Thick fingers of rock push up through the broken stone, clenching around the meteorite, and then pulling downward. The fallen star vanishes into a new hole in the floor. An earthen sound of grinding rises up from the hall, and then an echoing boom as the floor shakes and dust falls down. Kazimeer sends a swirl of dancing lights through the new hole, and they see the back of a massive, only vaguely humanoid figure made of earth and rock. It raises its fists — each about the size of a human torso — and brings them down again, smashing open a door before it.

The four rappel down the hole into the interior of a vault, the meteorite nowhere in sight. They follow the earth elemental out into a corridor lined with other vault doors. The elemental trudges up a set of stairs back to the third level, into a halls that leads into a central area with three other arrayed like cardinal points. In the center of the space stands a plinth that holds a head-sized bluish-green smooth spherical stone, placed among four gold prongs that rise up from four pillars flanking the plinth. The elemental reachs out and pulls the stone free, and the steady gem-lights of the complex suddenly dim and go out. The earthen monolith pushes the stone into its front, and then turns to face the bogatyrs, the stone glaring like an eye from its torso. The guide Yerek backs feebly against a wall as the bogatyrs accept the challenge.

The now-hostile elemental fights like a landslide. Whenever Anfisa or Gennadiy cut it, spikes erupt from it to cut at them. Mika channels the spirits of the elven dead left in the strange outpost, sending them to bolster Anfisa, before splintering one of the Queen’s Needles against the thing’s stone. A hasty bolt of lightning likewise ricochets harmlessly away. The saving grace is that the elemental’s first strikes are clumsy, and its rainbarrel-sized fists fail to make solid contact with the warriors.

Gena and Anfisa press harder, cutting into the earth between the huge stones. The second of Mika’s bone lances strikes deep. The staggered monolith retaliates by slamming its fists into the floor, knocking the bogatyrs about with a localized earthquake. Then it swings at Gena and Anfisa again, delivering sound blows that would cripple or disintegrate lesser warriors.

The fight grows more desperate, with Anfisa barely standing. Mika channels the cold healing energy of her goddess to keep the huntress in the fight. Another round of mountainous blows, and the two warriors are still standing — and Anfisa sees her opening. Ignoring the stony spikes that protect the elemental, she lashes out with one saber and cuts into the earth behind the purloined eye, cutting it free. Before the monolith can respond, her second saber cut passes down through its shoulder region, cutting away the absorbed meteorite and the left arm with it. The elemental collapses like a rockslide, its animating spirit destroyed.

The bogatyrs place the eye in a pack and drag the meteorite to the stairs, where they set Yerek to making a carrying sling for it. They then investigate the four laboratories on the third level. Each one is dedicated to one of the four principal elements, and many have remnants of roughly half-petrified corpses. At Kazimeer’s direction, they pick out some of the more interesting elemental materials — two inflated bags of wind, vials of iron and gold that remain liquid at room temperature, and an everburning ember from a forge.

They return down the stairs to the vaults level. Five thick doors remain intact, and a scrabbling noise sounds from the other side of one. Anfisa checks the crystalline viewing slot in the door, and a grotesque stony face lunges at her — gargoyles. Checking through the viewing slots reveal more corpses in the other vaults, seemingly part-transmuted bodies of men and dwarves and one elf. The exception is a vault with a statue against the far wall in a meditative pose, far more finely crafted to the eye, and with the snaky hair that suggests a medusa. The bogatyrs elect not to open any of the vaults to investigate further. They draw warnings and leave hunter glyphs to ward off other potential explorers, collect Yerek, and Gennadiy and Anfisa heft the meteorite as the group makes for the stairs.

On the first level, they locate the corridor to the outpost’s exit stairs. But as they move down it, a spectral form materializes to block their path — an elf, armed and armored like a guard of rank. It speaks in old elven, and Mika — a scholar in all manner of languages — translates it as a demand not to remove the Eye.

Through Mika, the bogatyrs learn the story. The ghost was a guard-captain overseeing the security of the arcane research outpost. The magistral in charge had begun attempting to transfer a prisoner’s elemental power into himself. She turned her power inward and petrified herself to escape him, so he used what blood he’d previously taken from her to force a transformation. It was a grave mistake. The magistral ran mad as the curse consumed him, killing many of the elves before the guard-captain was able to stop him, suffering a mortal injury in the process. The survivors fled the outpost, and the guard remained to keep the Eye in place. He reiterates that he cannot let anyone take an elven treasure from the hold, no matter how many years have passed.

Mika conjures the knowledge of the dead, and the fragments of elven memory-ghosts flood her with understanding of winter elf death and burial rites. With the proper rite, she realizes, she can lay the spectre to rest — but it will surely be a sin in the eyes of Namaluk. Ultimately she decides that she has served the Lich Queen well to date, and it is worth the risk. She performs a burial rite for the ghost, formally sheathing a blade in his presence and telling him that his vigil is now ended. The spectral guard-captain fades from view, and Mika can sense him no longer.

The exit from the hidden hold is buried under inches of earth gathered over the centuries, but the mechanism still works and allows the bogatyrs out. They close the door after them, disguising it as best they can, and then rejoin the camp. Yerek begins telling the other would-be salvagers the story of the bogatyrs opposing a walking mountain, and Gena joins in to embellish the tale. The account expands to include a ghost army, the danger of the gargoyles, and with Mika leveling an accusing glare the whole time, the opportunists decide to break camp and return to the tent-town. Yerek picks out the horses his employers-turned-captors brought, and the party adds them to their own for the return trip.

The four leave Yerek in the tent town, telling him to take two of the spare horses for his trouble. He gladly accepts, and promises to wait for them and watch over the rest. Then the bogatyrs ascend to the forge-temple again. An acolyte quickly summons Ilya Stakomir, who is glad to see them safe and successful. He tests the meteorite’s rock and metallic portions, and announces that it’s a fine specimen. The bogatyrs state that they know why it fell early. “We killed the reason,” says Mika.

During their short account of their trip, they produce the elemental eye. Ilya is almost dumbfounded to behold it. “Have you eaten?” he asks.

“We’re hungry,” says Gena. “And thirsty.”

Over a large meal in the temple dining hall, and with plenty of drink, they tell him the story in more detail. Ilya admits to knowing the story — the elven secret hold fell almost 900 years ago, and the temple has records speaking of the refugees who fled it. Their tale of the magistral and his downfall was added to accounts detailing the curses of earth, such as those borne by the medusas. The bogatyrs contemplate the items gained from the hold, including the elemental eye, and agree they have quite a bit to discuss.

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20 - Starfall
The Mountain of Steel, and an unscheduled star.

The bogatyrs wake their captive and begin asking him questions. The scraggly human scout assesses his situation and quickly decides to cooperate. He tells them that his group was ordered to track Tarska the Slayer’s movements. They reported to Commander Tazvach, Knife of the Black, though their more local coordination point was in the town of Volinka. The bogatyrs decide to keep him captive and take him with them to the Mountain of Steel.

They make their way down the mountainside and follow the steppe boundary to the temple of Goryador. While the group is still about two hours from the Mountain, the overcast sky lights up. A falling star streaks past the clouds and impacts somewhere into the plain. The impact’s thunder rolls past them minutes later.

At the foot of the Mountain of Steel, the bogatyrs pass through a tent town of various travelers come to trade with the Goryadon priests. The crowd is very mixed, from barkers offering luxuries brought across the steppe to gnoll hunters with bundles of trophies taken from rare beasts. The five find a Goryadon acolyte among the tents and explain that they’ve taken a captive from a Ruin warband. The acolyte admits he doesn’t know what would be best done with the scout, and they decide to move up to the temple.

They march up to the entrance cut into into the mountain’s side. A pair of templars standing watch outside ask them their business, and then send them in with an admonition: “Bring no mischief here. This is a sacred place, and the crooked bar gets hammered straight.”

The five enter the grand inner hall, reputedly carved from the mountain long ago by the first Hammer-Saints. A massive statue of Goryador dominates the far wall, looming over an altar where Gena hangs up the Luskrin armory’s shield and offers some coin. Mika peels away from the group, moving through the small trader stands set up in the closer portion of the hall.

They find a Goryadon priest of higher rank and discuss the reasons for their visit. The priest is likewise uncertain what to do with their captive, and has the Ruin’s scout sent to the kitchens to at least make himself useful. The riddle of Saschka is also beyond him, but he sends word to Loremaster Bronva. The Loremaster’s reply is swift, and an acolyte takes the living sword in that direction. Gena inquires about the services of the current living Hammer-Saint Vashtil, but Vashtil is away — the falling star arrived earlier than their divinations suggested, otherwise the Hammer-Saint would be here to claim it for its potential metals. The priest recommends that the bogatyrs speak with Ilya Stakomir, a forgemaster with a talent for metallurgy.

Forgemaster Stakomir turns out to be impressed with the amount of high-quality firebrass and hardsilver the bogatyrs have acquired. He agrees to forge an axe out of firebrass and a number of hardsilver items — a shield for Gena, a pair of silver daggers, a saber for Anfisa — in return for the unused metal. Gena inquires about the possibility of having the weapons enchanted. For that, suggests Ilya, they would have to do more — perhaps bring the meteorite that recently struck in the nearby steppe, for gold is not so valuable at the Mountain of Steel.

The bogatyrs — absent Saschka, who is apparently still in an audience with Loremaster Bronva — leave the temple and descend into the tent town, where they find a hospitality tent and rest. Better rested, they gather themselves before sunrise and head out into the steppe to find the meteorite’s impact site.

The crater isn’t hard to find; two small groups of traders are already camped outside it. But the impact site is a hole — the fallen star seems to have punched a hole through the ceiling of an old subterranean complex, forgotten underneath the steppe earth. They look down through the cavity and see a layout of rooms, broken walls, and a smaller hole punched through the floor to an even lower level. As they do so, the nearby traders make them offers to split the find in exchange for a little assistance, but the bogatyrs pointedly ignore them.

Gena makes particular haste in lowering a rope and descending into the hole. The others follow as he’s preparing to drop to the second level. Anfisa tells Kostya to stand watch, given the difficulties of lowering the bear down on a rope — or pulling him back out. Once the four are all in, they have a look around the rubble. The subterranean structure seems to be elven architecture, with the first level having the signs of a guard post or barracks to protect the level or levels below. Anfisa finds two things of particular interest — a chunk of stone that looks suspiciously like a crudely shaped human (or elven) hand, and signs of disturbance in the dust. Someone else has already entered the complex.

The bogatyrs drop down to the second level, in the midst of a large hall. Again, Anfisa finds tracks of others leading away into the other rooms. Gena drops down to the third level while the others check for more traces of their potential rivals. Suddenly, one of the ancient doors crashes open, and a mismatched group of fury-eyed men and women charge Anfisa, Mika, and Kazimeer.

The first strike goes to the attackers, as one of them hurls a talisman at the three bogatyrs on the upper level. The talisman detonates in a pulse of power that jolts pain through their wounds, and the lightly armored scout vanishes into the shadows. Anfisa retaliates, cutting down three of the enemies before a member of the group chants an astromantic spell, binding her in ribbons of strangely colored starlight.

Gena clambers back up the rope to the second level, only to be bound in more of the spell-ribbons. He catches sight of the hidden rogue, and hurls his saber — which strikes home. “NO SNEAKY!” bellows the warrior.

Mika reaches into the Underworld, and finds death-energy near the surface. She hurls the Queen’s Needles and conjures elven ghosts, only to be targeted by a burly axeman. Kazimeer hurls thunder at the enemy sorcerer and falls back to a more strategic location.

The rival astromancer responds with a hypnotic cascade of lights. Anfisa, feet still rooted to the ground, draws her bow and fires an arrow into an enemy archer, failing to notice the beguilement that’s fallen over Gennadiy. The enthralled warrior takes up another weapon and attacks Anfisa.

Mika scrambles for cover away from the axeman. A needle just misses the sorcerer, but explodes into cold bone slivers, which topple the wounded mage. But as the corpse falls to the floor, another figure appears from a different section of the complex. The newcomer is clearly also an adept, wearing simple clothing but wielding an iron staff. He casts two spells in quick succession, one igniting the waraxe of Mika’s opponent, and the second sending a thunderbolt into Kazimeer.

Gennadiy snaps free of the spells holding him in place and lunges into the melee. Kazimeer, by compare, is pressed into a corner by the enemy rogue, though his strange dodecahedron familiar manages to poison his assailant.

Mika again dodges away from the axeman, as Gena cleaves through one of the enemy and strikes into the sorcerer with the iron staff. A horrid metal sound rings out as the rogue strikes down Kazimeer — but a quick spell from Mika restores his health. The bogatyrs erupt with a sudden, half-desperate fury. The assassin and the axeman both fall beneath weapon and spell, and the mage finally drops with one of the Queen’s Needles in the back of his head.

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19 - Prince’s Gambit
The Donjon’s envoy makes his play for the Rogue.

Gena is explaining Radenza’s offer for him to aid Gorinstal’s envoy Olek in an upcoming bid for power when Mika finally materializes at the table. Gennadiy starts from the beginning, and shares all the details he knows — which is very little, save that Olek seems to have his eye on an opening. While the group shares a general interest in using the deck of portals to advance their next ambitions, most likely by traveling to the Mountain of Steel, they also agree they need to do something about Olek.

Partway through the conversation, a small urchin arrives with a note from Radenza. The letter, addressed to Gena, requests that they meet at the Troll’s Hook to discuss matters further. Gena accepts the invitation, and heads for the tavern largely alone — save for an inconspicuous Mika tagging along.

The Troll’s Hook is notorious for being a dangerous drinking hole, but it’s quiet enough before noon. Gena takes a seat at the table behind Radenza’s, and the two of them talk quietly without facing one another. Radenza says that Olek has got all of his resources in order to make a bid for the Rogue card. Although there’s always something that could go wrong, the more allies he has the better. If Olek succeeds and the Iron Tsar installs him as a vassal and a new subordinate Trump, there could be fiefdoms involved for anyone who helped Olek achieve his ambition. Radenza says that even if Gennadiy can’t risk it, if it succeeds, he’ll always drink for free in Radenza’s town.

“Okay,” says Gena at last. “Let’s get rich.”

He returns to tell the others that he’s going to go along with the scheme, and hopefully find a way to damage it from within. He then writes a letter to Prince Casivir, stating that Olek intends to steal away the Rogue card, and that members of the court may be compromised. Mika takes the letter for Gena, and leaves it in a dropbox monitored by the Prince’s intelligence. (She does not explain how she’s learned of the dropbox.)

Gena makes his way to Olek. The Donjon’s envoy seems initially dubious about bringing in an extra party, but Gennadiy’s past relationship with Tsar Gorinstal speaks well enough to earn the audience. Olek maintains that even if Gena is genuinely trustworthy, he could not be part of the principal effort. Only those with the Donjon’s brand, Olek says, could approach the Rogue card safely. All others would have their loyalties inverted by the trump’s power. But he eventually agrees to bring Gennadiy in. He charges Gena to join Radenza in distracting Ozyar the Oathbreaker, Prince Casivir’s military commander, while Ozyar is away from the court. He offers his thanks for coming aboard, and then dismisses him until the evening.

Radenza hangs close to Gennadiy for the rest of the day. But the garrulous warrior isn’t entirely vigilant, so Gena is able to slip away during a bathroom break and tell Mika all that he’s learned. She jots down the further details of Olek’s plot and places a second message in the dropbox for Casivir’s intelligence service.

Mika then lays out the information for Anfisa, Saschka, and Kazimeer. The four go back and forth on whether or not they could manage to ambush Olek’s party between the inn and the Crooked Tower, especially with the knowledge that Olek has an undeclared mage ready to move. Partway through the conversation, a translucent hare races in from the street and bolts under their table. When they look underneath, the ghostly creature is gone, but a small note remains.

Thank you for the notice. You are invited to come and witness his attempt tonight, if you would like. —C

That evening, Olek sets things into motion. Radenza and Gennadiy head off first, to find Ozyar in his favored establishment and keep the old veteran distracted. Mika makes sure that Gena gets a note letting him know that Prince Casivir knows it’s coming, and they’re going to see how it plays out, and then she joins Kazimeer, Saschka, Anfisa, and Kostya to head for the tower.

They ascend the rickety, improbable stairs of the Crooked Tower a second time. The prince’s court is largely empty at that hour — only Casivir, his seneschal, and the nervous-looking mage Katechny the Hare. Casivir greets his visitors politely, and thanks them for the information. “The interesting thing about not trusting anyone is that while you know that you can be outbid,” he says with a glance at the two women with him, “you have the option of outbidding back.” Katechny and the seneschal look a little uncomfortable at the acknowledgement, but say nothing.

The bogatyrs take the side wall where they’d viewed the last interaction between Casivir and Olek, and again Katechny draws the illusory curtain to veil them from sight. They wait for roughly half an hour — refreshments thankfully having been provided in their section — before noise echoes up the stairwell to the court.

Olek and General Roskoy are first into the room, followed by Lieutenant Teskina and a man in somewhat nondescript clothing, armed with only a dagger. Olek, clearly rattled, is demanding the others to find an explanation for where their men have gone. The conversation stops as the four confront Prince Casivir, who off-handedly mentions that Katechny has ensured that the delegation’s extra troops are “secure.”

Olek blusters and demands respect, and even goes so far to ask that Casivir surrender peacefully. Casivir notes the Donjon’s mage, and then turns to his own. “Oh, yes… this must be the point where Katechny betrays me.” The Hare flushes, and says nothing, while a little of the color leaves Olek’s face. “Well, anyway… you can leave now, Katechny. Thank you.” The mage nods quickly, and proceeds past the stunned trespassers and down the stairs.

The Traitor Prince and Olek hold a short conversation, in which Olek grows increasingly frustrated with Casivir’s unimpressed demeanor. Olek threatens the wrath of the Iron Tsar, while Casivir notes that Gorinstal will have much more important concerns than avenging a minor emissary. Finally, Olek reaches into the pouch at his side and pulls out a fist-sized iron sphere, its surface worked with a repeated chain-link relief. He throws the sphere at Casivir while intoning a strange word, and the sphere explodes outward into iron chains that wrap around the Traitor Prince, binding him to his throne. “Go!” shouts Olek, turning to his mage. “Break the spell!”

The mage breaks into motion towards the card in the frame on the Prince’s wall. From behind the curtain, Kazimeer feels arcane force twist and shatter as the mage completes his spell. He nods to Olek, who snatches up the card from its mount. Olek turns toward Casivir, brandishing the card — and then pauses and looks at it.

Casivir smiles. Suddenly light erupts from the arms of Roskoy and Teskina, and the shape of the Donjon’s brand is briefly visible in the light before it evaporates. Both of them raise their swords — putting them at Olek’s back.

“Well,” says Casivir. Another pulse of arcane power ripples across the room. Something on Casivir’s person shines even through the chains, and then the chains fall away. The Traitor Prince stands, and draws a card from within his tunic.

“Everyone thinks that the Rogue card’s power is treachery. It isn’t that… exactly.” He glances over at the mage, who stands stiff as a board. “It’s actually freedom. It destroys all loyalties, even love, even filial bonds — it permits truly unbiased choice. So right about now, your two officers are free to decide what’s genuinely best for them.”

He turns to the Donjon’s mage. “What do you think?” The man swallows, and then bares his left arm, showing the brand. Casivir nods, the Rogue’s power flares once more, and the mage’s brand melts away like snow in a forge.

Casivir waves to the delegation. “Why don’t you put Olek somewhere, and we’ll discuss your future opportunities in the morning.” Roskoy and Teskina bind Olek’s hands behind his back, and with the mage following, the three descend the stairs. Once Prince Casivir and his seneschal are the only two left in the court, he gestures for the bogatyrs to step forward.

“Well,” he says, “I suppose I owe you all a boon.” The four glance at one another, and politely accept the offer without clarifying it. After thanking him for the invitation, they slip out of the Crooked Tower.

They head for the appropriate tavern and find Gennadiy and Radenza still laboring Ozyar the Oathbreaker with tales. They get the two warriors’ attention, giving Ozyar an opportunity to excuse himself. Then they tell the two that it’s over — Olek is now in the Prince’s custody, and Roskoy and Teskina have been broken free of the Donjon’s service. Radenza takes the news with some measure of shock. They reassure him that Casivir is unlikely to hold any grudges, and perhaps he’d be able to find good employment in Zelezka’s service. With Gena’s support, Radenza eventually rallies. He departs for the evening, with the hope of finding Teskina — he says he’s always suspected she had a thing for him.

That’s Gennadiy’s cue to leave with much the same intention. He sets out to find Teskina and offer her commisseration. Anfisa decides to head for the bathhouse before bed, and takes Saschka along to introduce her to the experience. Kazimeer returns to the inn, and Mika vanishes into the wet places along the river.

One night of civilized (or not-so-civilized) rest later, the bogatyrs reconvene and gather their supplies. Then they travel a mile and a half out of Zelezka, and Kazimeer draws the deck of portals. He selects the Comet card, and focuses on it. The image of the comet on the card begins to flare and animate, and then expands beyond the card’s borders. A shimmering portal of light hangs in midair before them — and they step through.

The air around them is immediately colder. They stand on the eastern slope of a mountain, at the lintel of a massive tower — what seems to be a simple watchtower, but three times the size of any other, built by giant hands. A large number of blue-headed vultures, as well as a few brash ravens, mill about the top of the tower. Anfisa kneels and studies the trampled snow and frozen bloodstains, and determines that roughly seven days ago, a giant fought against a single human — and the giant fled into the tower, bleeding.

The party enters the tower and carefully ascends the giantish stairs. On the tower roof, the carrion birds cover the mostly eaten corpse of a frost giant — even after a week, there’s still bluish flesh on its bones. Anfisa clambers up the wall and looks out along the line of the range, where the steppes stretch out to the north and east. To the northwest she sees a wide mountain with smoke rising in plumes, what she takes for the Mountain of Steel. To the southeast she looks among the mountains until she spies the forested slopes of Corpsechewer.

Gennadiy and Kazimeer, on the other hand, look down the slope of the mountain that they’re on, and see movement. A small band of humanoid figures are working their way up the path to the tower. The bogatyrs descend the tower for a better look, and the new arrivals scatter and flatten into the brush — but not before Anfisa recognizes the trappings of a Ruin scouting party.

Both sides take cover — the bogatyrs in the tower, the Ruin-scouts in the terrain — and wait for the others to make the first move. Kazimeer breaks the stalemate with a spell, and one of the scouts collapses into an arcane slumber. His fellows begin to fall back, and the bogatyrs go out after them. Gennadiy charges out first, bellowing a scathing tirade on the scouts’ courage that is abruptly spoiled as he crashes down on a particularly slick patch of ice.

The mixed band of humans and orcs breaks cover to meet them. Mika calls up the ancestral dead, this time targeting Saschka — but instead of a mass of remnants of her forebears, only one ghost appears — a spectral duplicate, the seeming vestige of her host body. With its power increasing her own, Saschka carves a path through the Ruin’s troops like a scythe.

The battle’s outcome is clear shortly thereafter. The scouts are hardy veterans, but the bogatyrs are at another level entirely. Soon the Ruin’s skirmishers are dead, save for the one scarred man still snoring in the bushes.

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18 - An Unknown Sword
Mysterious deaths in Zelezka bring the bogatyrs a new ally.

“The Elder Bear? Hmm…. let me listen.”

The leshy closes his eyes, and a whisper edges out of his mouth. The wind moves through the trees for several minutes before he speaks again. “…I hear a tale of a shaggy night bear with a scar at his temple and silver at his jaws. A witch with an eye around her neck holds a collar and chain for him. To escape her eye, the bear fled to the mountain where his grandfather once hunted a bear of his own.”

Anfisa bows. “Thank you, grandfather,” she says. The leshy nods to her, unbends to his full height, and walks back into the woods. His sapling host retreats with him, but the treeline itself remains at its newer, closer distance.

The bogatyrs move as much of the ogres’ plunder as possible onto the barge, and then set off downriver. They drop off one of the captive girls at her home village, where they are treated to a feast of humble but filling peasant fare, and then return to Zelezka where they place the second captive with relatives.

Zilya and Korvo hit the Zelezkan taverns like conquering heroes, boasting of their battle against the ogres and sopping up drinks. The bogatyrs join them for the first round, and hear a rumor of a very distinct death. Apparently a woman was frozen into a statue of ice on one of the bridges, and although the attack seems very like Fair Mirinka’s capability, the rusalka reputedly doesn’t attack women. Gena turns to Mika to ask for clarification, but the young witch-priestess is already gone.

The bogatyrs then go their separate ways. Anfisa heads to a bathhouse, to wash away the grime of several battles. Gena takes charge of distributing the ogres’ plunder back to its rightful owners, gaining many friends among the merchants of Zelezka. Kazimeer takes an interest in the story of the frozen corpse, and finally finds a trio of children who claim to have witnessed the whole thing.

According to the children, the person responsible was a red-haired man in blue and white — a winter wizard, they claim. He was walking with an unarmed woman along the Bone Bridge when three people attacked them in broad daylight. The children say the woman killed two of the attackers with her bare hands — she just ran her fingertips against them, and they opened as if they were cut with blades. The wizard cast a spell and froze the last attacker solid, and then the two of them proceeded on their way.

Kazimeer’s next stop is to confer with the Maliokis. Belzec tells him that he heard about a man in blue and white staying at the Maiden’s Wet Hair. He also mentions that Iissa is holding a package for him. When Kazimeer inquires about the contents, the tiefling simply shrugs.

A quick trip to Iissa’s houseboat later, and the elven seer hands Kazimeer a small parcel. She says that it came directly from Alsvedun the Magnificent — the Vizier himself. He unwraps a small deck of cards, their faces marked clearly with icons of the various Trumps. Iissa explains that the cards aren’t a copy of the Mad Star’s original deck, but rather a deck of portals. She also passes on a message from the Vizier — Kazimeer is to go speak to a woman about an unknown sword. Kazimeer asks if there’s any more information about the woman, but all that Iissa can offer is the cryptic statement that “you’ve already heard of her.”

Kazimeer collects Anfisa and Gena once their business is done, tells them of his findings, and then the three pay a call on the Maiden’s Wet Hair. The tavern is one of the quieter sort of drinking houses — not expensive enough to attract people wanting to be seen, not cheap enough for easy drinking and brawling. There they see the red-haired man in blue and white, seated with a lean woman in leather. After a brief conversation with the bartender, they approach the pair and make introductions.

The mage names himself as Morska Morekevich, and Kazimeer notes he bears the trappings of one of the winter mages following the tradition of Queen Norevna, the holder of the Fates. The woman introduces herself as Saschka. Kazimeer tells them that he was asked to talk to her about an unknown sword — and in a halting dialect, Saschka explains that she is the sword. The woman they see was slain, for reasons she doesn’t understand, and a powerful magical blade from the Luskrin dynasty was used in an attempt to resurrect her. However, something went not as planned, and now — to the best of her knowledge — she is the soul of the sword, occupying the revived body of an adventurer. Her memories are one part those of the mortal woman and one part flashes to the time of the Luskrin tsars. But she doesn’t know why she was placed into this form. Kazimeer reassures her that it’s easy for him to relate.

As for the assassins, Morska Morekevich says he’s fairly certain he knows who they are. They were agents of the Black Snowflake, and as far as he knows, he wasn’t their target — Saschka was. Whether they were after the sword’s soul or the resurrected woman, neither of them know. (It takes a little convincing to assure Gennadiy that he’s remembering incorrectly, and the Black Snowflake is not the name of a long-ago band of legendary heroes.)

Morska instructs Saschka to travel with the others for a time; according to whatever cryptic instruction he isn’t sharing, his role in the affair is now done. With that, the bogatyrs return to the Prince’s Boot to get some well-deserved rest.

Gena spends the first portion of his morning dealing with Radenza, who’s appeared in search of news. He finally makes his apologies to his former comrade and has Saschka accompany him on a few errands.

Kazimeer returns to the Maliokis in search of more gossip, this time concerning the Black Snowflake. Belzec admits to knowing a few things about the former secret police. He mentions that the local name he’s heard is a pawnbroker, Gurivin “Uncle Guri” Slakotchka.

The bogatyrs discuss their options over lunch. None are particularly enthusiastic about taking the fight directly to the Black Snowflake, the problem of the Donjon’s delegation is ongoing, and they have yet to decide what to do with the deck of portals. A perturbed Gennadiy raises the additional question: Where the hell is Mika?

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17 - The Ogre Bridegroom
The bogatyrs confront the ogre pirates and their ancient patron.

Kazimeer and Mika hastily sweep the ogres’ barge for notable plunder as Anfisa works on separating the chains. They find a number of small silver mirrors and a pile of rations for the ogres; also notable, the pirates’ craft has witchery charms hung over each side. The amulets are woven knots of what appears to be young women’s hair — clearly tokens to ward away the attention of rusalka. They return to their barge and finish setting the ogres’ craft to drift downriver. They then resume their push upriver, as Mika and Gennadiy undo the knots and return the hair to the river.

Anfisa points out when the barge reaches the area that her contact described. Gennady remembers old maps that spoke of a trading post on the riverbank — but there’s no sign of even an overgrown set of timbers on the shore, only virgin forest. They begin burning owl feathers, and once the craft has gotten far enough upriver that the smoke reaches the bank, the virgin forest shimmers and then vanishes. Instead, they see an inlet on the other side of a small forested island. There an old wooden structure has been crudely expanded, as if entire shacks and other outbuildings were uprooted and then nailed into place. One ogre with long nail piercings and a carpenter’s trappings tugs at a wood pile near the extended dock; another cuts at the carcass of an immense river snake; and two ogrinka fish the nearby water.

The ogre-kin notice their craft almost immediately. The bogatyrs have the barge brought around to the other side of the island, where they use the forest as cover for an advance. They send several arrows at the carpenter first, trusting the trees to keep them more or less safe from the ogrinka’s hurled javelins. The carpenter roars as arrows lodge in his hide, and then hurls a barrel of nails all the way across the water. It smashes against a tree and sends nails flying like painful shrapnel among the party.

The bogatyrs’ retaliation is fierce. Gena and Anfisa’s arrows and Mika’s freezing bone javelins riddle the carpenter. As he topples off the dock, the ogre butcher wades out into the waters toward the island. But he takes too long to forge through the shallows. By the time he reaches the island, Kazimeer has gathered enough power to strike him with a meteor of ice. Another of the Queen’s Needles impales it, and Anfisa and Kostya take the butcher apart in an ironic display of dismemberment. Gena turns his attention to the ogrinka fishermen, but after his first arrow strikes home, the two of them race into the expanded trading post building. The bogatyrs pile back onto the barge and have it take them to the shore as quickly as possible. Anfisa has Zilya and Kovor stay with the craft as it moves downriver, both to protect the barge and to give them an extra chance to rest and recover from the prior battle.

The interior of the trading post is thick with ogre musk. The two fishers and a third ogrinka have braced against the side walls, while a large elevated stage is dominated by the presence of a surprisingly flamboyant ogre. The ogre wears a richly embroidered red coat, adorned with an excess of gold braid; his hair is neatly slicked back, and he has a singularly magnificent mustache.

The bogatyrs waste no time engaging the ogrinka. Anfisa and Kostya charge into the two fishermen, while Mika quickly realizes she’s not up to the challenge of fighting an ogrinka warrior toe-to-toe, and retreats from the third. Gena leaps onto the stage and engages the ogre, who reproves him in an aggrieved tone. “How dare you challenge the future son-in-law of the Ogre King himself?”

The ogrinka fishers struggle against Anfisa and Kostya. Mika ducks around to the other side of the bear, attempting to hide from the ogrinka that’s already wounded her. Gennadiy’s exemplary shieldwork keeps him from taking the brunt of the would-be ogre bridegroom’s cataclysmic swings, though even the deflected strikes send shocks down his shield arm. Kazimeer is gathering more power to tip the tide — when one of the doors crashes open. Another ogre woman appears, with tendrils trailing from under her skin like those of the ogre barge’s helmswoman.

The battle turns ugly with both ogres in play. Kazimeer puts a thunderbolt into the tree-speaker, and she retaliates with a double smash from her tendril-whips that nearly smashes him into the floorboards. Mika conjures another of the Queen’s Needles, but sends it too hastily, and the icy bone stabs into Kostya. The bear snarls back at the Namalukii priestess, but channels his anger into the ogrinka.

With the last of the ogrinka down, Anfisa and Kostya slam into the treespeaker. An angry Volyar trollslayer and a furious wounded bear are more than she can easily handle, and her blood is flowing freely within seconds. Mika focuses once more, and a bone javelin strikes into the back of the ogress’s head. The treespeaker crashes to the ground, and within moments Gena strikes the killing blow to the pirates’ leader.

The bogatyrs bind their wounds and check the trading post for survivors. While there are no more ogres, they do find a pair of captives — young women in makeshift cages, their hair cropped close to the skull. The women say they were caught a week ago, and that the ogres were apparently keeping them until their hair grew out again. The bogatyrs discover the reason among the ogres’ work areas — a noose made from a short rope woven of the women’s hair. Anfisa and Mika concur that once the rope was lengthened, it would be a perfect instrument to catch a rusalka.

Beyond the captives and the rope, the trading post is certainly stocked with plunder. The would-be bridegroom had amassed a good portion rimespinner silk, korzalka, ivory, and mirrors. While the looted goods don’t add quite up to a king’s ransom, the ogre pirate certainly seems to have been on his way to a princely bride-price. Gennadiy commandeers some of the korzalka and sets about toasting their success.

They wait only a little time before the trading post’s clearing becomes a little… smaller. The edge of the forest has drawn five yards closer. They make ready for trouble, and in the time it takes them, the treeline has drawn closer by another five. Then several saplings, bifurcated and walking like humanoids, emerge from the woods and form a semicircle around the beach. Finally, a hulking figure follows them. It stands ten feet high, with wooden flesh and leafy hair, and dark sunken eyes. The firelight glints from a silver object buried deep in the forest spirit’s long, tangled, rootlike beard — and Mika and Anfisa see it as the scissors-handle they expect.

The leshy rumbles like the earth shifting between roots. “Who are you to kill those under my protection?”

Anfisa hands her sabers to Gennadiy, who starts but accepts them. She walks across the clearing to address Grandfather Darkroot. If the leshy is impressed by her fearlessness, he is not swayed by her brusque negotiating manner. Mika also adds her demands that Darkroot be obliging, but it doesn’t help matters.

Anfisa’s patience runs out, and she grabs at the scissors unsuccessfully. The leshy rears back, but before he can crush Anfisa in retaliation, Mika pulls free the frozen tear of Fair Mirinka and throws it. The tear smashes against Grandfather Darkroot’s knee, and ice crawls over his legs, freezing him to the spot. The leshy roars in frustration, and the saplings advance on the building. Gena holds steady, and Kazimeer gathers sorcerous power, as the walking trees begin dismantling the wooden walls as easily as opening windows.

A second grab for the scissors does no better, and the leshy catches Anfisa in a massive hand. He squeezes, and her ribs creak nearly to breaking. Mika races across the clearing, scrambles up one of Darkroot’s legs, and reaches into the beard. She feels a cold like a winter river as her fingers close on the scissors’ handle, and it comes free in her hand..

Grandfather Darkroot trembles and cracks free of the ice. The saplings halt in their tracks.

“I feel… calmer.”

Anfisa and Mika take the lead in talking to the leshy. He allows himself to be flattered, and does not protest too strenuously when they point out the flaws in his behavior toward the ogres and Fair Mirinka. But he still carries himself like a wild thing, and requests that one of the women help untangle his beard. Mika backs away, and lets Anfisa take the lead.

The Volyar woman finds the task more like freeing a rabbit from a briar than anything else. But she patiently keeps at it until the leshy’s beard is free of knots. He lets out a satisfied rumble, and the saplings take a step back away from the building. “I am pleased,” he says. “And I will offer you a boon.”

Mika tells him to leave young women be, but Anfisa looks the leshy in the eye until his attention is full on her.

“Tell me where my father is.”

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