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.