Trumps of Winter

16 - The Rogue
A visit to the Crooked Tower and a bloody river voyage.

The four load the pack mules with the firebrass, hardsilver, and a selection of the finest looking masterwork weapons and pieces of armor. They bury the remainder in a hidden cache, and begin the trek back to Zelezka.

Before they reach the city, Mika splits off from the others and slips innocuously through the gates. The other three enter openly. They — Gena in particular — speak as if mourning their fallen comrade, the young witch who was lost in combat against the Ruin’s warband. Once they’ve rented a warehouse, placed their plunder from the Luskrin armory inside with some hired guards, they move to rent a barge with the public intention of taking the spoils upriver.

Anfisa’s reputation precedes her. Not only is she able to get an excellent price on renting a barge, but a pair of sellswords volunteer to help the trollslayer out with her next escapade. The prospect of fighting ogres on the river doesn’t deter Zilya and Kovor at all, who think the idea sounds glorious. Anfisa also finds a refugee from Horograd who has seen one of the ogre attacks firsthand. He is able to describe the area where the attack happened, and the fact that the ogres seemed especially interested in their cargo of rimespinner silk.

Kazimeer drops by Iissa’s houseboat and confers with the Maliokis. Belzec tells him a tale they’ve picked up regarding Grandfather Darkroot. Reputedly the leshy attempted to befriend Fair Mirinka, asking her to groom his beard. He grew offensive, and she injured him; to this day, her scissors are tangled in his beard.

Gena continues to spin the tales of their heroism in Zelezka’s taverns. Mika, disguised, sits at the far end of the common room and discreetly glares at him as the recounting of her heroic final moments becomes more and more grandiose. Then she’s no longer alone. A gambler sits down with her, placing a card on the table before her. He tells her in somewhat cryptic language that she has been invited to the Crooked Tower, seat of Prince Casivir the Betrayer. The invitation is at her convenience, and she’s welcome to bring her friends. She turns over the card as the gambler leaves, and stares at the Knight of Cloaks.

Mika finds the others. They’re surprised to see her genuinely anxious for a change. They all agree to accompany her to her audience, and when they set out, even Kostya comes along.

The Crooked Tower is remarkably nondescript on the exterior for the seat of a Trump. On the inside, the tower is dim and labyrinthine. A servant guides the bogatyrs up a tall set of rickety stairs to the court of the Rogue. A few of the Prince’s courtiers stand about the room — a nervous-looking woman whose arcanist robes are marked with a hare emblem, a bearded warrior with a scar across his bald scalp, a quiet woman in court uniform — but it’s the Prince who speaks.

Casivir offers pleasantries to Mika first. He compares her to an otter that makes few ripples as she swims. He then turns his attention to the others, and displays some knowledge of each of them — Gena’s books, Kazimeer’s connection to Alsvedun the Magnificent, Anfisa’s hunts. The bogatyrs respond politely and cautiously, and before long Casivir cuts to the point. He states he’s aware of the tensions between them and the Iron Tsar. Olek’s delegation is coming for another visit, and Prince Casivir offers them the opportunity to listen in on the audience.

The bogatyrs agree after a bit of consultation. They step to one side of the room, and Casivir’s arcanist draws an invisible curtain across the space. Their view of the courtroom is only slightly blurred as Olek arrives with General Roskoy, Lt. Teskina and Radenza in tow.

Olek addresses Casivir with a deference that stops short of sycophantry — or outright dread. The Traitor Prince responds pleasantly enough, then cuts short the formalities and declares he’d prefer to speak to Olek’s master. Olek seems startled for a moment, then nods. He pulls away the fabric from his neck, revealing a brand across his throat. His head drops back, and the brand pulses once, and then when he returns his gaze to Casivir, his voice has changed.

“Casivir.”

“Doryevni. Ah, Lord Gorinstal. My apologies.”

The bogatyrs quietly watch as the conversation unfolds. Casivir admits to having deduced that the Donjon card allows the master to speak through the voice of the servant. He then asks Gorinstal to cut to the point and tell him — in his own words — just what he wants. Gorinstal-through-Olek responds that he was hoping for an alliance. He would sweeten the arrangement, of course; if Casivir agrees to wear the Donjon’s brand, then he’ll have all the power of the Rogue card and a portion of the Donjon’s. “I expect you to try removing it,” says the Iron Tsar, “but once you’ve tasted the power, why would you?”

“Just why do you want me to wear your brand?”

“Because I need to trust you. People can’t work with people they can’t trust.”

“Of course they can. That’s why we invented money.” Prince Casivir smirks. “What’s this really about, Doryevni? You must need more allies.”

“Yes. Not all the powers in the land understand my claim. But some are willing to listen.”

“Not the Fool, obviously, or the Void. Or the Ruin…” Casivir paces for a moment. “The Skull.”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, an alliance wouldn’t do us much good with so much space between us. We’re on opposite sides of the nation.”

Olek smiles the smile of the Iron Tsar. “And what if I were in Miska?”

“I doubt that will happen.”

“We’ll see.”

Olek staggers and returns to himself. Casivir thanks him for his promptness, and dismisses the delegation, citing a desire to go to bed. Once the Donjon’s men have departed, the mage draws the curtain back.

“And there you have it,” says Prince Casivir.

The bogatyrs thank Casivir, and depart. They return to the barge and spend some time thinking about the ramifications of what they’ve overheard. Mika proposes a trip to the city of Tyurin once their business on the river is finished — the attention of the Rogue has crystallized a desire to see for herself just what the Throne’s true intentions are.

In the morning, a new distraction presents itself. A halfling merchant introduces herself as a representative of Guildmistress Marcadda Manyrings, the holder of the Gem. She offers to purchase the metal and weapons they took from the Luskrin armory at a fair price. After a bit of discussion they agree to sell most of the hoard, keeping back only the weapons they’d already claimed for personal use and a few bars of hardsilver and firebrass. It takes most of the day to run though the verifications and formalize the sale, but at the end of it all the four are largely relieved to be relieved of the burden and carrying plenty of coin, gems, and letters of credit. By their reckoning, the ogres’ informer Bradak must already have sent word of the shipment heading north. They depart that evening, with Mika on board hidden among the barge’s crew.

They spend the first night on the river, travel another day upstream, and spend the same night roughly as the first. Light sleet falls the following morning. Zilya and Kovor make a point of walking the deck half-naked, to face the elements properly. Mika brews them some of her… special tea as a response.

Thanks to the warning Anfisa received, the group is well-prepared to recognize the most probable location of the attack. They are more than ready when the mist rolls down the river. A massive shape looms quickly out of the fog. The ogres’ craft is nearly three times the size of theirs, lashed and nailed together from the remains of three river barges. A pair of ogres swing huge chain grapnels as the vessel bears down on its prey, and a group of ogrinka stand ready to board.

The bogatyrs launch initial volleys, scoring a few wounds before the ogres with grapnels hook their barge and draw the two craft together. The ogrinka are the first to board as the ogres secure the chains. Behind them, a third ogre, with long root-like tendrils growing from under her skin, advances from her position at the helm.

Blood flows freely during the boarding action. The ogrinka are first to fall, but Mika is badly pummeled by the ogre’s spears, her armor protecting her from being outright impaled. She flees behind Gena as the melee continues. Kovor and Zilya are heavily injured in the process of dropping their foe. The overgrown ogre lashes out with her symbiotic vines, but whatever power she may have gained from the leshy doesn’t protect her.

When the last of the ogres falls, the bogatyrs face their remaining problem: their barge is still chained to the ogres’ vessel, and their crew doesn’t have near the strength to keep the two under control. The barges go twisting down the river.

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15 - Blackspite's Scourges
The bogatyrs launch their assault against the Ruin's warband.

During the night, Mika felt a cold hand on her soul. Recognizing the call of one of the undead, she made a terse excuse and traveled on her own to the river.

She reached the water’s edge and waited for a time. Finally something emerged from the water — the pale form of another rusalka, slimmer and fainter than Fair Mirinka. The rusalka greeted her, and told her that one of the men she pursues slew a girl and left her body in the river, and the ghosts demand vengeance. Mika asked how to recognize this man, and the rusalka replied that he carries a flail. The river-ghost then offered a small boon: if Mika were to give her a message, she would carry it to the murderer in his dreams.

“Come to the water,” said Mika, “and all will be revealed.”


Mika returns to the others before they establish their watch on the trail. She tells them of her encounter with the rusalka, and that one of the Ruin’s raiders will be compelled to come to the river. The bogatyrs move down to the river’s edge to prepare an ambush. Anfisa picks up enough traces to be confident that the warband has moved from the armory to the river before, and she lays out their trail.

The path leads to an old stone pier, disused and overgrown, built in the time of the armory. Kazimer, Anfisa, and Kostya find hiding places in the forest undergrowth. Gena moves under the stone pier, and throws a quick offering into the river to keep the dread river-spirits away from him. For her part Mika strips, and sits on the edge of the stone pier, singing a mournful song.

The first one down from the hill is one of the lightly armored Volyars. The scout immediately focuses on the naked girl by the river, and doesn’t seem to notice Anfisa, Kazimeer, or even Kostya in their hiding places. He moves farther down, and others follow him — the other two sentries, and the Volyar leader.

As the scouts fan out, four more figures tramp down through the woods. In the lead is a dwarf dressed in the mail of a dragon templar, carrying a flail with three heads worked in the likenesses of Vilyich Valyask Vozmei. A heavy pouch at his waist leaks thin trails of smoke. The three armored men in his wake wear similar mail, clearly acolytes to the dwarf.

As the bogatyrs tense for a more dangerous ambush than they’d hoped for, the rogue Volyar scout leader whistles and points. “Two on the right, one on the left,” he says. As the templars and scouts pull their weapons free, the bogatyrs break from their hiding places.

The Volyar locks on Anfisa as she and her bear charge upslope. “Anfisa!” he roars. “Today I’ll avenge my fallen brothers!” He closes the distance in a burst of speed, putting her immediately on the defensive as he swings his hatchets with berserker fervor.

Kazimeer casts a spell of somnolence, and the lesser scouts and templar acolytes collapse into a shallow sleep. Mika snatches up the sword and shield near her, and charges the templar, a wave of spirits with her. The templar responds by pulling the pouch from his belt and hurling it toward her. It lands in a pile of leaves that go up in flames as the pouch burns away from a flaming ingot. The fire forms into a humanoid form that leaps for Mika. Gena runs his saber through the river’s water (with one more prayer to the spirits) and intercepts the elemental, freeing a path for Mika.

The dwarf templar roars with the voice of a dragon. Mika is forced a step backward, and several of the unconscious warriors begin to stir. He then lunges at her, attempting to brain the naked girl with his triple flail. The templar’s offensive is checked when Kazimeer exhales a cloud of poisonous gas, and the dwarf coughs up a spatter of discolored blood. Gena takes the opportunity to overpower the flame elemental, steam hissing from his saber as it gutters and fades.

Battered and bloodied, Anfisa does her best to deflect the most lethal of her frenzied enemy’s strikes. Even with Kostya by her side, she barely manages to hold on. But then Mika stretches out a hand, and the spirits of Volyar ancestors flood through her. She and Kostya tear the Ruin’s tracker apart.

More of the scouts and the templar’s acolytes pull themselves free of Kazimeer’s enchantment, but it does them little good. Gena dispatches the acolytes with a few expert slashes at the same time that Anfisa and Kostya tear through two of the surviving scouts. Another celestial spell slams into the dwarven templar, and he finally totters and falls. The lone survivor is one of the Volyar scouts, who hastily surrenders when demanded to do so.

The bogatyrs set to interrogating the scout. He confirms that there’s roughly half a dozen men and women left, though their sorcerer has learned the secret to binding the forge’s elemental spirits. He says there is no proper sign or password to bypass the sentinels; the warband is small enough that they all know each other.He also seems certain that his surviving companions have what it takes to kill the bogatyrs — he speaks of the dragonspawn Vilyivich Blackspite with clear dread. Mika, still seething with the vengeance of the murdered girl, orders the captive to strip naked. He does so, and she tells him to run. The scout flees upriver, away from the forge.
The bogatyrs take the scouts’ horns, as well as a few other items of interest, from the corpses. Mika returns to the river to wash away the blood and ash. Anfisa doesn’t bother; the blood of her rival is still crusting her hair as they approach the armory.

They find that none of the scouts on the perimeter have been replaced. But another fire-spirit stands in the doorway to the armory, watching over the glass-scarred open area. The bogatyrs sound a blast on one of the scouts’ stolen horns, and the response is quick.

The enemy warband emerges in force: half a dozen armored warriors, an orcish woman with the ritual branding and light armor of a dragon sorceress, and a tall figure in ornate black plate armor. As they scan the treeline, Kazimeer invokes a small illusion to disguise himself as a blood-smeared scout. He staggers forward, cries out, and falls to the ground.

The warband reacts with caution. The black-armored figure, undoubtedly Vilyivich Blackspite, directs them to move into the western treeline past the pack mules rather than advancing down the open patch. He calls out to the ambushers, apparently unable to see them but certain they’re present. As the warband works its way downhill among the shelter of the western trees, the bogatyrs advance up the eastern side, and make for the armory’s entrance. They set up in the double doorway with Gena and Anfisa closing off the corridor. Anfisa sends an arrow at the warband, but the Ruin’s warriors instead withdraw farther into the trees.

Long moments pass. Blackspite’s Scourges do not reappear, though Gena and Anfisa continue to keep careful watch. Mika wanders back into the armory itself, taking stock of the warband’s activity. The forge contains several half-completed siege weapons, and a number of fine armors and weapons that seem to have passed the centuries without rusting. Many bars of rare metals are bundled for transport, and the gear implies that they were planning to leave soon. As she continues to look over the soot-stained chambers of the interior forge, she hears a distant, echoing chant over the flames. She pinpoints the chant as coming from the chimney before the fire changes from a rich red-orange to a darker, greener-tinted blaze — and then an explosion of smoke fills the forge, rushes down the corridor, and surrounds the entire entrance.

Kazimeer immediately begins to incant a short ritual. He speaks the final words, and the smoke is blasted clear with a gust of wind — just in time for the bogatyrs to see Blackspite and his warriors charging out of the fumes.

The sword Threshold lends its power to Gennadiy as he stands against Blackspite. The dragontooth warrior’s blade leaks a vicious acid from its fuller, spattering Gena even as he parries each blow. Kazimeer hangs back and draws on the arcane power still pulsing from the forge. Anfisa and Kostya tear easily through the orc sorceress’ bodyguards, but the fire elemental obeying her commands engages them before they can reach her.

Mika calls down the power of her goddess, and strikes the orc mid-spell. Gena rallies and delivers a precise strike between the plates of Blackspite’s armor. The dragontooth warrior responds to the grievous wound by spitting a spray of acid across the nearby bogatyrs.

Kazimeer strikes Blackspite with a lance of thunder, and Gena follows up with a vicious strike from Threshold. The black-armored warrior topples backward, acid from his blade spilling across the glass. Gena takes the opportunity to join the fight against the elemental, tipping the scales.

The orc sorceress, already wounded, pulls the cloth away from her neck and strikes a fist against her chest. Anfisa and Kostya give her the glorious death she demands.

With the last of the Ruin’s warband dispatched, the bogatyrs secure the armory. The elemental spirits powering the fire seem quiescent enough. They take the spoils from the warband’s raids:

- A satchel of coin
- A sack of looted silver
- Two mastodon tusks
- An elaborate steel helm
- A masterwork sword from Baravoi
- Two fine jacinths
- An agate figurine of a winged serpent
- Several stolen maps of the western reaches

The forge also offers many antique weapons and pieces of armor, several of which seem to be masterwork quality. But the treasure that seems to have drawn the band all this way is the metal, still untarnished after its time in the armory — a pallet of fine steel, a quarter-pallet of firebrass, and a quarter-pallet of hardsilver. The bogatyrs secure their enemies’ pack mules, and begin prioritizing what to take back with them to Zelezka.

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14 - Reconnaissance and Remembrance
Kazimeer awakes from his vision and Anfisa goes scouting.

When Kazimeer took hold of the stone, he remembered. Or it seemed like a memory.

A colossal pattern fills a starry void, an impossibly intricate orrery of nodes caught in one another’s orbits, changing tracks as they circle one another. Kazimeer draws swiftly closer to it, drawn in particular to a single large and vibrant node with myriad satellites. As the glyphs that would identify this node coalesce in his vision, one of the satellites suddenly swings out of orbit and explodes. The pattern skews, some nodes snuffing out and others developing new patterns, as the fragments become bright nodes of their own—

And Kazimeer relives the vision again. And again.

He perceives more each time. With repetition, he discerns the tiny glyphs in the moment before the explosion. The large node with its countless satellites is a city — Valgrad, it must be Valgrad, where he appeared in the sky. And the satellite that explodes is the Deck, and the shards become the Trumps. The moment that altered the possibilities of the nation, and set twenty-two new locuses of destiny in play.

Again. Kazimeer continues to relive the moment, just before he became a sapient thing, looking for the details that might indicate just what event he was meant to herald. And he sees that his path took him not to Valgrad — but below it. Just before the explosion, he sees the nodes underneath the city. He watches again and again, focusing on the glyphs. A dragon’s skull. A fallen star. A deck of cards, distinctly not the Deck that explodes. Three glyphs. Three things, and one of them what drew him.

But he cannot tell which one.

Kazimeer recovers his senses in the farmhouse; Gennadiy’s coat has been thrown over his arm. Gena and Anfisa show the signs of having been in a fight (and Anfisa’s hair has been cropped shorter), and Mika is absent. Gena cheerfully takes his coat back and explains that Mika left abruptly not long ago; something about searching out water for a vision, probably involving ghosts. As for how long Kazimeer has been “remembering,” it’s been roughly a day.
Kazimeer states that it’s important they go to Valgrad, and explains what he can of his vision. He asks how much longer they have in Zelezka, but Anfisa and Gena shake their heads and say there’s still business to attend do — the ogre river pirates and the warband they’re currently chasing, at the very least.

On that topic, they move to the deserter camp again, in part to make certain that they don’t draw any unnecessary attention to the farmhouse. Anfisa leaves Kostya’s armor there, and the two vanish into the woods to scout the armory. Gena decides to use the time fortify the camp, but his grand plans reach a sour dose of reality when it’s clear Kazimeer is neither physically nor mentally inclined to help with the labor.

Anfisa and Kostya are like ghosts in the woods. They follow a plume of smoke to the site, where it appears to arise from a chimney built deep into the hillside. A portion of the hill is covered with molten glass, keeping the treeline at bay. The two note three lightly armored scouts on watch, all with signal horns. They keep from being noticed in turn, and even pick out the scout’s apparent leader. The rangy-looking Volyar makes regular circuits around the site’s perimeter, distracted only by the occasional bit of game that draws him away for a quick hunt.

She takes careful note of the armory site’s features. The glass that runs downhill splits into claw-like rivulets, but is thickest in the middle. The central clearing by the armory doors is coated in glass as well, though there it’s been scarred enough to give traction. Four pack mules are tethered near the trees on the western side of the camp. The glass over the doors into the hillside has been shaped away, as if by a colossal glassblower, and the doors lie smashed open.

The two return as quietly as they came, where Gena is still working on the camp’s fortifications. She draws a crude map of the site, and says there was no real sign of a back way into the hill, secret or not. Anfisa, Gennadiy and Kazimeer discuss the possibility of silencing the scouts without alerting the others, or possibly smoking the enemy out by stopping up the chimney. They decide on discretion — Vilich Valyask Vozmei has competent and deadly warbands in her service, and this one seems competent at the very least. They choose to wait until they have Mika and her deathly powers back with them.

The three spend the night in the camp, and the fortifications remain untested. With Mika still gone in the morning, they decide to stake out the path that the Ruin’s warriors took toward the armory. It might be imprudent to lay siege to the armory with the witch absent, but an ambush in the woods might suffice — and may be necessary if the warband isn’t to escape with whatever spoils they’ve excavated.

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13 - Fire Above and Water Below
A peculiar pursuit stirs up another peculiar foe.

On the bodies of one of the deserters, they discover a peculiar stone. The object is composed of a metal resembling that of Kazimeer’s body, and adorned with intricate astrological glyphs. Kazimeer takes it in hand and begins to study it — and suddenly he freezes in place, eyes locked onto the stone. He does not respond to anything his companions do, and they find it impossible to so much as move his arms or open his fingers to remove the stone.

They leave the strange, immobilized metal sorcerer there while they scout the deserters’ camp. They see no sign of living stragglers there. With the area secured, they jury-rig a travois for Kostya to pull and drag Kazimeer back to the farmhouse where they’d recently stayed. The family is happy to look after him, if a little unsure what to do other than to stand him upright and wait.

Gennadiy, Anfisa, and Mika return to look over the deserters’ camp with more care. The ragged band clearly hadn’t had great success since fleeing to the hills, and there’s precious little coin or supplies to go around. A quick search turns up no signs of cooperation with a larger force. As the bogatyrs prepare to move on, something strange in the skies catches their eye — a streak of fire, pursuing a flying target. And the pursued party alters its course to aim for the adventurers…

They brace as the first flier descends. The winged beast is artificial, a clockwork hippogriff ridden by a dwarven woman dressed like a well-to-do adventurer-tinker. The hippogriff has taken some damage, and its landing is abrupt, but the dwarf swings out of the saddle with determination. “Sorry to drag you into this,” she says, unholstering a strange mechanical spike-thrower, “but I hope you know how to use those blades.”

The meteoric entity is right behind her. As it descends, it becomes only partly recognizable — some form of infernal spirit, bound in a body of pure flame. A few ember-imps trail it like satellites. But the blazing hunter and its familiars are simply not strong enough to cope with the three very powerful allies the dwarf has found. Gena and Anfisa’s blades, Mika’s invocations and the dwarf’s odd weapon break the summoning apart, though not before a significant section of the forested battlefield is afire.

The dwarf grabs a folding spade from her saddlebags and starts to work digging a firebreak to keep the flames at bay. The bogatyrs join in, and after some quick and vigorous work, the fire seems safely contained on the other side of the break. At that point, the dwarf offers apologetic introductions.

Her name is Aidalore, and she admits to being an agent of Brussenwald Giftgiver, the dwarven masterworker who holds the Key. She had departed from Golen Kar, the Key’s tower, to the kingdom of Miska. Her purpose is as expected: to bring a gift to the young Tsaritsa Kascha Silverchild, as a sign of the ongoing friendship between Key and Moon.

When she hears Gennadiy’s name, Aidalore blinks in recognition. She says that she also has a gift intended for Commander Anrikka Valyevna, or more specifically those who work to aid the Knight. She removes a fine saber from a compartment within the hippogriff’s metallic flank, and presents it to Gena. While she owes the group her thanks, she admits, the weapon isn’t from her — it’s from the Key, and meant for the proper hands. She gives the blade’s name as Threshold, and explains its enchantment of defense.

Aidalore follows the bogatyrs back to the deserters’ camp, well away from the still-burning portion of the woods. Once the mechanical hippogriff is safely there, she takes out some tools from another compartment and begins on the field repairs necessary to have it carry her the rest of the way to Miska.

That evening, a low cloudbank gathers with surprising speed. Almost immediately, the hillside is caught in a heavy downpour. It lasts long enough to quench the forest fire, and then recedes, leaving the hills shrouded in a thick mist.

The night watches are very quiet, muffled as they are by the fog. But something creeps up on the camp all the same. During Mika’s watch, she senses figures moving in the mist just outside the fire’s clearing. Something gets too close, and reaches a pallid and wet arm into the camp. Mika pins the arm to the ground with one of the Queen’s Needles. A gurgled cry erupts, and the arm goes stiff as the lifeblood freezes in it. Mika keeps vigilant, listening to the sounds of the other creatures withdrawing. She doesn’t disturb the corpse until morning.

The fog has not fully cleared when the autumn sun rises, but it thins out as the morning lengthens. The bogatyrs examine the corpse, which is not entirely human. It seems to be a person that has undergone a witch or warlock’s transformation, becoming a part-fish thing of the river. Anfisa identifies it as likely the work of a vodyanoi’s coven, or a warlock aspiring to join such.

Aidalore thanks the bogatyrs again, and mounts the hippogriff. The clockwork beast takes to the air, if somewhat awkwardly, and sets out for Miska. The three then turn their attention to their midnight visitor, and track the creature’s path. It does not take long for Anfisa to find a trail that leads halfway down the hillside to a pool filled by a waterfall.

The three push past the waterfall to the cavern behind. As they do so, a jovial voice greets them. Their host turns out to be an older man, a warlock seemingly partially transformed to emulate a vodyanoi. Several other of the fish-people crouch at attention around the lair, especially by the pool of water at the center, but the warlock acts as though there’s nothing to fear.

The bogatyrs and the warlock parley for a short time, and only for a short time. The three quickly drop threats into their conversation, and the half-vodyanoi does the same in response. Anfisa mentions the habit of stealing innocents to transform them, and Gennadiy fixates on that. When the warrior notes a stool made of human bones, the parley comes to a quick end.

The pool’s waters erupt as the warlock’s hidden weapon emerges — a river troll, at least as thick and stout as the ones recently met in Zelezka. Dreams of drowning flood the bogatyr’s heads as well as the warlock unleashes his personal sorcery.

Anfisa takes on the half-vodyanoi first, like any witch hunter might, and the others join in. The skinny warlock’s body can’t take the concerted punishment, and he quickly drops. A few strikes drop the transformed underlings, and then they put all their efforts toward the troll. It fares no better than the river trolls from Zelezka, inflicting only a glancing swipe or two before it’s cut apart.

The three salvage the witch-lair for things of note; a few materials of potential ritual significance, some baubles, a few valuable stones. The most peculiar thing they find is a neatly folded jester’s costume, in keeping with the fashion of the Tyurinov royal court, bundled and dry in a waterproofed sack.

The bogatyrs leave the warlock’s cave, and march back to the farmhouse to rest. Perhaps Kazimeer will have awakened from whatever spell he is under…

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12 - Stragglers
On the trail of the raiders of the Ruin.

Kazimeer emerges from the houseboat of Iissa the seer, and discovers an excited crowd milling in the riverside streets. He inquires what the disturbance is about, and is told that a troll was slain in one of the dockside warehouses. It doesn’t take the sorcerer long to find Anfisa Trollslayer at the center of a maelstrom of ale and korzalka, with a troll’s head in a very large bucket. Mika remains on the fringes of the crowd, throwing out rumors that exaggerate the glory of the fight, play up the tragedy of the woman who died, and clearly paint Anfisa as the only hero involved.

Gena follows his “friends” in the Gorinstal delegation back to the Shining Comet. He waits downstairs to see if they reappear after reporting in, but unfortunately Radenza catches up with him instead. He makes his polite farewells after a round and returns to prepare for the next day’s journey.

They set out in the morning to hunt for the Ruin’s warband. The trail leads them from one isolated, sacked farmstead to another. In some cases, the inhabitants managed to flee to safety in time, often without even taking the time to get a good look at the raiders. In others, the farmers stood and fought, and died for their troubles. As the group continues down the warband’s trail, they notice a raven that at first follows them and then dives and swoops and croaks, as if attempting to get their attention.

They follow the raven to another farmstead set within the woods.The family of farmers is still present, and apparently under the protection of a wandering bogatyr. The wanderer is a dark-haired man named Korvos who seems to understand his horse and raven as if they can speak. He reveals himself as a traveler from Miska, where he has sworn allegiance to Tsaritsa Kascha Silverchild, the holder of the Moon.

The family invites the bogatyrs in and offers them a humble meal. Over the course of the rest, Korvos speaks at some length about his patron, and his impression of her as a virtuous and honest girl thrust into a difficult position of power. He also tells the group that he’s seen a band of deserters from the Ruin’s forces in the area — mostly hobgoblins, though they have a minotaur in their number. The deserters have been scavenging sacked farms and keeping mostly to themselves; they seem afraid to contact the stronger warband, and are likely growing hungry.

Korvos also notes Anfisa as someone who’s had trouble with witches before. After a bit of discussion, he offers to help her and her friends with the leshy Grandfather Darkroot, if they’d be willing to return the favor and assist him with one of the local covens.

The group stays the evening in the farmstead. They leave at first light, as does Korvos. With his advice, they’re able to make good time toward the old dragon-burnt armory.

Trouble finds them at a chokepoint in the trail, where a fallen tree serves as a makeshift bridge across a wide stream. They spot some movement in the underbrush on the opposite side of the stream. Gena calls out to the strangers, and a lean and ragged hobgoblin emerges to parley.

The deserter speaks defensively, refusing to show weakness despite his haggard appearance. Once the bogatyrs become more aggressive in their demands, another deserter steps free of his hiding place — a minotaur, nearly eight feet tall, and looking as lean and hungry as his colleague. The hobgoblin becomes more pointed in his demands for some sort of protection payment, but the bogatyrs refuse to be intimidated. Anfisa, if anything, seems intent on proving herself against the minotaur just as she’d done with the river trolls.

The negotiations inevitably break down, and the hobgoblin calls for an attack. Arrows fly and more deserters charge from the treeline. As Kazimeer backs away, Anfisa and Kostya charge the minotaur, and Gena locks blades with the hobgoblin leader.

Mika conjures more of the bone javelins called the “Queen’s needles,” skewering several deserters. The minotaur gives Anfisa a powerful blow, and the Volyar huntress spits blood and goes in for another pass with her sabers. By compare, the deserters’ leader quickly realizes that he’s no match for Gennadiy. He ducks under a blow and dives for safety, but Gena tears after him, striking down more of the ragged survivors along the way.

Powerful as a minotaur might be, a hungry minotaur’s strength is clearly second to that of a well-fed river troll — and Anfisa and Kostya have extra help. The bull-warrior falls, and Mika kills two more deserted with a wave of wrathful underworld shades. As Kazimeer topples the hobgoblin leader with a celestial spell, the final deserter makes a run for it. Anfisa lets her sabers fall and draws her bow. Her arrow disappears over the line of the hill just after the runner does. A strangled shout emerges and abruptly cuts off, and then the woods are quiet.

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11 - Toads and Trolls
A friend of the Knight is a friend in need.

The talk with Captain Tzifina is suddenly interrupted when two unfamiliar men wearing the colors of Gorinstal’s delegation barge into the room. They demand action from the captain, claiming that “the murderous saboteur” is still at large. Tzifina tells them that she’s already working on the situation, and tells them to wait their turn. The two men glare at the bogatyrs, and then depart.

Tzifina explains that the Donjon’s men have been putting unofficial pressure on her to help them with a hunt. The woman in question reputedly slew a merchant, who was allegedly sending medicine to beleaguered towns. However, alternate sources claimed that the merchant was reputedly financing bandits to prey on the towns in question, sending them alchemical goods and “blood elixirs” as part of the help. And given that Gena recognizes the woman as Lieutenant Norina, it seems very likely that the delegates’ story is a false one. The bogatyrs agree that this would be an ideal situation for the Donjon’s men to arrive and “solve the problem” — a familiar one, at that. They tell the captain that they’ll see about getting Norina to safety and alleviating the bother on her and her guards.

The bogatyrs depart the guardhouse, stepping past the Donjon’s men. Gena turns to them and says “Tell your comrades that Gena is helping with the hunt, and it will be resolved soon.” The two give him quizzical looks before stepping back inside.

Gena leads the others to the Devil’s Market, with the exception of Kazimeer, who excuses himself to answer a summons from Iissa. It takes him a little time to hunt down Norina. At last he nearly trips over her, still in her beggar’s cloak, and tells her she’s in danger. As he whispers that Gorinstal’s men are stepping up their efforts, she looks past him — something is watching the group.

Gena drinks from his flask as a feigned excuse to turn his head in that direction. In one of the upper gutters, a toad the size of a throw pillow is watching them intently — seemingly focused on Anfisa. He warns the other two bogatyrs, and they all notice when it spreads leathery wings and flies off. In addition to its wings and size, the creature has a smooth tail where its hind legs should be. Anfisa recognizes it as a creature of the Overworld, and sometimes a favorite familiar of witches.

The three split up and follow the toad-thing; Mika and Anfisa keep it well in sight, while Gena takes a little longer. They watch it squeeze into the upper window of a warehouse out on a pier. As Gena catches up, the two Gorinstal men who were last seen harassing Captain Tzifina exit the warehouse and walk back down the pier toward the main street.

Gennadiy intercepts the two. As he starts to explain his part in the hunt, they wave his talk off; they’ve already found a tracker, and they expect results soon. Gena congratulates them, and has no trouble talking them into a few drinks. The nearest drinking house is a rough-looking establishment called the Troll’s Hook, but its brutal clientele doesn’t deter any of the three.

Not longer after the drinking begins, the toad-thing squeezes back out of the warehouse. It beats its wings and begins a slow spiral overheard; once it veers off in a definite direction, Anfisa goes after it. She and Kostya manage to get to a shabby section of docks in time to see it land on another battered and abandoned structure, where it settles for a moment and then releases a piercing croak.

As the hunter and her bear pursue the quarry, Mika creeps quietly up to the warehouse, and finds a window to peer through. Inside, a circle of candles illuminates a man in robes sitting cross-legged on the floor, a chalk eye painted on his forehead. She recognizes the trappings from her tutelage under the Spider-Witch of the Swamp, and realizes the warlock is mentally influencing some creature under his control. Judging by the bone and claw paraphernalia in his keeping, she realizes it may be a troll — possibly even two.

Anfisa draws up as she hears a smashing sound from the small building, followed by a shout of panic. She and Kostya run to the shack, and Kostya smashes the door open. Inside, they see a woman dressed in a beggar’s cloak, bleeding and pressed against the wall, drawing a sword — as a massive, scaly arm with long webbed talons gropes around for her. The siblings lunge for the arm, Anfisa scoring it through its tough scales. The woman rallies at their presence and makes an excellent thrust through the bicep, but the creature retaliates with another brutal claw. It pulls apart more of the floor and crawls through, revealing itself as a river troll.

Mika hears the crash somewhere in the distance. She whispers a prayer to Namaluk, and conjures one of the Queen’s bone needles. The bone javelin strikes the unsuspecting warlock full in the forehead, and he totters to one side, dead before he hits the floorboards. A horrible croak echoes over the river as the water leaper spasms.

Gennadiy hears little of it from his place in the tavern. While the others had been stalking their prey, he had done his best to keep on the good side of the two Gorinstal enforcers. Unfortunately, the two were too proud to back down in the face of surly locals, and wound up getting into a brawl before their first refill. Gena sits back and watches the hostilities, interceding only when it looks likely that someone’s going to pull a knife.

Mika is back into the streets the moment she’s convinced of the warlock’s death. She follows the sound of the croak, and races down a few blocks until she can see the toad-thing, slowly dissolving into Otherworld smoke in the sunset light. The door to the building it sits on is smashed in, and she darts for the opening even as she hears an anguished roar.

Inside, two river trolls have shown themselves — lacking the warlocks’ direction, they still seem to have plenty of hunger and rage. But one of them is cut almost to ribbons already, its lanced arm never having regrown right. It slowly collapses, and Anfisa strikes off its head as Mika watches.

The young priestess conjures the spirits of the Volyar fallen, who cloak the ranger and flood her with age-old fury. She then has to recoil as the second troll tears into her. Anfisa cuts into the other troll, Kostya alongside her, distracting it with fresh pain.

Meanwhile, the brawl in the Troll’s Hook has spread to almost the whole room, and is poised on the edge of real danger. Gena steps in and escorts his two “friends” outside, calming them with a few stern words. He hears the crashing and shouts in the distance, and tells the two to go touch base with their tracker — he’ll look into the trouble.

The second troll still seems disoriented from the spells laid on it. Although it has found its fury, it isn’t clever or quick enough to keep Mika and Anfisa from grievously injuring it. Finally, Anfisa’s sabers tear open a final wound that it just can’t heal, and she strikes through its heart.

Gena leaps into the doorway at that point, shield and morningstar drawn, with a courageous shout. He surveys the room, with one troll decapitated and a second gushing out the last of its blood. “Just in time,” he says. “Again.”

The bogatyrs quickly lever the decapitated troll’s body through its entry hole, and throw the head after it. They take Norina’s bloodstained cloak and plant it with the other troll’s corpse, giving her one of theirs. Mika quickly smears some excess dirt on the soldier’s features, making her a more convincing facsimile of a beggar, and tells her to get out of town quickly.

Norina slips out the back as the three emerge from the broken door. A few Zelezkan guards are cautiously approaching the now-quiet shack, a curious but wary crowd behind them. Gena yells at the guard to go fetch their captain. As they do so, the crowd jostles for a good look. Gennadiy moves past them, and Mika vanishes again.

Gena catches back up to the Donjon’s two men to tell them there was a troll attack, apparently on the woman they were hunting. They are clearly rattled by finding the corpse of their “tracker,” but willing to believe that the hunt was successful — and certainly glad that they can report the same. They return to their delegation’s headquarters to do so.

As the only one at the battle scene, the blood-covered Anfisa is quickly hailed as a trollslayer, and there’s talk of taking the corpse’s skull to fashion into a helm for Kostya. She deals with the captain, who is clearly impressed. In the meantime, Gennadiy and Mika slip back into the dead warlock’s base of operations. Gena steals back the parcel of coin that the Gorinstal delegation had given him, and Mika takes his peculiar sticks of river-bone chalk as her trophy.

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10 - A Thickening Stew
The return to Zelezka brings new information and complications.

With a bundle of shadowy-hued gold and oddly lustered cave pearls as part of their prize, and three liberated prisoners in tow, the bogatyrs leave the mine. They camp for the night in the ghost town, reclaiming their elven captive. During the morning march back to Zelezka, Gena makes a point of telling the elf just what a foolish move the blindworms had made. He plays up the power of Tsar Gorinstal, and the horrible revenges he’d have sought for abducting one of his men. The elf seems to shrug off the commentary. “As if I can tell any one of your authorities apart,” he replies in sullen Moriul.

When they arrive at Zelezka, they quickly draw a crowd. Several of the citizens take to throwing things at the captive elf before Zarosk manages to get word to Captain Tzifina. Tzifina turns out to be a woman with a peculiar streak in her bloodline; her green, perpetually damp hair is matted, giving it an appearance of reeds or kelp. She thanks the bogatyrs for their assistance and takes the captive into custody so that he can face a judge.

Ormir again tells the group that his delegation will be glad to have him back safely. He invites them to come to the Shining Comet, the inn where Gorinstal’s diplomat and his retinue are quartered. Most of the group refuses, though Gena grudgingly agrees. Ormir offers praise for the food and drink they’ll enjoy, which immediately sways Mika and Anfisa. Kazimeer’s idle curiosity gets the better of him — the inn’s name is interesting — and like that, the four bogatyrs and a large bear are following Ormir to the Shining Comet.

The Comet is one of the finer establishments in Zelezka, and the closest quality inn to the Crooked Palace where Prince Casivir hold court. The sign out front shows a comet hanging over what appears to be the skyline of old Valgrad, which draws Kazimeer’s attention. The inside is warm and comfortable, and soon the food and drink is flowing into the bogatyr’s hands. Kostya gives Anfisa a nudge, and at her direction, a nervous servant sets down a bowl of korzalka flavored with honey.

Ormir enjoys a first round with the group, then heads upstairs to inform his colleagues of his return. As the Shining Comet’s proprietor appears to refresh the round of drinks, he compliments Kazimeer on the fine astrological cloak the sorcerer wears. He admits to having an amateur interest in astrology, but before he can elaborate, the tread of boots on the stair interrupts him.

The man leading Ormir’s group downstairs is unfamiliar — a somber-looking man with long, dark hair and a long, dark mustache, dressed in clothes befitting an off-duty general. But Gennadiy recognizes the lieutenant at his right, a woman by the name of Teskina who served in the same battle against the Flames. The entire group also recognize Radenza, who walks casually behind the general and gives them a hearty thumbs-up.

At this point, Mika is nowhere to be seen, though one of the serving girls seems new, and might bear some resemblance.

General Roskoy does offer his formal thanks as well as his measured respect. He sends one of his subordinates to their rooms, who returns with a fine gift of thanks: an exquisitely balanced cavalry morningstar from the forges of Ublerast.

As Gena puts on a cheerful face and continues to exchange pleasantries with the general, Kazimeer catches the attention of the Shining Comet’s proprietor. He asks about the meaning of the inn’s name. The innkeeper gladly shares the tale of how he’d fallen on hard times while living in Valgrad, and wondered if he should seek his fortune elsewhere. As he contemplated the skies, wondering if they’d show him a sign, a comet appeared over the city. He took it as a reason to move on, and left Valgrad just before Prince Casivir led his troops on the capital — and the Grand Tsar made the Disastrous Draw. Kazimeer congratulates the innkeeper on his fortune, but does not elaborate on his own knowledge — that he is the namesake of the Shining Comet, and the harbinger that saved the man’s life.

General Roskoy does not remain downstairs long. The taciturn warrior makes his farewells and returns to his quarters, with his retinue following in his wake. The group continues to wait in the Comet, with designs on spotting the emissary Olek. Sure enough, at dinnertime a handsome blond man in courtly attire appears, with a pair of bodyguards in tow. Gena immediately hails him for a bit of friendly chat, hoping to draw out a few more of the delegation’s secrets.

Olek, it turns out, is a very slippery conversationalist. He manages to insinuate his way through the conversation, drawing out some tidbits from Gena until the bogatyr realizes he’s being outmaneuvered and speaks as defensively as he can manage. The ambassador’s one slip-up occurs when the ever-anonymous Mika distracts him with a jostled tray of drinks. He mentions the Rogue card and when he does, there’s a gleam in his eye that Gena recognizes as the familiar gleam of ambition. Gena politely abandons the conversation afterwards, and lets Olek go about his business.

The bogatyrs leave the inn not long afterwards, and Gennadiy (who, like Kostya, is a a bit drunk) mentions that he suspects Olek wants to lay hands on the Rogue card. As they walk through the narrow streets, they hear citizens speaking excitedly about an incipient execution on the Bone Bridge. They make for the bridge, and discover their suspicions are correct — the elf they’d surrendered to Captain Tzifina is standing on a plank extended from the bridge over the river, hands bound, surrounded by guards. Mika takes particular note of a woman with Namalukii markings on her face and a blue-and-bone robe, who chants, eyes closed, as the presiding judge consigns the elf’s soul to the other worlds. Then they drop the plank, and the blindworm falls into the river. His head breaks the water for a moment — then a pale blue glow lights up the water below him, and he is dragged swiftly under. He does not rise again.

As the crowd disperses, Mika quietly tails the Namalukii woman until she can find a safe spot to approach her. She introduces herself to the priestess, Speaker Yetnava, and identifies herself as a fellow priestess who joined the cult of the Winter Queen for vengeance. The two discuss matters on a pier, and as the night deepens, mist rises, shouding their conversation. A pale form rises from the waters — Fair Mirinika. The rusalka draws close to Mika, and sheds a single tear that freezes on her pallid cheek. She takes the frozen tear, hands it to Mika, and whispers a single word: “Beware.”

The next day, the group spends a little time gathering information about the other possible targets. The ogre pirates have been hitting upstream, most recently commandeering a brewer’s boat and sacking a riverside village. The Ruin’s warband have been looting farmsteads, and occupied a shrine to the wisdom-god Dardekan where they forcefully interrogated the monks. A band of Zelezkan adventurers skirmished with the dragon-raiders, and were soundly beaten.

Anfisa meets with a witch hunter by the name of Grivari who has some interesting news about the ogres. He says they sail under the protection of a leshy named Grandfather Darkroot, whose forest-magic is concealing their harbor. His advice to Anfisa is to take owl feathers: when burned, the smoke will break a leshy’s illusions.

Gena also makes an unexpected contact when a ragged beggar-woman with a sword-shaped bundle under her cloak calls him into an ally. She reveals herself as one of the Knight’s lieutenants, currently in disguise. Lieutenant Norina reveals that the ogre pirates have an informer in the city, a fellow named Bradak. That evening, Gena visits the Silver Net, where one of the liberated prisoners helps spread the word to the gambling house that he’s an honorary scoundrel. The new “friends” he makes there quietly inform him that Bradak is a smuggler who’s had his piece of the pie dwindling of late.

They take their knowledge to Captain Tzifina the following morning, and suggest that they set some false information for Bradak so they can lure the ogres out. After some debate, they agree on Anfisa’s proposed plan: they’ll first travel south to engage the Ruin’s warband. Whatever prize the dragon’s raiders are searching out, it may be sufficient bait to entice the ogres to come after a false trade barge.

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09 - Blood and Salt
Against the blindworms of Herzikoy Mine.

The four gather around their captive.The elf is pale as bone, with hair to match, and some odd fungal-seeming growth along the left side of his jaw and cheek. They debate the benefits of interrogating him, and then wake him up.

The blind-elf squints through his blindfold at them, and responds to their first question with a string of unfamiliar language. Unfamiliar to most, that is — Mika recognizes the Moriul language and responds in kind. She translates Gena’s threats and adds a few of her own. The elf flinches, but begins to talk. He tells them there are half a dozen more goblins, a pair of bugbears and two more elf scouts remaining. He also says that the captives were taken for “endurance testing.” When the group presses for more details, he asks “If you want to save them quickly, why are you wasting time with me?”

Gena asks if there are traps, and Mika translates the elf’s replay as “Where we walk?” They take that as a negative and deliver another blow to their captive’s head, knocking him cold again. Then they enter Herzikoy Mine. The walls of the mine are surprisingly smooth, still gleaming with veins of rose salt. The main corridor is wide and level, and the four pass a branching tunnel leading downwards in favor of advancing to the temple area.

The vault of the temple is surprisingly large, with ceilings high enough to support chandeliers carved from rose salt, an altar of the same, and four alcoves featuring statues and shrines. The pews have been rimed over in the abandoned years, and the Blushing Maiden statues visible seem to have undergone some erosion. More gruesomely, two butchered corpses lie at the feet of a pair of Maidens, their blood further staining the rose salt of the statues’ gowns.

A scraping sound betrays the presence of goblins hiding behind the pews. Mika commands them to show themselves. They do so, enthusiastically rushing her. At the same time, another of the pale-furred bugbears steps from a shrine alcove and hurls a spiked iron ball at Mika.

Anfisa and Kostya disengage from the goblins to pursue the bugbear. Gennadiy stays to fight them off. Mika impales three of them with conjured bone lances, and their blood runs in rivulets across the salt floor.

A sharp cracking noise echoes in the temple. The blood of the goblins and of the murdered captives seeps further into the Blushing Maidens, and the two statues animate, pulling themselves free of the floor.

Gennadiy intercepts one of the salt golems as Mika finishes the last of the goblins. Kazimeer throws an arcane bolt into the badly wounded bugbear, and with it no longer an issue, Anfisa and Kostya pin down the other Blushing Maiden. The animated statues throw strong blows, and the salt makes the wounds they cause even more painful, but they are not powerful and swift enough to overcome superior numbers and mortal cunning.

The bogatyrs check the shrines to north and south. The shrine to Yalichem, god of wealth, has an empty rimed-over chest before it, perhaps looted long ago. Gena drops a few coins in it, and prays that he’ll recover what he’s owed. Anfisa notes the pile of weapons set before the altar to Goryador, and drags the bugbear’s cudgel to add to the pile. A warm feeling of confidence floods the group as she does so, and she gives thanks to the battle-god.

The four leave the temple and make for the branching shaft leading farther down into the hillside. Here the mine is less refined, clearly still under excavation as opposed to the artistic temple above. They find an old storeroom still filled with crates covered with a layer of salt, and a rusted mine cart on rails. Neither item seems immediately useful, so they follow the rails down the slope.

Along the descending slope, they find another shrine carved into the wall. The god venerated here is a more frightening one — Isrilv, the Barbed Queen of Hell. A number of skulls are set into the alcove’s walls, doubtless the heads of criminals placed there to speed them on their way to damnation.

The tunnel eventually ends in a pair of doors, ramshackle but still solid. An odd greenish-blue light comes from the cracks. Spying through the gap, they see a large room with thick stone tables and cages built into the walls, lit by odd lanterns that give off a cool bioluminescence. Only a few shadows move slightly — the enemies seem to be keeping out of sight.

Anfisa gestures and Kostya smashes down the doors. Goblins spill out from behind the tables, and two elves — a scout with a crossbow and a knife-wielder in pale almost-robes — step from the shadows. A bugbear reveals himself with a hurled axe, and Gena moves to pursue him. Mika moves into the room, and Anfisa and Kostya charge into the goblins. A spell from Kazimeer sends the goblins to sleep, and they tumble across the salty floor.

The elven “physician” darts at Gena, and something… horrible happens with his — its — face. Gena recoils at a vision of a tortured friend, and when his mind clears, he sees himself. The others see two Gennadiys locked in combat, almost impossible to distinguish.

Kazimeer, still in the door to the room, suddenly reels from a blow to his ribs, or where ribs would be on a fleshly man. The astrological cloak he took from Ulvo flashes, and he steps briefly across space to another portion of the room. He looks back and sees a surprised bugbear, who had crept from some unknown hiding place to flank him.

As the elven scout pins down Mika, the southern wall slams open. Reinforcements pour through the portal — an elf with the same face and gear that the shapeshifter had worn, flanked by another elven scout and another bugbear. The scouts let fly with bolts, and the blindworms’ leader calls up a gout of crimson fire from the already spilled blood. The bugbear crashes hard into Anfisa, and she struggles not to lose ground.

One of the bugbears falls, and Gena cuts his way free from the shapeshifter. Some spirit of battle seems to possess him, and he lashes out with astounding strength and precision. Another bugbear topples quickly, followed by two of the goblins stirring awake, and he mauls an elven scout for good measure. The tide turns in his wake.

The blindworm blood-mage falls back, wounded, to the hidden room — a secret shrine to the god of darkness, Hothos — and activates a night-black portal. The bogatyrs push after him, slaying the remaining goblins and bugbear as Gena finishes the maimed scout. The pale elf doesn’t tarry. He leaps through the curtain of darkness and is gone. Soon afterwards, the dark field vanishes like a mist burning off.

The bogatyrs free the surviving captives. The former prisoners thank them effusively. One, a man named Ormir, turns out to be a member of Tsar Gorinstal’s delegation. He promises that his allies will hear of the group’s heroism — a prospect that raises little genuine enthusiasm. Another introduces himself as Zarosk, a cartographer by trade and a loyalist to Alsvedun the Magnificent. He immediately falls into conversation with Kazimeer, and mentions that the blindworms disposed of some of the captives’ bodies by dragging them down a tunnel. They spoke of some sort of drake; Zarosk doesn’t know what sort and is almost glad of it.

The group decides to scout the drake’s lair. They go down a smaller, roughly carved tunnel that eventually turns into a more open area. A creature with scales like fresh ivory lies curled in a ball, slumbering in a mound of gravel and crushed salt. Gena makes note of the number of legs, and is suddenly convinced that this is a salt basilisk. He’s heard much of drakes of that sort, and he recommends they leave it be.

The bogatyrs then make their preparations to leave. They pull most of the interesting and portable treasures and tools from the blindworms’ bodies, and then roll the various carcasses down into the drake’s tunnel to keep it pacified. Gennadiy lays the weapons of his opponents at the shrine of Goryador on the way out, and offers a prayer that the basilisk does not go hunting.

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08 - Tales of the Rogue’s City
A burden delivered and new ones accepted.

The road to Zelezka unfolds without trouble for the four adventurers. They sight a wyvern in the distance once. Another evening, a “wandering monk” attempts to join their camp, but the bandit infiltrator is clearly intimidated by what he sees, and is gone in the morning without a peep.

As they approach the tangled river city, Belzec Malioki spins a tale to his children of Zelezka’s iniquity. The story concerns a young peasant who visits the city, and is tricked out of each of his limbs in succession. Finally he throws himself into the river, and is avenged by Fair Mirinka, the rusalka who protects the city. Belzec interprets the tale’s moral as “be more clever than that.”

They enter Zelezka near the Wooden Bridge. There they part with Lorsky, who is off to gather recruits and bring them downriver to Valgrad. Gennadiy gives him a letter for Commander Anrikka Valyevna, should he see her before Gena does. The four decide to take the Maliokis the rest of the way: whatever they’ve been transporting, Kazimeer and the others want to see it safely housed.

The tieflings take the wagon to the houseboat of Iissa the Snowy-Eyed, a half-elven diviner and lesser ally of Alsvedun the Magnificent. She welcomes the four in, and Gena pauses to skip a few coppers out onto the river for Fair Mirinka before he crosses the water into the houseboat.

Once inside, the Maliokis take out a coffer and remove a few candles from its interior, passing the largest and fattest to Iissa. She lights it with a conjured flame, and the wax quickly melts to reveal a strange key of mottled gold and silver within. She explains that the key unlocks the manse of Vilivin the Dreamer, also called Vilivin the Doomed, the artist who painted the Trumps themselves. It is apparently the genuine article, and she plans to contact Alsvedun to learn his next recommendation — the manse is said to still hold many terrors unwittingly conjured by the delirious artist. Iissa thanks the group for their assistance, and offers a divination in return for their service. They agree to return the next day once they’ve settled on a question.

The group sets out for dinner and drinks, choosing the rather humble establishment of the Prince’s Boot, where a boot said to be Prince Casivir’s (dropped when he was fleeing from a grateful lady’s bedroom) is enshrined over the bar. They begin to gather information, and hear quite a bit:

- A delegation of the Iron Tsar’s men is in town to meet with Prince Casivir.
- Blind-elves and their beasts are stealing children from the docks. Some have been sighted near an abandoned salt mine.
- Witches are travelling between local covens, seemingly allying with one another.
- Ogre river pirates are attacking boats upriver; the Volyar river-hunter Rina Radovna plans to hunt their stragglers.
- Downriver, a band of raiders led by one of of Vilich Valyask Vozmei’s dragon-templars is on the hunt for something.
- Young and hale people are going missing from the Devil’s Market.
- The drowned dead protect the local shrine of Namaluk.
- Prince Casivir was maimed in the Disastrous Draw, and now hides the scars.
- Many displaced refugees from Storovia, the land now conquered by the Ruin, have sought asylum in town. Anfisa speaks with the displaced Boyar Ivarr, who gives her an amulet to protect her against their mutual foes.

Gennadiy takes a particular interest in the rumor of disappearances. He shadows the Devil’s Market, eavesdropping on conversations until he hears talk of huge bugbears, pale as ghosts, who appear when the mists are thick and vanish without a sound.

The next morning, the adventurers pool their rumors and discuss which sound the most actionable. They are unable to decide: Gennadiy argues for hunting ogre pirates; Anfisa wants to stalk the Ruin’s warband, and of course there are the disappearances to consider. They decide to call on Iissa, and ask for the divination to tell which of the threats is most urgent. She lays out a fortunetelling deck, a simpler variant of the Deck that Vilivir created, and turns over a single card — the Void. The card held by the Kingdom of the Blind, speaking directly to the blind-elves and pale bugbears.

That afternoon and the following morning they make preparations. Gennadiy arranges to purchase equipment, including several spare weapons. Mika shadows the gate guards at night, to determine if they’re in collusion with the blindworms. Kazimeer pores through the stacked books of various scribes, learning what he can about the history of Herzikoy Mine. The mine was once prosperous, he finds, with shrines to several gods built in its depths. But the town died out from a sickness that claimed any replacement workers that moved there, and at present is considered a cursed place.

They set the following day after an early lunch, and are winding their way up the hillside trails by late afternoon. The sun has already moved behind the hills, though it’s still an hour or two until dusk. They reach a hollow, set atop a smaller hill against the wall of a larger one, where the bleached shacks and desiccated trees of a ghost town wait for them.

As they look for a place to safely tie their horses, they hear creaking from the huts. Kazimeer detaches the living dodecahedron from his wrist, and sends it to investigate. An arrow flies from one of the shacks, nearly striking it. Then the rickety doors of two shack burst outward, as pale bugbears and equally pallid goblins pour out into the dusk, a white-skinned and white-haired elf behind them. The warband all wear gauzy black blindfolds, further proving their origins.

A bolt from the elf’s crossbow strikes Kazimeer, but space warps as his stargazer’s cloak reacts, and he vanishes to reappear at a safer distance. The goblins rush at the front line, pinning down Anfisa. Mika responds by conjuring ancient ghosts, the vestiges of ancestors that settle into Gennadiy and Anfisa’s thews. The macabre blessing fills them with strength, and they tear apart the goblins even as Kazimeer throws a thunderbolt into the shack, missing the elf but showering him with splinters.

Gena and Anfisa advance to lock blades with the bugbears. The elf murmurs an incantation to throw a web across the party’s ranks, and then ducks behind one of the shacks. Kazimeer pursues him, wounding him with another spell.

Anfisa’s Volyar ancestors roar in her blood. Powerful as the bugbear is, she cuts it down with a pair of murderous saber strikes. She then chases for the elf, who stabs at her and flees. Unfortunately for him, Mika targets him with a vindictive prayer, and the arcane power of the Hand of Guryakin roots him in his tracks. He has nowhere to go when Kazimeer levels another thunder burst at him, strking him unconscious.

The last bugbear has no time to consider its options. Already bloodied by its struggle with Gena, it lacks the speed to save itself when Anfisa descends on him, her ancestor-vestige still furious with old debts against its kind. The last peals of thunder echo from the hills, and the battlefield goes silent. The four collect their elven captive, keeping an eye on the mouth of the salt mine.

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07 - The Battle of Redtusk Hall
The four stand against the mad doom-cultist, and the dweller in the stone is revealed.

Kurzkov has his guards assemble, and arms and armors himself as well. As he buckles on his weapons, he tells the servants to retrieve another parcel from the trophy room. They reappear carrying a light suit of bear armor. Kurzkov explains that this belonged to an old companion of his, and he offers it to Anfisa and Kostya for their assistance. She accepts gratefully and begins strapping the plates on her bear.

The boyar chooses to wait for Ulvo’s arrival on the front stairs of the inner keep, some of his men at his side and others with bows up on the ramparts. Gennadiy advises against the boyar standing in full view, but he refuses to take cover. “I won’t hide from this traitor,” he says. Gena grudgingly accepts it, and chooses to stand near Marisky, who has also taken up arms and armor to stand with her father. Then there’s nothing to do but wait to see if reinforcements from the town or Ulvo and his cult are the first to arrive.

Regrettably, the stargazers appear first. Ulvo stands near the front of his congregation, with the fat man and thin man nearby, and Butrek looking only a little uncomfortable. The rest of his entourage is a mix of various townsfolk with a cold look in their eyes. The stargazer speaks first, in an ingratiating tone.

“My lord, I am sad to see you have let these outsiders turn you against me.”

“You have done this to yourself,” returns Kurzkov, scattering the nativity charts on the floor.

The stargazer twitches at the corner of one eye, but replies in a calm tone. “I only sought to grant your wish for a strong heir.”

“If you were honest,” rumbles the boyar, “you would have told me the cost.”

Ulvo sighs. “It seems the hour of the messenger has descended.”

And then Girinka, to her own surprise, stabs Boyar Kurzkov in the side.

Chaos breaks out. Half of the boyar’s soldiers turn on their own, and the mob surges forward. Ulvo’s voice is heard above the shouts, clear and commanding. “Capture the boyar if you can. Kill the strangers.”

Mika responds to Ulvo with a spell. She cuts his side with a bone lance, tearing open his robe and revealing a set of oddly familiar glyphs drawn on his skin. Kazimeer, up on the ramparts, throws a starbolt at Ulvo and catches the stargazer’s robes on fire. The Idiot cultist, who’d claimed to know knothing of magic, returns a bolt of celestial lightning.

Anfisa fixates instantly on the traitor Girinka, Kostya following her lead. The two immediately pin the steward down, keeping her from further injuring the bleeding boyar. As Gena steps forward to protect Kurzkov and Marisky, two of the congregation undergo an alarming change. The flesh of one bulges and hardens, gaining a metallic sheen like Kazimeer’s. The other’s clothes burn away as some sort of star-fire erupts from cracks in his skin. The star-iron possessed charges Gena, who must use his full strength to avoid being driven back by the metallic fists’ punishing blows. He stands firm, though, using his shield expertly and protecting Marisky as best he can.

Ulvo’s bodyguards, fat and thin, lunge into the melee around the steps. Rather than fight the still-loyal guards or the adventurers, they attempt to push a way for Butrek. Neither Gena nor Anfisa is free enough to intercept them, and Mika and Kazimeer have their hands full exchanging sorceries with Ulvo.

A bale ray from the burning man lashes out at Mika, but misses. She uses the opportunity to wound Ulvo again, and the glyphs continue to tug at her memory.

Some time ago, the Spider Witch of the Marshes showed Mika a straw and a basket. With a long nail, she caught the straw on fire, and the basket across the room began to burn. “You see?” she said. “The small thing holds the safety of the larger.”

Mika shakes her head. “Be careful!” she shouts. “Those glyphs on his skin — they’re tied to the stone!” Kazimeer throws another starbolt at Ulvo, whose robes continue to burn.

On the steps. Gena commands Marisky to take the potion on his belt and drink it. She reacts almost without thinking to his commander’s tone. Gena continues to fight the star-iron man, and although his shield keeps most of the harm away from him, he can’t push the metallic cultist back in time. Ulvo’s bodyguards finish clearing a path, and Butrek races into the keep.

Mika looks back and forth between the open door and Ulvo — and the decision’s made for her. The stargazer falls to the ground, still blazing with Kazimeer’s astral fire. She races into the keep, and Kazimeer follows quickly after her. Mika catches sight of Butrek, running upstairs in the direction of the boyar’s daughters’ chambers.

Anfisa slams Girinka down, knocking the last of the fight out of her without killing her. She deftly moves to catch the fat man, Kostya following her. Opposite her, Gena strikes down the star-iron cultist and moves to catch the thin man. In the grand melee, the cultists’ numbers have given them an edge over the still-loyal guards — and then the reinforcements arrive. Lorsky and his soldiers charge through the gate, with Kradovar and Radenza at their sides.

Inside the keep, Kazimeer sets his sights on Butrek. “Ulvo is dead,” he calls out. Butrek responds with a sigh — then charges Kazimeer. His attack is equal parts brutal and underhanded, and the star-mage recoils from the sudden pain. Mika supports Kazimeer with an invocation to her dread deity, then sends another bone lance at Butrek. It misses, though the shrapnel sends a few slivers to draw blood from his cheek. The warrior continues to strike at Kazimeer, who defends himself as best he can.

For all that Ulvo’s bodyguards were reputedly very dangerous men, the two find themselves gravely outmatched. Anfisa cuts apart the fat man with a flurry of precisely-aimed blows, and Gena strikes down the thin one almost simultaneously. Gennadiy rushes inside the keep, as Anfisa turns her attention back to the courtyard — in time to see a green flare rise toward the dark skies, somewhere in the direction of the stone hill.

Butrek continues to batter Kazimeer, but the sorcerer rallies. The strange dodecahedron at his wrist spins, and he plants a palm on Butrek, flooding the warrior’s bones with cold and poison. As the traitor staggers back, Mika strikes out with another bone lance. It runs right through Butrek’s skull. He drops immediately, and rolls down the main stairs to land at Gena’s feet. Gennadiy curses at his poor timing, and aims an after-the-fact kick into the corpse.

The adventurers return to the courtyard, where the surviving congregationalists are surrendering and being bound. Marisky crouches over her wounded father, keeping him safe. Mika tends to his wound with a spell.

Anfisa draws their attention to a green light reflecting on the bottom of the night clouds. They move to the gate and look out. Over the town, a blazing green serpent of unearthly fire passes back and forth, looking for something. They quickly decide it must want food — and a magical source would be best. Kurzkov orders his men to bring the captives into the keep, and the adventurers tell him to follow them in there. The four of them then step forward, and wait.

Sure enough, the star-serpent catches the “scent” quickly. It soars towards the keep in response. As it draws near, it opens its gaseous jaws, and bolts of tellurian lightning strafe the ground. Kazimeer is the only one unable to leap aside in time, receiving some scorching to his metallic skin. He sents a starbolt into it in return, as Gennadiy also launches an arrow.

The unearthly wyrm makes another pass, and then it comes in to land. It tears at Anfisa with newly-formed talons, and opens its mouth over her. She feels a powerful tug at her very life energy, but she resists the pull.

Before the serpent can close its jaws, Kazimeer throws a bolt right into them, spilling its aetheric matter in all directions. It reels — and Gena leaps forward, carving a long divide down its neck with his saber. It tries to draw a breath — and Mika fires a lance through its core, leaving a massive hole with just a few strings holding a chunk of starmetal where its heart should be. Before it can even cry out in pain, Anfisa cuts into those strings. In a matter of moments, the tellurian wyrm is reduced to a few coiling wisps of astroplasm, a stink of ozone, and a hunk of heated starmetal.

The onlookers peering through the windows of the keep stare in amazement for some time.

The next day, Kurzkov gives a speech before the town where he thanks the heroes for their timely intervention. The townsfolk who fell in battle defending Ulvo are proclaimed to have been enchanted, and Kurzkov pays a generous reparation to their families.

As it’s clear that Girinka was subject to the mind-numbing dust of Ulvo’s, her life is spared — but at the heroes’ urging, Kurzkov has her go to serve the Boyaritsa Rovina for a year and a day, to prove her loyalties and to help bolster their neighbor’s position. Mika takes the time to stress to Girinka that her admiration for Tsar Gorinstal is utterly misplaced, and she should abandon any thoughts of recommending that her boyar take the brand. In her place, they set up Marisky to act as the new steward of the household for the duration. Kurzkov formally praises his daughter for her bravery and judgment, recognizing her as his true heir. He asks Kradovar to see to her martial training, and the veteran agrees.

During the celebratory dinner, Kurzkov also approaches Gennadiy. He mentions that his eldest daughter seems quite taken with the author. “If you were to stay…” he says.

“Yes, but I must leave,” responds Gena. “Here. Give her this!” He provides the boyar with an autographed copy of his latest book.

Kazimeer takes Ulvo’s cloak, an interesting item that seems to have a small defensive enchantment of instantaneous transportation. He also loads one of the few empty spots in the Malioki wagon with the most promising materials looted from Ulvo’s chamber. Mika also takes the withered hand of Warchief Guryakin, and binds it with Ulvo’s right eye to complete her gruesome relic.

With the wagon and their saddlebags laden with gifts from the boyar — including quite a bit of Istvar’s Best — the group finally is able to set out with a clear conscience, to complete their journey to Zelezka.

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