Trumps of Winter

46 - News from the Sky
Two celebrations and the arrival of a new scout.

While her companions busied themselves with the affair of the starving ogre refugees, Mika chose a task better suited to both her ambitions and her dignity. She sought out Katarinya Snake-Eye, and asked the older witch to teach her the secrets of the hag amulet. During that time, she also asked about the name Lenya Burodovir, and heard the story of the Burodovir family. By old accounts, the Burodovirs were a well-to-do boyar family with holdings near what would eventually become Chernograv, and had actually married into the Miskan tsar’s family, but they lost much of their position when the tsar’s heir was charged with treason and several Burodovirs implicated in the plot. The name “Lenya” does not surface in the tale Mika hears, but she does wonder…

The other bogatyrs drag themselves back into town, exhausted and still in need of a warm drying-out, but awash in the praise of the Schukan townsfolk. Boyar Ulgradov and many of the other town leaders make a point of thanking Gena, Anfisa, and Kazimeer personally. Yerek joins in on the congratulations, as does Captain Brazel Ironjoy, who notes that the Winged Pike is ready to leave and at their disposal when they should need it. Holak, after the requisite courtesies, notes that it’s a new day, and inquires when he might be able to consult the whispering book. “How about now?” responds Kazimeer, and guides the warlock to their inn, where he brings the book downstairs.

Holak takes a deep breath, the book before him, and asks, “Who in Miska is the most knowledgable of the manse of Vilivin the Dreamer?” The book ruffles its pages, and a whisper arises from it: “Pelza Three-Toes.” Holak furrows his brow in contemplation, and then rises, excusing himself. “I apparently have more questions to ask elsewhere,” the warlock says, and then departs.

“Well,” says Mika, once again seeming to appear from nowhere, “I was going to use that question to learn more about Lenya. But whatever. Also, the chalice is somewhere to the northwest.”

Anfisa marks out five possible sites on the map — Briarthrone, the Crawling Tree, Raintowers, Ostagrav, and Chernograv. As she does so, Mika relates the story of the Burodovirs and their holdings around Chernograv, noting archly that she was doing something while the others were fishing. She blows off the idea that the reconciliation with the ogres was itself constructive, which provokes Kazimeer to state “You should have seen the one that got away.”

Two messengers arrive with invitations; the Blue Scar ogres would like their new friends to join them at their feast, while Boyar Ulgradov would also like to honor their peacemaking abilities at a fine dinner. The bogatyrs quibble over the options until they finally decide to accept the ogres and ask the boyar to put off the dinner a day. Then Gennadiy, Anfisa, and Kazimeer take a well-earned rest while Mika finds a place to brew a healing potion. That evening, their dinner with the ogres is much less eventful (in part thanks to the absence of Gullet). Gennadiy in particular mingles with the Blue Scars as though he’d spent months among ogre tribes in the past.

The next morning, one of the first things on the bogatyr’s minds is the whispering book. They debate for a moment, and then ask their next question: “Who protects Lenya Burodovir?”

The book ruffles again, and the whisper comes: “Ten Glass Teeth”. While it scarcely seems a name, Anfisa points out that it seems like the sort of thing a hag would call one of its pets, servants, or creations. It seems all the more likely that at least one of the women of the Burodovir family underwent the transformation into a hag — one of the Chalice Maidens.

One of the younger dockside workers arrives at the inn, bearing news from Captain Ironjoy. A harpy has been sighted across the river, and seems to be watching the boat. The curious bogatyrs investigate. When they reach the dock, they spot the harpy roosting in a tall pine on the far shore — and she seems to note them as well, and takes flight. As she draws near, they recognize her as one of the Witchfeather Canyon shriek, a tall harpy with familiar green in her plumage and green streaks in her dark hair.

“Ta!” she says as she lights before the bogatyrs. “I’m being Iazmina, most impressed-like with your bravery and competence and such. Was hoping I might go a-sky and be of service, help the witchslayers.” She grins. “Maybe bring home a treasure to the Sirin.”

It doesn’t take long for the bogatyrs to agree to the deal. Gena is sufficiently polite in his dealings that Mika out-and-out accuses him of flirting with the harpy. He ignores her, and asks Iazmina what sort of range she’s explored.

“As far south as the Four Sisters, ta. Mother went further, ‘cross the Jadesea, where she got my name. Been east to the coast, but not ‘cross the Yearswater.”

“All right,” muses Gennadiy. “Here’s your first job, then: Go scout out Briarthrone.”

The harpy cocks her head. “The briar ruin down-woods? Aye, I know it, ta.”

“Good. Look to see if there are any people there.”

“Human people or thorn people?” From the look on Iazmina’s face, the question is not rhetorical.

“…Human people. And don’t get seen.”

“No trouble, ta.” With that, Iazmina takes to the air, and with a wide spiral through the air currents, she vanishes to the northeast.

Mika vanishes again to brew another healing potion. Gena and Anfisa decide to pursue no ambition in particular, enjoying food and drink and a few hours of not being locked in dire physical contest. Kazimeer drops by Holak’s quarters again, to inquire about the name Pelza Three-Toes. Holak says that he’s learned she lives in the forest, and he’ll keep trying to make contact with her.

The bogatyrs attend the dinner with Boyar Ulgradov that evening, bringing a gift with them. Gennadiy socializes with a pair of unfamiliar faces before the meal: a giant-blood templar called Bralya the Oak, who speaks admiringly of Commander Anrikka Valyevna, and a halfling scout called Griever, who gives Gena a peculiar eye. The two have a short, cloaked conversation about Gennadiy’s relationship with the Iron Tsar, before Gena calls it to a close and says they can talk more about it later.

Anfisa sits with the Kos delegates, Vasil Vargavich and Korvoska Fenrovich, during the feast. Korvoska gives her an odd bottled draught as a sign of respect, explaining that it is a potion of beast speech that might be useful in helping her “train her bear.” Vasil adds that instead, the bear could drink it and be capable of speech for a time — and Kostya raises his head and gives her a meaningful eye.

Gena chats with Bralya about the force dispositions of the Knight’s volunteer militia, and later over drinks resumes a discreet conversation with Griever. The halfling is rather straightforward about the tales of Gena’s conflicting loyalties regarding Tsar Gorinstal, but Gennadiy points out that the business with the Blue Scars might well strengthen Tsaritsa Silverchild’s position, which is exactly what Gorinstal wouldn’t want. Griever admits that’s true, and then offers some new information. According to the scout, four of the Forgiven — Gorinstal’s elite Branded taken from the prisons — are on the river somewhere. He names Hosteler Kreyd, an innkeep turned trapper and torturer; Brother Fetter, a dapper iron-priest and former bandit; Belka the Looter, bonepicker and scavenger; and Kereskny Firetongue, a warlock rumored to have an infernal contract. Gena files away the names, and thanks Griever.

Not too long after that, a riverman arrives at the boyar’s, with the news that their harpy has returned. The social evening ends shortly thereafter, but not before Gennadiy thoroughly fails to woo Katarinya Snake-Eye into a liaison — apparently while Mika had been studying with the witch, she spent a little time “warning” Katarinya about Gena.

They find Iazmina by the Winged Pike, ignoring and being ignored by the kelpies aboard. She excitedly describes a conflict playing out around Briarthrone: the red versus the green and black. The knight-in-red had greater numbers, but the green and black champion and the sorcerer with him slew droves. The red lost about half her forces, but she fell back with a prisoner liberated from the green and black — a large woman with copper hair. It becomes clear that Iazmina is describing the Red Crusader Ruguta, and the captive must have been the Skinner Knight, robbed of her shapeshifting cloak. Ruguta and the Skinner Knight made for the river while her forces sacrificed themselves to hold off the green-and-blacks — unquestionably the Ruin’s warband.

Gennadiy thanks Iazmina and tells her this is the sort of thing they’ll ask her for again, in particular more accurate numbers. The bogatyrs make their preparations to leave first thing in the morning.

45 - The Ogre Refugees
A complicated and muddy errand of mercy.

The bogatyrs return to Captain Ironjoy’s Winged Pike, and the tiefling is quite happy to depart swiftly. Over the course of the quick ride downriver to Schuka, they decide not to open the whispering book until they’re safely on land. Anfisa points out that if some horrible evil is unleashed from the book, then the citizens of Schuka will be endangered, but the consensus is that they’d rather not risk it on the open water, which is a plan that meets with Gennadiy’s approval.

When they arrive at Schuka, they find the townsfolk are very nervous and tense. A passerby tells them that a band of ogres has arrived from the north, maybe fifty strong. The ogres have camped outside the town walls, and are not yet causing trouble, but they demand to talk to the Tsaritsa. The bogatyrs quickly find Vasil Vargavich and ask him if he knows anything more. Vasil tells them that the ogres are from Blue Scar mountain in the north, and they seem to be starving. They haven’t plundered the outlying farms or homesteads, but are so hungry that they’re boiling bark and pine needles for soup. Everyone is concerned it’s just a matter of time before they grow tired of waiting for Tsaritsa Silverchild.

The bogatyrs focus first on their primary errand — and the need for heartier food. They eat a meal in an inn, and decide on their first question for the Whispering Book: “Who currently possesses the Black Chalice?” The book turns several pages, and breathes out the response Lenya Burodovir. The name is not familiar to any of the bogatyrs, but they dutifully write it down.

With that settled, the group returns to the tense streets of Schuka. Kazimeer sets out to inquire about the name Lenya Burodovir, intending to call on the sorcerer Holak. Mika vanishes again on an unspoken errand. Gennadiy and Anfisa travel to the northern wall, where they hear the ogre chief outside bellowing his demands to the town again. They look down and see the brutally scarred ogre, a wizened ogre woman nearby, shouting at the walls. “Where is your ruler?” he roars. “Where is the Moon? Does she have no allies to speak for her? Where is the Comet or the Knight?”

Gennadiy tenses at that question, while Anfisa nods. “I guess I’m going out,” she says. Gena sends a messenger to find Kazimeer and let him know the two are parlaying with the Blue Scar ogres, and then he follows Anfisa outside the town walls.

The Schukan guards are glad to defer to the two renowned warriors, though everything is still very tense as the approach the camp. A pair of the ogre chief’s guards intercept the two, but the old ogress notices them and calls out to the chief. “That one rode with the Comet. She’ll do.”

The Blue Scar chief, a scar-fisted brute introduced as Brutzin Gristlehammer, seems disinclined to accept the go-betweens at first. He again demands that he must speak with the Tsaritsa herself. “The tsaritsa is not here,” says Anfisa. Gristlehammer stamps in frustration. “Everyone keeps saying that!

Anfisa and Gena, and Kazimeer once he arrives, manage to talk the ogres into remaining patient — stressing that the tsaritsa must take time to travel, and that she will be much more helpful if the Blue Scars have not robbed or harmed her people in the meantime. The negotiation becomes more tense, though, when animals appear from the woods around the ogre camp, encircling the ogres in a threatening fashion. The bogatyrs see Gullet race over to line up with the animals, where he proudly stands alongside a burly wolf with silver shoulders — and a truly massive owlbear with gray in its fur and ruthless eyes. Uncle Ripper himself has arrived.

The three tell the ogres to remain calm, and then go out to speak with the animals. They carefully approach Gullet and address him directly, allowing Uncle Ripper to overhear without challenging him. The talking wolverine is gleefully anticipating the possibility of a fight, and tells the bogatyrs that one of the ogres killed a talking stag for food — not something the beasts of Miska can ignore.

The bogatyrs ask what can be done to prevent the fight from breaking out, and for the first time, Uncle Ripper speaks. “We need a sign of the ogres’ submission,” the immense owlbear rumbles.

“A hostage,” says Anfisa.

“That would suffice.”

The silver-shouldered wolf speaks as well, saying that the hostage would come to no harm among the animals. Anfisa, Kazimeer, and Gena promise to do their best to convince the ogres to cooperate. “Ugh,” groans Gullet, “diplomacy.”

The three return to the ogre camp with the beasts’ message. This nearly sends Brutzin Gristlehammer into another tantrum, and he grumbles that the stag’s killer — a young male called Tozmog — will have to make amends in his own way. He almost sends Tozmog out as the hostage, but his advisor recommends not having the most hated ogre in the camp go out to the beasts. Anfisa settles the issue when she mentions that the hostage will be well fed. The Blue Scar chief struggles with the notion, and then calls for a young ogre girl, pale with hunger but wearing finer garments than most. The girl’s parents surrender her with some emotion, and it is clear to the adventurers that this is the chief’s granddaughter.

The bogatyrs take the young ogre girl back to the line of beasts. The silver-shouldered wolf takes charge of the girl, and leads her into the woods. With that, the circle of beasts recedes back into the forest for the time being — with the exception of a disappointed Gullet, who attaches himself to the bogatyrs again.

The three then turn their attention to the problem of feeding the immense refugees. The giant catfish that drew the river-barge Mistress Angekka come to mind; there are reputedly other great river cats in the water. Anfisa volunteers to rally the local fisherfolk to make nets; Gena offers to return to the ogre camp to help keep them reassured; and Kazimeer resolves to help get a message sped even more quickly to the Tsaritsa.

Gennadiy takes Gullet with him into the ogre camp, hoping that the belligerent wolverine will be less trouble if he’s not left to his own devices. He asks the Blue Scars to tell the story of their travel. The ogres describe a winter much harsher in the mountains than it is in Miska. Ordinarily they rely on a herd of caribou that passed through the area this time of year, but the herd never arrived this season. When they send hunters out to search for signs, they found the herd slaughtered — and the bodies poisoned. Gennadiy nods solemnly and says that it sounds like the work of those in service to the Ruin.

“We can’t fight the dragon,” Gristlehammer says ruefully.

“Nobody can fight alone.”

Anfisa moves among the fisherfolk of Schuka, rounding up everyone she can find who is too nervous about the ogres to sleep. They gather materials for great nets, and Anfisa joins in the hours of net-weaving.

Kazimeer travels to the guest quarters of the sorcerer Holak. Holak has, of course, heard of the ogrish presence outside, and he worries about the potential chaos. Kazimeer asks if there’s any way Holak could help get a message to Tsaritsa Silverchild. Holak produces a few sheets of paper, which he explains are enchanted messages he uses to communicate with Alsvedun the Magnificent. He doesn’t have very many, but he could perhaps spare one — in exchange, if possible, for the opportunity to ask a question of the Whispering Book. Kazimeer agrees, and Holak instructs him in the use of the paper. Once the letter is written, the sheet of paper folds itself into the form of a sparrow, and flies out the window for High Miska.

The nets are finally done in the hour before the sky begins to lighten in the east. At the same time that Anfisa is making her way back to the ogre camp, an ogre makes an unwise decision. A young tribesman, too hungry to think straight, creeps up on Gullet and attempts to steal away the small animal. Gullet immediately bites into the ogre’s hand, and holds on even as the shrieking nine-foot brute thrashes madly about. Chaos breaks out in the camp. Gena attempts to intervene and is elbowed directly in the eyes. He falls supine and stares at the lightening sky for a few minutes, watching a shaken-loose Gullet fly overhead, a blood trail behind him.

Anfisa and Kazimeer arrive to the camp in chaos and swiftly intervene. While Kazimeer throws out a vision of dancing lights to distract the Blue Scars, Anfisa cuts off Gullet’s rampage of vengeance and sends him back to the inn with a threat of “or no fishguts for you!” Gena and Anfisa are able to then recover the ogres’ focus, reminding them of the danger of incidents involving the talking beasts. They recruit some of the strongest and heartiest to aid them, and then the bogatyrs lead their impromptu fishing expedition to the river.

They travel a little ways downriver, trying to avoid the Schukans’ traditional fishing territory. Gena takes a boat out into the river with one side of the net while Anfisa and the ogres take the other side on the shore. They place a line around Kazimeer’s waist, and the starmetal sorcerer walks directly into the river.

Soon Kazimeer has found their first potential catch. The catfish is the size of an ox-drawn cart, but Kazimeer sends it into a deep slumber with a single spell. The ogres’ inexperience and lack of dexterity makes them not as much of a help as hoped, and it takes a heroic effort from Anfisa and Gennadiy to eventually get the sleeping catfish onto the shore. The ogres quickly set to butchering the immense fish, furtively stealing a few mouthfuls when they can get away with it.

The sky is lighter when Kazimeer finds a second giant catfish, which is less torporous. It swims directly for him, but he swiftly puts it to sleep as he had the first. Again it’s a painful process dragging it to shore, but Anfisa distinguishes herself. The second catfish is likewise butchered, and between the two, there is enough meat to heavily laden the sledges the fishing party brought. They drag the meat all the way back to the ogres’ camp, to one of the heartiest and crudest displays of joy the bogatyrs have seen.

The ogres’ feast lasts for hours, and is a mess from top to bottom. But once the refugees have food in their bellies, they settle down and display great gratitude. Brutzin Gristlehammer pledges that his people will be good as they wait for the tsaritsa.

Exhausted and muddy and splattered with fish blood, the three bogatyrs return to Boyar Ulgradov. The elderly boyar is utterly delighted with their success in pacifying the ogre refugees, and reveals that he received a communication from the Tsaritsa less than an hour ago. Tsaritsa Kascha Silverchild has agreed to aid the Blue Scars, and forces will arrive to escort them to High Miska. That task accomplished, the bogatyrs decide to find Mika and determine their next steps.

44 - The Elder Worm of Nith
A desperate battle and a strange reward.

With the monstrous serpent-things dead, Mika and Anfisa start examining the bodies. Mika pulls more trophies free, cutting away one of the venom barbs from a worm’s tail. Anfisa, looking at the bisected creatures, notes it has oddly bulging pouches in its innards, like a complicated gizzard. She ignores the odd sacs, but Mika dives in with a knife to open them. A number of valuable odds and ends spill out, apparently the personal treasure of the creature. Gennadiy and Kazimeer do the same for the other two, and the bogatyrs gather the spoils.

Once finished binding their wounds, cleaning their weapons, and stowing their plunder, the bogatyrs send Anfisa to scout down the far tunnel. She moves carefully through the dark, though her boots crunch on stray flakes of stone. She descends far enough to see a faint purplish light farther ahead, and to hear an idle rattle of metal on metal. Anfisa decides not to take her chances, reasoning that she could well have been heard, and returns to gather the others.

The bogatyrs descend as a group. The tunnel gradually dead-ends into a larger cavern, dimly lit by violet spiraling glyphs carved into the walls. The light spills onto the pale flesh of more drowned corpses littering the room and filters through a forest of swords, axes, and other weapons hanging on lines from the ceiling. Past this swaying mass of blades, the bogatyrs see a strange fixture shaped from the stone floor, something like a throne and something like a bowl. The purple light vaguely picks out the dark coils of something within the bowl, and a pair of lambent yellow eyes stare back at the bogatyrs.

As the bogatyrs begin to push into the room, a terrible voice whispers a venomous litany. It strikes into the minds of some of the party, seemingly poisoning their very blood. The group moves to engage in return, but it is difficult to move through the blades without being injured, and the corpses begin stirring to unlife as they do so. Between the dim light and its thick scales, the bogatyrs have a hard time landing punishing blows on the elder worm. Kazimeer gives in to the mind-poison, and strikes Mika a stout blow with the metal astrologer’s runestaff.

The battle around the bowl-throne is a difficult one. Anfisa, Kostya, and Gennadiy all have difficulty avoiding the swinging blades and striking accurately. Mika invokes the power of her cold goddess, and the ghostly remnants of hundreds of dead, those devoured by the Writher, pour their strength into her companions. Kazimeer draws on the power stored in his meteoric ring, sending a mighty thunderbolt into the Nithian elder. It recoils and thrashes, and the warriors press the advantage. Gena, Mika, and Kazimeer pick off the animated corpses and Anfisa and Kostya pin the Nithian down and bloody it.

The great worm thrashes reflexively as it feels the first serious wounds. It catches Anfisa in its coils, and squeezes the life from her — but Mika intervenes, and the cold skeletal touch of the Lich Queen stirs Anfisa back to consciousness. Mika further heals the Volayr ranger as Kazimeer and Gena focus on the Nithian and buy her some time. The serpentlike abomination is badly tattered by the time Kostya is able to pin it with his paws, giving Anfisa the chance to finally decapitate it with a mighty sabre cut.

Mika claims the poison spur from the Nithian’s tail as her prize. Anfisa cuts the forked tongue from the too-human head and also takes a vertebra from the Nithian’s tail as a personal trophy. As the bogatyrs cut down the various blades from the ceiling, to allow themselves some more space to move, Gennadiy finds a particularly striking sword hung with a tassel bearing the Knight’s emblem. He recognizes it as Dragon’s Valor, a powerful blade carried by one of Commander Valyevna’s loyalists. He takes it down and carefully bundles it for transport.

Mika readily cuts into the gullet-pouch of the elder Nithian as well, spilling out a number of curios. She finds a handful of gems, an odd glossy black cube, the unicorn-headed scepter of a Luskrin tsar, a blank book in a waterproof satchel, an elven tiara-helm, a tightly stoppered bottle of Double Venom, the heron-and-spear signet ring of the Kolzoss family, and — interestingly — a medallion set with a roving eye that she recognizes as a proper hag’s eye amulet.

The bogatyrs drag together the corpses, including one that Gennadiy recognizes as the warrior formerly in Valyevna’s service. Kazimeer sets the pyre alight, and the group leaves the Writher’s den.

The harpies watching over the river are surprised when the bogatyrs emerge without casualties. They quickly escort the group back into the presence of the Sirin. The harpy queen evaluates them carefully, and asks “You have the tongue… is an amulet still what you ask?”

“Yes,” says Mika, and the Sirin produces another hag’s eye amulet. But the priestess is suddenly suspicious, and watches the Queen in the West carefully. The four-winged Sirin seems to have already guessed that the group has a similar amulet in their possession, and she had glanced at the various treasures kept in the room. Mika pauses before reaching for the amulet.

The Sirin seems to notice her hesitation. “If we give you this amulet,” she says, “sooner or later, Yedza will certainly notice we no longer possess it. If you would prefer another reward for your heroic deed, I would give you something else: a treasure, a blessing, or an answer.”

“Where is the Black Chalice?” asks Gennadiy. But the Sirin shakes her crowned head. “I can tell you what the sky would see.”

The bogatyrs confer, and decide to ask for a treasure. The Sirin has her attendants bring out four odd artifacts: a resplendent golden helm, a whispering book, a bone saddle, and an elaborate coffin. Mika invokes the knowledge of dead lives past to better assess the treasures. She learns that the helm bears an enchantment of lordly inspiration; the book will, once each day, answer any question that can be answered with a name; the bone saddle would temporarily allow mount and rider to take ghost form; and the coffin levitates at will and would be usable as, among other things, a battering ram.

Despite Anfisa’s misgivings, the bogatyrs ask for the whispering book as their reward. The harpies give it to them, with what appears to be some form of relief. The Sirin thanks them again graciously, and they take their leave of the Queen in the West. They descend the rope ladders once more to Ironjoy’s vessel, and set out downriver.

43 - Witchfeather Gorge
A pact is struck with a harpy queen.

Gennadiy is the first to return to their barge. He tells Brazel Ironjoy about the intention to visit Witchfeather Gorge on a diplomatic errand, and the tiefling boatman turns to order his crew to buy more trade goods — cloth, flavored jerky, glass vessels, scissors. He then tells Gena that he’s bartered with the harpies before. He also warns Gena that if a harpy shows a certain interest in him, she’s contemplating the benefits of his bloodline. “I’d consider first if you’re all right with the thought of having a feathery daughter out there somewhere.” Gennadiy solemnly nods and resolves not to experiment.

The trip to the gorge is straightforward enough. The kelpies easily pull the barge upriver, and Mika makes note of where the tributary from Yedza’s Mirror joins the river, just in case they must visit the vodyanoi later. As they draw closer to the mountains, they see huge standing stones flanking the entry to the gorge. The stones are cut with various witchly sigils, and the wind that blows out of the canyon is cold. In the distance they see a few thin streams of smoke emanating from the gorge’s sides, and ramshackle walkways and structures clinging outside caves. At least one of these structures seems to be a large, sturdy house somehow uprooted and planted into the cliff side.

Brazel Ironjoy runs up a new flag as they draw near — sky blue and trimmed with feathers. It draws the attention of the harpies, and within ten minutes half a dozen of the eclectic bird-women circle the Winged Pike. A few touch down on the deck; the kelpies, in girl-form again, bare their teeth but keep their distance.

Gennadiy and Mika take the lead in negotiations. The red-haired harpy who speaks for the Witchfeather clan is a little hard to follow at first, speaking with a hodgepodge dialect. The two bogatyrs politely convince her to allow them an audience with the Sirin, the harpy Queen in the West. They do, however, refuse her offer to have her sisters carry the diplomatic party up to the roosts.

The barge goes into the gorge a little further, throwing down an anchor in a wide side pool where the water flows less swiftly. The bogatyrs, minus Kostya, carefully clamber up very long rope ladders as a few harpies stay to barter with Ironjoy. By the time they reach the balconies, their limbs are aching, and several more harpies are watching them curiously. The bird-women are very diverse in size and shape, some with talons for hands, others with feathers for hair. The bogatyrs theorize that the more human, or in some cases elf-seeming harpies are probably those born of more recent cross-species trysts. Their theory gains weight from one young girl, seeming about fourteen in human years, who has a pair of curling ram’s horns that rather resemble Brazel Ironjoy’s.

The redhead Zoira leads the bogatyrs into a larger cavern. The cave is surprisingly warm, with piles of river-carried salvage wood drying out in one corner and small fires burning in niches. As they go deeper, they enter a large chamber where incense drowns out the faint smell of sulfur. The chamber is bedecked with a wide assortment of treasures — an elven faun statue, a fine coffin, a manticore pelt, a sheet-emerald mirror, and more. Then a curtain parts, and a crowned woman in what at first seems to be a great dark feather mantle emerges.

The Queen in the West, the Sirin, is pale, somber, and beautiful, with night-black hair and plumage. Her four wings unfurl as she addresses the bogatyrs in a rich, eloquent voice. She says she has heard word of their deeds carried on the winds. “What is it that I could possibly offer you?”

“Time,” says Mika. The Sirin cocks her head in interest, and Mika continues. “I would craft this thing myself, but I do not have time. We search for an object, but we do not have time. We hope that you could give us this time.”

The Sirin listens as they explain their need for a hag’s eye amulet. She seems thoughtful, and says that although it is a complicated request to grant, there may be a way. Giving them an amulet would put the Witchfeather clan in danger, and yet…

“Who could possibly threaten you?”

“Grandmother Yedza,” says the Sirin. “And yet…” She contemplates for a moment, then dismisses the other harpies.

The bogatyrs tense as the harpies reluctantly file out, but the Sirin’s demeanor remains serenely somber. She tells them that Grandmother Yedza sent one of her pets to Witchfeather Gorge to keep the harpies… loyal. She calls the thing egg-eater and tyrant, but says she cannot tell the group its name, or Yedza will hear. “We cannot move against the worm,” she says, “and it is fat on the blood of would-be heroes. But if the Writher were to perish because bold bogatyrs came to its den as so many others had, and if they succeeded where the others failed… then would it not be believable?”

Gennadiy muses for a moment, and recalls the Miskan legend of a terrible worm, not quite dragon or serpent, that lives in a hole at the base of a mountain. He deems it a very likely possibility indeed, and he and the bogatyrs agree to the Sirin’s request. The Queen in the West trills, and a pair of harpies reenter the room. “Escort them to the Swordmouth,” she says.

As the group makes their leave, the Sirin speaks again: “Anfisa Konstantinova Okotnikskaia,” she says. Anfisa turns and bows. “The witch who pursued your father to the mountain lives,” the harpy queen continues. “She guides the Ruin’s band here in Miska.” Anfisa bows again, thanks the Sirin, and follows her companions out.

At the same time, another harpy, one with green streaks in her hair and emerald feathers in her plumage, pulls aside Kazimeer. “Be careful-like, sorcerer,” she says. “The Writher shrugs away spells unless you call it by name. And the Grandmother will hear if you say it.” She looks conspiratorially about. “But I can tell you its name. If you’d require-like.”

Kazimeer looks conflicted. Finally he asks the harpy to write the name down for him, in case it proves necessary. She passes him a name on a scrap of vellum, and he reads it silently, then tucks it away.

The harpies bring the bogatyrs back down to a stretch of heaped rocks at the base of the canyon walls, a makeshift riverbank where they can bring Kostya off the barge. They point to a reddish stone with a rusted sword forced into a crevice, and tell the bogatyrs that the entrance to the cavern is below the water in the rock’s shadow. Then the harpies wish the heroes good luck and take to the air again.

After a short argument about Anfisa swimming in alone to scout, during which Kostya bristles protectively, Anfisa assents. She takes a length of rope with her and dives into the cold water. The dark tunnel leads under the cliff just long enough to make her lungs ache, but she follows a strange luminescence to a cavern with dank but breathable air. She regards the glowing crystals sprouting from the walls and notes a reptilian musk hovering in the atmosphere. She tugs on the rope, and her companions navigate the tunnel to join her.

The interior cavern has little of note besides the pebbly beach, the reptilian scent, the glowing crystals, and a dead body — apparently a Kos adventurer — lying beneath the water’s surface. When the bogatyrs pull the corpse out, it animates and latches on Gennady, attempting to chew through his skin. Anfisa cuts the reanimated cadaver apart, and Mika examines the two halves to determine a cause of death. She pronounces the Kos man dead of exsanguination.

They follow a small tunnel up to a larger chamber filled with musk and lit by more of the crystals. Four strange pillars reach from floor to ceiling, seemingly natural — but the rock isn’t right for stalactites and stalagmites, and they are too symmetrically placed. In the center of the chamber sits a freakish effigy that vaguely resembles a hag — most likely Grandmother Yedza. Broken eggshells lie on the floor before the effigy, and the bones laced through the branches seem to be harpy bones.

The bogatyrs also notice more bodies strewn in the shadowy edges of the chamber. They seem to be pallid as the dead Kos in the water, and Gena is watching carefully when he sees one twitch. He shouts out a warning, and as the cadavers lurch to their feet, Mika and Kazimeer have already struck two down with spells. Anfisa and Kostya cut down two more — and then something stirs at the top of the stone columns.

Three long snakelike things, purple-scaled but with pale flesh on their humanlike faces, slither down around the pillars. The creatures immediately poison as many of the bogatyrs as they can, either by spraying venom or by use of the toxic spurs at the tips of their tails. Gennadiy tries to race up the effigy, topple it, and ride it into a column to reach one of the serpentine threats — but the frail structure gives way under his boot, and he dangles upside down by one foot as the battle churns around him. He is freed when Mika uses the ring of the vengeful queen to compel him to strike out at her foe, and he tumbles loose.

With the poison eating at the bogatyrs, the truly insidious power of the Nithian worms comes into play. Both Anfisa and Mika feel their limbs move against their will as the crawling things command the poison in their blood. When her poisoned muscles lash out and stab at Gennadiy, Mika grins in sadistic glee. Anfisa, on the other hand, strikes out at her bear-brother, and boils with rage.

Kazimeer throws a spell at the worm with the wet mane, and is irritated to see the magic partly blunted and turned aside, though the secondary bolts strike true on its companions. The creatures refocus on him, but the other bogatyrs are already free.

The badly burned worm of Nith dodges a strike from Gennadiy by a mere inch, losing half its fleshy whiskers. It loses even more than that as Anfisa carves into it from the other direction, bisecting it lengthwize for three feet of its body. The one close by attempts to escape Kostya, and Kazimeer sends a chain lightning burst after it that runs across the worm’s spine and sends into posthumous convulsions.

The remaining creature attempts to slither back up the column as quickly as it can. Gennadiy hurls his now-blazing firebrass axe after it, in a seemingly impossible arc that cleaves the humanlike head from the serpentine body. The coils come thrashing down separately from the head, and twitch for a few moments more before all is still.

42 - Schuka
At the town of the Pike, the bogatyrs plan a barter expedition.

Anfisa moves around the grotto, attempting to track the warband’s movements. Although the main grotto is clearly marked by a battle between two large skirmishing forces, the tracks leading eastward indicate only two or three individuals. She lets the others know that the Ruin’s force has someone clearly well-trained in woodcraft disguising their numbers, and possibly their direction. Vasil Vargavich digests the news, and then asks what the bogatyrs’ next move is. They tell him they’re headed to Schuka, and invite him to come along if he wants. Vasil accepts, admitting that their hunt is the most interesting thing he’s run across all winter.

They travel downstream and recover Gullet from the hollow of the elk carcass. The wolverine is covered in elk blood and vainly trying to make room for more meat. “I hate to waste it,” he grumbles. Mika “offers” to animate the corpse so it can follow it back to the boat, but Gullet instead gnaws off one of its haunches and drags it along.

When they reach the Winged Pike, Captain Ironjoy announces that a messenger bird brought something from Huntmaster Koden. He gives the group a map, marked with a number of possible locations where the Black Chalice might be — largely coven lairs and fallen knight strongholds that are currently unoccupied. Gena studies the map while Anfisa encourages Gullet to wash the blood off in the river and Mika extracts the eyes from her likho heads, then burns the heads for good measure.

The boat casts off and reaches Schuka in good time. The Kosvodd reaches almost to the small town’s walls, and the mild Miskan winter seems a bit colder. Ironjoy recommends that the bogatyrs seek lodging either at the Burning Horseshoe, where the liquor and company is good but apparently the hayloft is cozier than the rooms; or the Apple Tree, which is used to catering to beast patrons, but where it’s best “not to make any sudden moves.” He then departs to take the Huntmaster’s letter of introduction to Boyar Ulgradov.

Vasil also prepares to set off to ask the Kos chieftain Korvosa Fenrovich about the axe, but Anfisa and the others propose coming along. He takes them to the Iron Fang, a drinking establishment built into the same building with a weaponsmith. The Kos already drinking and eating there give the newcomers a fairly chilly reception, but Vasil undauntedly asks the bartender Briskaif Fenrovich is here. She tells him not yet, and upon spying the axe — apparently of Iron Fang manufacture — orders a lone drinker to vacate a table for the new arrivals.

Korvosa Fenrovich, when he arrives, talks with the bogatyrs and gradually becomes increasingly impressed. He tells them that the axe belongs to a family from the northern part of the Kosvodd and promises to return it. He also offers his assistance by way of gratitude. The bogatyrs talk with him over food and drink for some time, learning more about the various lairs and fortresses on Koden’s map.

Once the meeting concludes, the group then heads to the Apple Tree. The inn seems hospitable enough, despite the young owlbear half-dozing before the fireplace. At one point a drinker at another table starts loudly complaining about Gennadiy — Gena recognizes him as another of the troops at the Battle of Belask — and hinting that the bogatyr is a favorite of the Iron Tsar. Gena ignores the soldier until the fellow leaves, then launches into a story for the room that effectively changes the mood.

The next morning they travel to the manor at Wolf Mother Square and meet with Boyar Ulgradov. The ancient, impressively mustachioed boyar has several advisors with him: the ugly but affable sorcerer Holak and his daughter Silya; the elven scout Tiralys Redthorn; Katarinya Snake-Eye, a witch of the free covens; and Korvosa Fenrovich.

Boyar Ulgradov leads the discussion about the Black Chalice, and how it is so damnably hard to locate. The hags’ magic protects it from lesser divination spells. A hag’s-eye amulet could be used in a divination to see something about its location, and those who drank from the chalice seem to be able to sense its direction. With both an amulet and a cooperative Black Chalice knight, one could theoretically locate it exactly. Tiralys suggests that the Ruin’s warband likely has an amulet already, and went after the Skinner Knight to complete the equation.

They study the map and talk more of the potential locations. One possibility is that the Ruin’s band is headed east to the Skinner Knight’s domain of Briarthrone, but it seems a bit of a gamble. The bogatyrs gradually decide that it might be easier to acquire a hag’s eye of their own, and Mika simply does not have the time necessary to enchant one from her recently harvested likho eyes. They settle on traveling west, where they might acquire an amulet for the harpies of Witchfeather Gorge, or failing that, drop by the vodyanoi coven under the lake called Yedza’s Mirror.

With the prospect of simply bartering with the harpies for an amulet, Mika tells the others the sort of things harpies enjoy: portable but useful or intriguing baubles, from jewelry to music boxes. The group decides to go prowl the shops of Schuka for potential bribes. Boyar Ulgradov gives them a writ for five hundred coins, and wishes them luck.

Sadly, the bogatyrs are absolutely terrible at shopping for harpies. Mika realizes she grew up reliant on servants to do her shopping for her, and her years in the wild were focused on necessities and not frivolities. Anfisa, at a total loss, purchases a bag of fresh meat — rationalizing it’s the sort of present she’d appreciate — and in a moment of oversight, leaves it where Gullet can get into it.

All seems lost until Kazimeer has a flash of inspiration. He purchases a number of containers made from the shells of some strange, monstrous eggs, and has local craftsmen put interesting oddments in each — a mirror, perfume, a music box rigged to play when the egg opens. The bogatyrs pack these curios carefully away and make ready to depart.

41 - Green Woman Grotto
The pursuit of the Black Chalice begins.

The bogatyrs gather up the unconscious Wotanfel and his effects, and notify Reeki — who has been watching from a very comfortable distance — that the affair is resolved. Soon the dwarf seer is in the hands of the Miskan militia.

Huntmaster Koden calls the debriefing session in an intimidating manor within the city walls, which was the former meeting place for the Order of the Black Chalice while they were in High Miska. Aneska and Reeki accompany Koden to the debriefing, as does one of Queen Norevna’s knights, Zarach Icerazor. Koden reports that while Wotanfel’s recruiting activities weren’t dangerous enough to merit full attention, his role as support to Tsar Govroska has made him an accessory to many atrocities. The Ninth Wish has already fled Miska, presumably closer to Zelezka.

Koden inquires further into the bogatyr’s knowledge of the Ruin and Donjon movements. Gena asks where the Black Chalice might be, but Koden says there are far too many possibilities to tell for sure — when it was taken from Chernograv, it might have been moved to a former knight’s domain, or to a coven’s lair, if not somewhere completely unrelated. But with Anfisa’s need to travel to Schuka, Koden points out a pair of likely places: the cursed Fetterkeep, former home to the Shackled Knight, and the former coven lair called the Green Woman Grotto. He offers the bogatyrs a swift river vessel to take them on their way, and wishes them luck.

They meet the tiefling river-captain Brazel Ironjoy by his vessel, the Winged Pike. Ironjoy gladly makes arrangements to get the boat moving soon. A pair of young women in shapeless green dresses sit near the prow of the boat, and flirt with Gennadiy to draw him over. They claim that Captain Ironjoy is too harsh with them, too stingy. Gena has none of it, though, despite Mika offering encouragement — he is sure he recognizes river-spirit when he sees them. He is proven right when the Winged Pike is ready to leave, and the two girls dive into the water, transforming into green horses and swimming into the harnesses to draw the boat.

The Winged Pike is even swifter than the last riverboat, making excellent time even with stops to rest and feed the kelpies (who drink a portion of Ironjoy’s blood every evening). As it heads up the western river, the bogatyrs discuss the possibility of investigating the Green Woman Grotto before they reach Schuka. While the boat passes a giantess wading in the river, dragging a fishing net, the bogatyrs ask Ironjoy to drop them off at the stream inlet that leads from Green Woman Grotto. He does so once they reach it, and they promise to return within the day.

Along the march upstream into the Kosvodd, the bogatyrs notice that the animals and birds are acting strangely. They spot an elk near the stream, seeming sick and crazed. The elk charges them, and they put it down quickly. Anfisa deduces that the stream has been poisoned in some way, and that other animals may be similarly affected. They push on for Green Woman Grotto, with the exception of Gullet, who burrows into the new windfall of fresh elk and promises to be along later.

As they draw closer to the grotto, they encounter a lone Kos woodsman checking over the stream. He recognizes Anfisa’s trappings as an ally, and introduces himself as Vasil Vargavich. The young hunter says he heard gossip from a starling that there was a nasty fight at the Green Woman Grotto: the Skinner Knight and her retinue fought against a band of intruders, and the Skinner Knight lost. According to the starling, he says, the Knight escaped by transforming into a bird, but her vassals were not so lucky.

Vasil accompanies them to the grotto, where they find the Ruin’s band has left some of their number — a burly, deformed giant in Trakengrav-forged metal with an eye that blazes like dragon’s fire, and a howling chimera pet. But with the invocation of Namaluk to protect them, the bogatyrs make surprisingly swift work of the two beasts, astonishing Vasil.

They reconnoiter the former coven lair and find no other living residents. The central portion of the grotto, dominated by its moss-covered ancient statue, shows the marks of the battle between the two forces. The bodies themselves don’t offer many clues — the giant and his pet clearly had been gnawing on the fresh meat. But at the wellspring of the stream, the bogatyrs find the source of the poison — three severed likho heads, braided together by their hair and immersed in the water. If the Ruin’s band was responsible, they clearly were not afraid of the local covens.

40 - The Soothsayer’s Fate
The pursuit of the Idiot's runecaster leads underground.

While they wait for the guide to be collected, the bogatyrs prepare to enter the sewers; Anfisa armors Kostya, while Gennadiy changes out of his fine clothing into something more expendable. They return to Huntmaster Koden in the Lazy Trout, where he gives them a pair of healing potions for the conflict. He tells them that if they want to bring Kostya through the sewers, they’ll need a larger entrance, and directs them to a guard post by a proper entry.

They head to the post and move into the sewers to meet their guide. Kazimeer conjures a cluster of small orbiting lights, which reflect in a pair of eyes low to the ground. A female goblin emerges, dressed in sewer-appropriate light armor with a long knife at her hip. She introduces herself as Reeki Slithergrub, and confirms that they’re the group “delivering the mayhem.” Reeki is immediately wary of the massive night bear, but she also recognizes Gennadiy and tells him she read his book.

“Ah!” says Gena. “Which one?”

Reeki’s eyes widen. “There are more?”

The goblin guides the bogatyrs to a section of sewer that Mika recognizes, and from there to Wotanfel’s audience room. As they draw near, they see the door to the room half-open, with a backlit figure looking out. The figure steps back, letting the door fall shut — but Anfisa and Kostya are already in motion. The two knock open the door before he can close it, charging into the room as Mika sends a lance into the guard’s shoulder.

The now-wounded guard — the same masked man who blocked Gennadiy outside the Honey-Apple’s cellar — brings his halberd to bear as the group pushes into the room. Along with the guard, a skinny woman in the garb of a Honey-Apple courtesan draws a pair of long knives and moves into battle. The guard calls out strange words as he attempts to fend off Anfisa and Kostya, and the cage-wrought brazier in the room explodes, a whirling fire elemental expanding out of the flame.

Anfisa cuts into the elemental with her enchanted swords, dimming its flame — but it retaliates with a cyclonic inferno strike to her chest that nearly ends her life. As the Volyar huntress staggers back, Mika flashes through old dreams from nights before, foretelling this moment. She calls on the power of Namaluk to heal the most grievous burns before Anfisa can fall.

Kazimeer sends sorcery through the doorway, and Kostya pulls the halberdier down and finishes him. Anfisa vents revenge on the elemental, dispersing it with another saber slice to its core. Gennadiy shouts “Where’s the dwarf?” as he smashes his shield into the knife-wielding woman’s skull, knocking her unconscious.

Gena secures the prisoner and calls to Reeki that the enemies are secured. He then moves to examine the rune-graven door while Anfisa tends to her wounds. Kazimeer joins Gena at the door, and recalling a book on dwarven rune magic, picks out the shield and clamor runes as the core of a magical trap. The book described using a compound word fusing the activated runes as the password, and Kazimeer correctly settles on brangedan, a dwarven word for falling down stairs.

The trap disarmed, they open the door and enter what is clearly Wotanfel’s quarters. The room shows signs of hasty departure, and the other exit has odd scuff marks around the frame, as if something large and stone had squeezed through it. Reeki finds a black hair on the bust standing near the bed; apparently the seer packed his wig along with a change of clothes.

The goblin heads back to notify the guards, and the bogatyrs pursue Wotanfel. They follow the passage, complete with continuing scuff marks, to a large cylindrical chamber with a walkway around a circular pit, with other sluices and passages converging on the chamber. A massive iron hatch 15 feet in diameter is set into one wall, itself marked with arcane runes around a central boss; the relief of a unicorn skull hints at the hatch’s creators. A lantern set on the floor illuminates Wotanfel, holding a sheaf of notes and incanting to the hatch. A pale-haired bugbear in thick bronze armor stands watch next to him.

Wotanfel glances over his shoulder as the bogatyrs spread out. “I will not be a prisoner!” he shouts, and hurls a runic bolt with his free hand that strikes Gennadiy. Anfisa and Kostya lunge around the left side of the pit, and Anfisa strikes the bugbear with one of the lignifying arrows given to her by Road-Warden Yosian. Roots sprout out from the massive goblin’s feet, burrowing into the stone and locking him in place.

Gena charges around the right side of the pit, and a stone fist swings out of the passage. An eight-foot stone construct, graven with dwarven runes, steps out to block his path. At the same time, an elven archer appears in an upper sluice, fifteen feet above the walkway, and looses an arrow at Anfisa as the rooted bugbear hurls a rock in frustration. Kazimeer and Mika stay back, peppering the enemies with spells.

Kostya stands and places his forepaws against the wall, and Anfisa runs up the ramp he’s formed and leaps into the sluice after the elf. Mika draws on the Lich Queen’s power and reaches out with a ghostly hand of death. Wotanfel staggers as the greater portion of his life is stolen from him, and he’s too weak to resist when Kazimeer pronounces a sleep spell. The seer collapses, unconscious, and the bugbear rocks back, kept on his feet by the roots and nothing more.

Gennadiy dashes past the golem, pulls out some rope, and starts binding the dwarf. The golem pursues him and smashes into him with a stone fist, but Gena persists. Kostya turns to the bugbear and pins him down while Anfisa makes short work of the archer.

The golem hammers Gennadiy again, and it’s all the bogatyr can do to stay conscious and keep binding Wotanfel. The dwarf snaps back awake, but his hands are already trussed. Mika throws another invocation at Wotanfel, but the seer writhes out of its way a moment before the spell is completed — his death foretold and averted. But it’s a trick that works only once. Kazimeer visits him with a pulse of psychic damage, and the dwarf falls unconscious again.

Anfisa leaps back down from the upper sluice and strikes at the golem. Kostya slams into the bugbear as it wakes, and the furious goblinkin throws aside its shield, grips its mace in two hands, and smashes the bear in return.

Before the golem can finish Gennadiy off, Mika sends one of the Queen’s Needles into the central rune still powering its battered stone form. While the stone is still frost-coated, Kazimeer strikes the same rune with a firebolt, blasting a hole through the golem’s torso. It crumbles apart, sending chunks of rune-graven rubble in all directions. The bugbear falls shortly after. The bogatyrs take up Wotanfel’s staff and his satchel of goods, lift their captive onto Kostya’s back, and return to the surface.

39 - Perdition
Mika plays her way into an audience with Wotanfel.

Irikya escorts Mika to the riverboat’s upper floor, and the other bogatyrs follow. The upper salon holds only a single gaming table, with the rest of the room holding a bar and comfortable furniture; a pair of bouncers, a bartender, and three “hosts” wait quietly about. Three other players and a dealer sit at the table. Irikya seats Mika at the table, and tells her that the upstairs game of choice is Perdition.

Mika settles in, establishing herself by demanding a drink. The others settle in on the furniture; Anfisa scowls at a host’s greeting and chooses to sit alone. Gena takes a drink and discreetly studies the interplay between Irikya and the dealer, keeping an eye out for secret cues. Kazimeer declines the drink but also watches the two, carefully watching how each of them look at the various players. The Hell Deck they play has familiar enough designs for its face cards, but the Fool is different — it features a glimmering single star in a black sky shining down on the contorted Fool.

Mika joins the game in earnest and chooses to play her best in hopes of changing the table. Her opponents are a well-to-do Volyar horse merchant, a glamorous woman approaching middle age, and a younger woman whose dress is a touch faded and whose jewels appear to be paste. Mika’s talents for deception and insight serve her fairly well, but she comes up short when the poorer-seeming woman Aneska, to her own surprise, wins a sizable pot with a Full Court of Shades. The powerful hand eliminates the more glamorous Rovona. Gennadiy approaches her as she leaves the table, but she’s clearly in a foul temper and shrugs him off before her exit. The Volyar horse merchant Grunyich is more sanguine about the loss. “Another hand like that,” he says, “and I’ll get you to marry one of my sons.” “Another hand like that,” replies Aneska, “and I won’t have to.”

The game resumes in earnest. Mika keeps a close enough eye to see Aneska covertly throw a round, losing much of her money on a bad hand. Grunyich and the dealer don’t seem to realize it was intentional, but Mika is sure of it. Aneska leaves the table and visits the bar, the picture of despair. Irikya follows her, and the two converse quietly. Eventually he signals for a bottle, gives her a bottle of Double Venom, and the young woman leaves.
Mika starts throwing all of her own stake in as well, and also subtly plays to lose. At one point she allows the witchery that hangs about her to take hold, and draws the famously ill-fated Gate of Damnation hand — three nines, an Ace, and the Fool. She feigns devastation, muttering to nobody in particular. “That was it. That was everything. I’ve lost everything.”

Irikya is there when she rises, and he courteously guides her to the bar. Grunyich seems somewhat awkward in his success, and winds up conversing with his fellow Volyar Anfisa as an attempt to break the uncomfortable atmosphere. Gennadiy moves over to “check on” Mika, and she whispers that she saw Aneska throw her losing hand before Irikya appears to offer his solace. Gena withdraws, and Irikya begins to express his condolences and willingness to help. He mentions that he knows someone who could offer guidance, and she seizes on the mention. At her encouragement, Irikya gives her a bottle of Double Venom, one of the house’s Fool playing cards, and instructions to take the two “passports” to the Honey-Apple establishment in Miska and offer them as “a gift for Silver.”

With the game conclusively over, the bogatyrs make their excuses and return to the shore. It’s well past midnight when they finally return to their rooms at the Bear King. The next morning they weigh their options and decide to visit the Honey-Apple in the early afternoon.

The Honey-Apple turns out to be an inn in a modest section of town, a establishment with a green roof and yellow shutters, of the sort that offers good food and drink as a respectable trade and a discreet side of “hospitality.” As they approach, the door opens and one of the gamblers from last night, Aneska, emerges. They size her up and she sizes them up in return, and finally she says, “Be aware they’ll let only one of you in.”

“Unless we figure something else out,” smiles Gennadiy.

“Unless that,” she concedes, and with a nod, she passes the group. They watch her enter a tavern farther down the street, the Lazy Trout, and then they enter the Honey-Apple.

They get a privacy booth in the tavern area, and order drinks and a small platter of edibles; Anfisa goes all in for a meal of pork with honeyed apples and pirozhki, and upon tasting it, orders a second meal for Kostya. Gennadiy asks the barmaid if Silver is in, and she tells him he’ll have to ask the bartender Frisa. He does so, and mentions the gift. “You’ll have to give it to me,” she smiles.

Gena goes back to the booth to pick up the bottle and the card, and he escorts Mika to the bar; the young priestess walks slowly, with an affected cough. They give the “gifts” to the bartender, and she shows them down to the wine cellar.

Once below, Frisa takes them to a wall and opens a secret door in one of the largest casks. On the other side is an underground passage, with a single masked guard carrying a strangely forged halberd. The guard lets Mika through, but when Gena tries to follow, the guard puts his hand on Gena’s chest and pushes the powerful bogatyr into the wall. “You stay out,” he says through the mask. “I’ll guide her. She will be safe.” Gennadiy looks him up and down, then nods and steps back out into the cellar. He tells the bartender that he’d like to wait in the cellar for his charge. She agrees, but with a look at the various wines, tells him that he’ll need a chaperone. She sends down one of the bouncers to wait with Gena, a good-looking and clean-cut young man who’s politely apologetic about the oversight.

Mika follows the masked guard through stone passages into the sewers. He guides her, lamp in hand, to another door well below surface level. On the other side is a small lounge where two acolytes dressed in green and purple welcome her in and offer her refreshments. The room is sparsely furnished, with the most notable feature the thick door marked with runes on the opposite wall. Once Mika is settled in, one of the acolytes raps on the door, and shortly thereafter, Wotanfel emerges. The dwarf’s beard is dyed a deep black; he wears more elaborate green and purple, and carries a metal staff with runes cut in bands.

Mika begins the conversation seeming desperate, but after a few vague platitudes on the dwarf’s part, she openly wonders just what makes him more than a charlatan. Wotanfel harrumphs, and then produces a deck of cards — he removes one in, shows her the face of the Fates, and then meditates on the card. He speaks of her past: a great loss, a former name, and three companions, all set against a crown — a tsar. He talks of witchcraft, and a cold goddess: “I see her skeleton hand on your shoulder,” he intones.

The sickly demeanor falls away from Mika as she grows more irritated. She claims that Wotanfel could be gaining his information from traditional channels. The also irritated seer says that she seems to have come here on false pretenses, with no genuine willingness to work toward altering her fate. He asks what she’d be willing to give for a second chance.

“I have nothing to give,” she says.

“Do you not have loyalty?”

The interview goes downhill from there. Wotanfel seems to doubt her sincerity, and Mika is unwilling to commit to too much, in particular Wotanfel’s implications of giving up faith in her goddess. She says she’ll think about the offer. One of the acolytes guides her back through the passages, where the masked guard opens the door and lets her into the Honey-Apple’s wine cellar.

Mika collects Gena, and the two go upstairs to gather Kazimeer and Anfisa. They leave the inn and head down to the Lazy Trout. Anfisa gives Kostya his pork with apples and pirozki, and then the four go in. There they see Aneska in a large booth, talking to an unfamiliar man.

The bogatyrs take a separate table nearby and order proper food and drink. They make it most of the way through their meals before one of the staff brings over a special drink — a Blood of the Comet — for Anfisa, with the compliments of the gentleman in the booth. She makes eye contact, and he waves her over.

Aneska introduces the shaggy-haired man with a sash hiding one eye as Huntmaster Koden, in the service of Tsaritsa Kascha Silverchild. He greets Anfisa by name, and says he knows of her by reputation. “I believe our purposes align,” he says with a nod toward Aneska. “Would you call over your companions?”

The booth is large enough for all six. Huntmaster Koden greets the bogatyrs, recognizing both Gennadiy and Kazimeer by name and by their ties to notable forces. He says he knows less about Mika, and she doesn’t offer any new information.

The group explains their purpose in Miska: the presence of the Donjon, the Ruin, and the Idiot. They stress that the Donjon seems to be chasing the Black Chalice itself, no doubt to bind more powerful warriors to his cause. Koden nods and says that he knew about the Idiot — Wotanfel in particular — and that he suspected the others. He adds that the hags called the Grail Maids are perhaps moving again, for the Euryale and the Black Chalice knights.

Koden says that if the group is pursuing Wotanfel, he can offer some resources in return for not having to use his own people. He’d be glad to coordinate the effort. Gena asks that if they help, there’s no publicity in it: he doesn’t want the Donjon hearing about his efforts to aid the tsaritsa. “I’m not in the business of proclaiming people’s names,” reassures the Huntmaster.

He follows up by saying that Wotanfel’s powers as a diviner are real. The bogatyrs resolve that if they can’t tell what he will be able to learn about his pursuers given time, they should move quickly. But the Huntmaster stops them before they can leave. “I don’t want you kicking in the front door of the Honey-Apple and disrupting an inn in the city.”

The bogatyrs give each other some sidelong, not entirely guilty looks.

Huntmaster Koden turns to Aneska, and instructs her to find someone that can navigate Miska’s sewers. “Give me half an hour,” she says to the adventuring band, “and I’ll get you a guide.”

“Deal,” nods Gennadiy, and the bogatyrs settle into a tense half-hour’s wait.

38 - The Ninth Wish
A trip upriver leads to High Miska and a high-stakes game.

The bogatyrs spend a peaceful night in Perska. The next morning, Zilya and Kovor reappear, offering to put them in contact with the captain of the river barge Mistress Angekka. The captain looks the adventurers over when they arrive, and offers them a free ride to High Miska on the basis of their reputation.

The trip upriver takes roughly a day and a half, thanks to the power of the giant catfish towing the barge upstream. The catfish fascinates Anfisa, though Kostya is somewhat less impressed. Gennadiy spends part of the time grooming himself meticulously and encouraging Yerek to do the same.

During their arrival in the capital of Miska the bogatyrs take the opportunity to observe the local populace from the barge. They see a mix of people very unlike the residents of Tyurin; even a number of pale-haired goblinkin mingle with the other citizens. They reach the docks and begin gathering their gear. As they’re unloading their mounts, they see a pair of the Mistress Angekka crew backing away from a fish-barrel that has begun to move. The barrel falls over, the top rolling away, and a woozy wolverine drags his way out. One of the bargehands asks “…but where are all the fish?”

“It’s a long story,” replies Gullet. He shakes his head. “I am so sober right now.”

Gullet tags along with the bogatyrs as they disembark. A small contingent of guards meets them to look them over. The largest guard, a near-seven-foot-tall shaggy man, greets and embraces each one, sniffing them as he does so. Mika attempts to warn the guard away with a poisonous look which he promptly ignores. Once he’s embraced and sniffed each one, he breaks into a broader grin. “Welcome to Miska,” he says.

Gena asks the huge guard, one Sergeant Gulka, about potential places to say. He cheerfully offers a few suggestions. “If you want the bear with you, not the Golden Elixir. The Silver Crown, maybe… the Elegant Rat if you’re fine with the company… The Bear King, the Devil’s Dice…”

Anfisa gives Gena a nod. “The Bear King sounds great,” he says. Sergeant Gulka nods, and has one of his guards show the bogatyrs the way.

The Bear King is a rougher-looking building in a more rustic part of the city. The barkeep, a dour-looking Kos man with a hook for one hand, gives the lot an appraising eye as they enter. Anfisa starts a tab for Gullet, Gena begins by ordering a nice Magran whiskey, and the group makes arrangements for their rooms.

Anfisa produces the parcel given to her by Hetman Tarska himself, unwraps it, and shows the axe to the barkeep. The Kos proprietor Tursk, clearly impressed, says that it’s a fine weapon but not immediately known to him. He recommends that Anfisa contact Irska Redhoof, a Kos hetman who spends time in both the Kosvodd and Schuka.

“Where else might we go for work?” asks Gena. The barkeep shrugs. “Where do you want to work?”

“We do pretty well at bargework,” Gennadiy continues. “Are other riverboats hiring? How about the Ninth Wish?” Tursk gives him a blank look, and then shrugs. “Oh, you’ll want to talk to Zel. He knows everything that goes on on the river. He keeps an ear out for good work, so he can point you in the right direction.” He pauses for a moment. “And there’s Huntmaster Koden. He’s the tsaritsa’s head of intelligence. If he likes the look of you, he’ll know where the trouble is.”

After a simple and filling meal at the Bear King, the bogatyrs set out to the waterfront on Tursk’s directions. They find Zel, a slender man with silver scales about his neck and damp, reedy hair, sitting on the pedestal of a broken statue and smoking a hookah. Though Zel seems distracted through much of their conversation, he does indeed know the Ninth Wish. He tells them the riverboat tends to anchor a bit beyond the city’s walls, either upriver or downriver, in the name of discretion. He tells them that it’s currently north of the city for a few days. The man in charge is Irikya, and Zel stares out into nothing for a moment before saying “He’s an odd one.”

Zel hands the group a few cards as their means of introduction to Irikya. He then returns to his hookah and wishes them well. The bogatyrs retire to discuss their options. After a brief debate on whether to approach the tsaritsa and gain sanction, they agree to set out for the Ninth Wish that night.

Mika chooses to be the representative player of choice. She dresses like a down-on-her-luck noble, though the overall effect makes her seem a little more… displaced than she’d intended. The other three plan to pose as her hangers-on.

That evening they ride out of the city walls to the north. Half an hour’s travel takes them to a tiny village on the river’s side, where they see the lights of the riverboat shimmering on the water. The local ferryman agrees to stable their animals, including, after a little negotiation, Kostya. He then takes their payment and ferries the four across to the Ninth Wish.

The riverboat’s furnishings display a comfortable touch of luxury, if somewhat faded. The main room has several game tables set about, including a wheel of masks, as well as a servicable bar and a small platform where a trio of musicians play. Just over a dozen customers play at the various diversions. Four broad-shouldered bruisers in respectable clothing watch over the customers, one positioned by the stairs to a second story.

The bogatyrs mingle a bit, and take note of one desperate-seeming gambler who loses a critical bet. A woman at the same table speaks a few words of consolation to him, and when he goes to the outer deck to contemplate his loss, she follows after. Kazimeer studies the decor a bit more, and notes the pattern of several constellations or astrological signs subtly worked into the wallpaper. Various paintings adorn the gambling room, and the sorcerer takes note of one featuring a beautiful rusalka pulling a drowning man below the surface.

Mika picks out a table and begins to play. She throws coin around like a bully, forcing her neighbors to fold early rather than meet her ridiculous raises. Finally, one player stays in, likewise seeming too desperate to have his stake whittled down any further. Luck favors Mika, though, and Gena gently but firmly encourages him to go have a drink at the bar. He pays for the unfortunate soul’s liquor while Mika continues to throw around the weight of her coin purse.

Not long thereafter, a man descends the stairs from the second story. The fellow is built like a scarecrow, with a barely tamed shock of blond hair and a wide, lazy smile. He wears the same black and green as the other staff of the Ninth Wish, though in a much finer cut. He stops by Mika’s table to inquire how the players are enjoying themselves. She complains about the low level of play, and he obliges her by inviting her up to the more exclusive table above. “Finally,” she huffs.

The scarecrow offers her his arm, which she accepts. The two proceed to the stairs as he introduces himself as Irikya.

37 - Liquor, Glass, and Metal
The bogatyrs discover the Mad Star's adherents in Perska.

Mika emerges from the forests near Honeythorn, richer by a few salves made from the gleanings particular to the Miskan woods. She learns that the others have moved on to Perska, and follows after them.

She finds Anfisa and Gennadiy in the Silver Fishhook, a cheap riverside tavern on south-bank Perska, eating a lackluster fish-chunk stew. Anfisa catches Mika up on recent events, and mentions that Kazimeer still has his nose in one of the boyar’s books. Gena chats with the barwoman, dropping a few questions about the Double Venom distillery. The Fishhook’s proprietress mentions potential marital troubles for the Amfissans, the family who run the distillery. She also talks about a caravan rolling through town. A couple of laborers watch Gena towards the last part of the conversation. He purchases another bottle of Double Venom from the Fishhook, buys Gullet’s next drink in advance, and the bogatyrs leave.

They meet Kazimeer in the main street of Perska, and discuss their next steps. Gena wanders off for another drink before they settle on investigating the Double Venom distillery. The group heads for the large brick building overlooking the river. They find a teenage girl and a large mastiff watching over the front; Anfisa immediately befriends the mastiff, Vise. Gennadiy chats a bit with the young lady, professing his appreciation for their illyist, and asks if they might have a tour. She agrees.

The Amfissan daughter leads the bogatyrs into the main room of the distillery, with alembics along the walls. There they meet Buryalt and Ilomi Amfissan, the family heads and Double Venom owners. Buryalt does the talking while Ilomi sees to work. Gena surreptitiously looks about for anything suspicious; he notices a trap door subtly concealed in the floor, but the corks in a nearby bin don’t have the astrological mark. Buryalt mentions that their neighbors the glassblowers are the ones who do the cork purchasing.

Kazimeer hangs back and carefully observes the Amfissas as Gena talks to them. After a brief and very effective moment of analysis, he decides that Ilomi is probably addicted to illyist or some other substance. The sources of her grief isn’t immediately evident, but he suspects from the tensions on display that Buryalt is likely cheating on her. Unpleasant as the circumstances may be, they seem more harmless than affiliation with the cult of the Mad Star.

Anfisa, for her part, continues to pay attention to Vise. The mastiff tells her she’s doing an excellent job of scratching her neck, then pauses and murmurs that he wasn’t supposed to let it slip that he can talk.

They thank the Amfissans for their time, and Gennadiy purchases some extra bottles of Double Venom. The bogatyrs then move next door to the glassworks where the Double Venom bottles are made. The summer elven proprietor, Votarryn, greets them and asks how he may be of service. Gena starts with a story that moves into a meaningful stress about how much he appreciates stargazing. Votarryn narrows his eyes, and says that maybe the group should come into the back.

The bogatyrs follow him into the main workshop, where a young half-elf — seemingly Votarryn’s daughter — and several sturdy apprentices regard them with some curiosity and suspicion. Gena brandishes the cork fragment, asking if they could burn the same glyph for them, and if it would be “meaningful.” Votarryn’s replies are elusive at first, but he gradually begins to crack, particularly when Kazimeer enters the conversation surrounded by an empyrean authority. Votarynn’s daughter nervously toys with a bottle at her belt as Gena keeps an eye on her.

Votarryn admits that he gives out the marked bottles as “passports.” They allow free passage on the Ninth Wish, a riverboat and gambling establishment run by a fellow believer named Irikya. The elf also admits that the Miskan head of their secret brotherhood is Wotanfel, a name Kazimeer immediately recognizes as the former soothsayer to Tsar Govroska. Wotanfel was the one who brought in Votarryn, not long after the glassblower’s wife died. When the Doomstar comes, Wotanfel explained, the gates to the Underworld can be opened and Votarryn will be able to get his wife back.

“You damn fool!” explodes Kazimeer. “Such a thing cannot possibly happen…” and he pauses. “Or perhaps… hm. Wait. If the conjunctions were correct…” The star-sorcerer trails off, lost in the riddle of possibilities.

Gennadiy and Mika tell Votarryn they won’t reveal his poor decisions, though they also warn him that Wotanfel and Irikya are likely to be on the losing side very soon. In return, Votarryn promises that he and his cell will not speak of the bogatyrs, barring any compulsions that are beyond them to resist. With the information about the dwarf soothsayer and the Ninth Wish in hand, the bogatyrs leave the glassworks in peace.

The next thing they do is inquire about the crafter Tirafir. The owner of the local general store says that the crafter mostly makes weathervanes, and the occasional tinker-oddity such as a crank-turned crossbow. This intrigues the bogatyrs enough that they decide to visit.

Redshield Keep seems almost entirely deserted — grass grows from some of the looser-fitting cobblestones, and a few deeply faded banners still hang from the turrets. A number of quintains stand in the courtyard, showing some signs of various abuses. Smoke rises from the forge attached to the keep, and the bogatyrs approach the door. As they do, a bell rings, and the door opens.

Tirafir, a slender, pale-haired elf of indeterminate gender, looks over the bogatyrs, noting Anfisa’s cloak in particular. They ask her where she got it, and when she replies that it was a gift from Hetman Tarska the Slayer, Tirafir nods and invites them in.

The interior of Tirafir’s workshop is filled not only with weathervanes, but also a variety of clockwork and other tinkering oddments. The elf shows off some of the various projects in assorted stages of completion. Gena asks if there’s anything that would allow for long-range communication. Tirafir looks puzzled, then attempts to demonstrate the scientific principles behind a pair of cups connected by a wire. As a show of respect, they also hand a peculiar device to Anfisa, an explosive cannister for spreading caltrops.

They converse for a while longer. Tirafir is willing to help the bogatyrs, but doesn’t have a tremendous array of devices particularly useful for their circumstances. They also mention a pair of visitors that came by, very curious about the keep. The two visitors — a somewhat twitchy woman with a crossbow and a pair of blades, and an immaculately groomed man with a well-tended mustache — poked about the portions of Redshield Keep that Tirafir never visits. They also, says the elf, apparently returned that night — they ran afoul of some of the crafter’s security devices, and left a little blood behind. By all accounts, they were likely attached to a caravan of foreign goods that must have come over the bridge from the east. The caravan apparently left for High Miska the following day.

With that, the bogatyrs decide to call it a day themselves. They thank Tirafir for the hospitality, make their farewells, and return to the East Wind inn.


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