Gena is explaining Radenza’s offer for him to aid Gorinstal’s envoy Olek in an upcoming bid for power when Mika finally materializes at the table. Gennadiy starts from the beginning, and shares all the details he knows — which is very little, save that Olek seems to have his eye on an opening. While the group shares a general interest in using the deck of portals to advance their next ambitions, most likely by traveling to the Mountain of Steel, they also agree they need to do something about Olek.
Partway through the conversation, a small urchin arrives with a note from Radenza. The letter, addressed to Gena, requests that they meet at the Troll’s Hook to discuss matters further. Gena accepts the invitation, and heads for the tavern largely alone — save for an inconspicuous Mika tagging along.
The Troll’s Hook is notorious for being a dangerous drinking hole, but it’s quiet enough before noon. Gena takes a seat at the table behind Radenza’s, and the two of them talk quietly without facing one another. Radenza says that Olek has got all of his resources in order to make a bid for the Rogue card. Although there’s always something that could go wrong, the more allies he has the better. If Olek succeeds and the Iron Tsar installs him as a vassal and a new subordinate Trump, there could be fiefdoms involved for anyone who helped Olek achieve his ambition. Radenza says that even if Gennadiy can’t risk it, if it succeeds, he’ll always drink for free in Radenza’s town.
“Okay,” says Gena at last. “Let’s get rich.”
He returns to tell the others that he’s going to go along with the scheme, and hopefully find a way to damage it from within. He then writes a letter to Prince Casivir, stating that Olek intends to steal away the Rogue card, and that members of the court may be compromised. Mika takes the letter for Gena, and leaves it in a dropbox monitored by the Prince’s intelligence. (She does not explain how she’s learned of the dropbox.)
Gena makes his way to Olek. The Donjon’s envoy seems initially dubious about bringing in an extra party, but Gennadiy’s past relationship with Tsar Gorinstal speaks well enough to earn the audience. Olek maintains that even if Gena is genuinely trustworthy, he could not be part of the principal effort. Only those with the Donjon’s brand, Olek says, could approach the Rogue card safely. All others would have their loyalties inverted by the trump’s power. But he eventually agrees to bring Gennadiy in. He charges Gena to join Radenza in distracting Ozyar the Oathbreaker, Prince Casivir’s military commander, while Ozyar is away from the court. He offers his thanks for coming aboard, and then dismisses him until the evening.
Radenza hangs close to Gennadiy for the rest of the day. But the garrulous warrior isn’t entirely vigilant, so Gena is able to slip away during a bathroom break and tell Mika all that he’s learned. She jots down the further details of Olek’s plot and places a second message in the dropbox for Casivir’s intelligence service.
Mika then lays out the information for Anfisa, Saschka, and Kazimeer. The four go back and forth on whether or not they could manage to ambush Olek’s party between the inn and the Crooked Tower, especially with the knowledge that Olek has an undeclared mage ready to move. Partway through the conversation, a translucent hare races in from the street and bolts under their table. When they look underneath, the ghostly creature is gone, but a small note remains.
Thank you for the notice. You are invited to come and witness his attempt tonight, if you would like. —C
That evening, Olek sets things into motion. Radenza and Gennadiy head off first, to find Ozyar in his favored establishment and keep the old veteran distracted. Mika makes sure that Gena gets a note letting him know that Prince Casivir knows it’s coming, and they’re going to see how it plays out, and then she joins Kazimeer, Saschka, Anfisa, and Kostya to head for the tower.
They ascend the rickety, improbable stairs of the Crooked Tower a second time. The prince’s court is largely empty at that hour — only Casivir, his seneschal, and the nervous-looking mage Katechny the Hare. Casivir greets his visitors politely, and thanks them for the information. “The interesting thing about not trusting anyone is that while you know that you can be outbid,” he says with a glance at the two women with him, “you have the option of outbidding back.” Katechny and the seneschal look a little uncomfortable at the acknowledgement, but say nothing.
The bogatyrs take the side wall where they’d viewed the last interaction between Casivir and Olek, and again Katechny draws the illusory curtain to veil them from sight. They wait for roughly half an hour — refreshments thankfully having been provided in their section — before noise echoes up the stairwell to the court.
Olek and General Roskoy are first into the room, followed by Lieutenant Teskina and a man in somewhat nondescript clothing, armed with only a dagger. Olek, clearly rattled, is demanding the others to find an explanation for where their men have gone. The conversation stops as the four confront Prince Casivir, who off-handedly mentions that Katechny has ensured that the delegation’s extra troops are “secure.”
Olek blusters and demands respect, and even goes so far to ask that Casivir surrender peacefully. Casivir notes the Donjon’s mage, and then turns to his own. “Oh, yes… this must be the point where Katechny betrays me.” The Hare flushes, and says nothing, while a little of the color leaves Olek’s face. “Well, anyway… you can leave now, Katechny. Thank you.” The mage nods quickly, and proceeds past the stunned trespassers and down the stairs.
The Traitor Prince and Olek hold a short conversation, in which Olek grows increasingly frustrated with Casivir’s unimpressed demeanor. Olek threatens the wrath of the Iron Tsar, while Casivir notes that Gorinstal will have much more important concerns than avenging a minor emissary. Finally, Olek reaches into the pouch at his side and pulls out a fist-sized iron sphere, its surface worked with a repeated chain-link relief. He throws the sphere at Casivir while intoning a strange word, and the sphere explodes outward into iron chains that wrap around the Traitor Prince, binding him to his throne. “Go!” shouts Olek, turning to his mage. “Break the spell!”
The mage breaks into motion towards the card in the frame on the Prince’s wall. From behind the curtain, Kazimeer feels arcane force twist and shatter as the mage completes his spell. He nods to Olek, who snatches up the card from its mount. Olek turns toward Casivir, brandishing the card — and then pauses and looks at it.
Casivir smiles. Suddenly light erupts from the arms of Roskoy and Teskina, and the shape of the Donjon’s brand is briefly visible in the light before it evaporates. Both of them raise their swords — putting them at Olek’s back.
“Well,” says Casivir. Another pulse of arcane power ripples across the room. Something on Casivir’s person shines even through the chains, and then the chains fall away. The Traitor Prince stands, and draws a card from within his tunic.
“Everyone thinks that the Rogue card’s power is treachery. It isn’t that… exactly.” He glances over at the mage, who stands stiff as a board. “It’s actually freedom. It destroys all loyalties, even love, even filial bonds — it permits truly unbiased choice. So right about now, your two officers are free to decide what’s genuinely best for them.”
He turns to the Donjon’s mage. “What do you think?” The man swallows, and then bares his left arm, showing the brand. Casivir nods, the Rogue’s power flares once more, and the mage’s brand melts away like snow in a forge.
Casivir waves to the delegation. “Why don’t you put Olek somewhere, and we’ll discuss your future opportunities in the morning.” Roskoy and Teskina bind Olek’s hands behind his back, and with the mage following, the three descend the stairs. Once Prince Casivir and his seneschal are the only two left in the court, he gestures for the bogatyrs to step forward.
“Well,” he says, “I suppose I owe you all a boon.” The four glance at one another, and politely accept the offer without clarifying it. After thanking him for the invitation, they slip out of the Crooked Tower.
They head for the appropriate tavern and find Gennadiy and Radenza still laboring Ozyar the Oathbreaker with tales. They get the two warriors’ attention, giving Ozyar an opportunity to excuse himself. Then they tell the two that it’s over — Olek is now in the Prince’s custody, and Roskoy and Teskina have been broken free of the Donjon’s service. Radenza takes the news with some measure of shock. They reassure him that Casivir is unlikely to hold any grudges, and perhaps he’d be able to find good employment in Zelezka’s service. With Gena’s support, Radenza eventually rallies. He departs for the evening, with the hope of finding Teskina — he says he’s always suspected she had a thing for him.
That’s Gennadiy’s cue to leave with much the same intention. He sets out to find Teskina and offer her commisseration. Anfisa decides to head for the bathhouse before bed, and takes Saschka along to introduce her to the experience. Kazimeer returns to the inn, and Mika vanishes into the wet places along the river.
One night of civilized (or not-so-civilized) rest later, the bogatyrs reconvene and gather their supplies. Then they travel a mile and a half out of Zelezka, and Kazimeer draws the deck of portals. He selects the Comet card, and focuses on it. The image of the comet on the card begins to flare and animate, and then expands beyond the card’s borders. A shimmering portal of light hangs in midair before them — and they step through.
The air around them is immediately colder. They stand on the eastern slope of a mountain, at the lintel of a massive tower — what seems to be a simple watchtower, but three times the size of any other, built by giant hands. A large number of blue-headed vultures, as well as a few brash ravens, mill about the top of the tower. Anfisa kneels and studies the trampled snow and frozen bloodstains, and determines that roughly seven days ago, a giant fought against a single human — and the giant fled into the tower, bleeding.
The party enters the tower and carefully ascends the giantish stairs. On the tower roof, the carrion birds cover the mostly eaten corpse of a frost giant — even after a week, there’s still bluish flesh on its bones. Anfisa clambers up the wall and looks out along the line of the range, where the steppes stretch out to the north and east. To the northwest she sees a wide mountain with smoke rising in plumes, what she takes for the Mountain of Steel. To the southeast she looks among the mountains until she spies the forested slopes of Corpsechewer.
Gennadiy and Kazimeer, on the other hand, look down the slope of the mountain that they’re on, and see movement. A small band of humanoid figures are working their way up the path to the tower. The bogatyrs descend the tower for a better look, and the new arrivals scatter and flatten into the brush — but not before Anfisa recognizes the trappings of a Ruin scouting party.
Both sides take cover — the bogatyrs in the tower, the Ruin-scouts in the terrain — and wait for the others to make the first move. Kazimeer breaks the stalemate with a spell, and one of the scouts collapses into an arcane slumber. His fellows begin to fall back, and the bogatyrs go out after them. Gennadiy charges out first, bellowing a scathing tirade on the scouts’ courage that is abruptly spoiled as he crashes down on a particularly slick patch of ice.
The mixed band of humans and orcs breaks cover to meet them. Mika calls up the ancestral dead, this time targeting Saschka — but instead of a mass of remnants of her forebears, only one ghost appears — a spectral duplicate, the seeming vestige of her host body. With its power increasing her own, Saschka carves a path through the Ruin’s troops like a scythe.
The battle’s outcome is clear shortly thereafter. The scouts are hardy veterans, but the bogatyrs are at another level entirely. Soon the Ruin’s skirmishers are dead, save for the one scarred man still snoring in the bushes.