The Iron Tsar concludes his conversation with Elbeska and politely excuses himself. He approaches his loyal boyar Aleksty Alrakov and the two speak together quietly, remaining in the hall. The bogatyrs move past him and greet the Sun. She welcomes them and receives their letters of introduction, passing them to an underpriest with a promise to read them later.
The bogatyrs announce their intentions to travel to the Royal Observatory, and offer to help as they’re needed. During the conversation, Mika begins to speak fiercely about the threat the cards pose as a whole. She argues that when two cards meet, the people are ground down between them. Elbeska objects mildly and states that the cooperation between herself and the Knight, for example, saves lives. Mika refuses to concede, asserting that the cards should not be divided between mortals at all.
“I apologize,” says Elbeska, “but I believe I didn’t catch your name.”
“My friends call me Mika,” she replies, “but my father named me Anya.”
A pulse of supernatural force, thick and oppressive, rolls throughout the temple before Tsar Gorinstal regains his composure. Elsbeska searches Mika’s face more thoroughly.
“Madness runs in our family,” says Mika. “My mother went mad and was locked in her tower. My father brought this destruction on all of us. Even my uncle is infected.”
“That much is true,” says Gorinstal, finally stepping forward. Elbeska holds up a hand to cut him off. She greets Mika again, reminiscing about seeing her when her family brought her to festival services.
Mika retakes the momentum, and continues to criticize the cardholders for their destructive capacity. Finally Gullet interjects with “That’s a bag of crap!” Two cardholders turn to look at him, and the wolverine lowers his hackles. “Well, it is,” he grumbles.
Gennadiy takes the opportunity to enter the conversation and bring it to a graceful close. He reiterates the group’s intentions to make things better, not worse. The Sun responds with promises to support the bogatyrs’ band as best they can, and mentions that the many camps around the Cathedral District may be willing to do the same. The audience ends at that point. But as the bogatyrs leave, Mika locks gazes with Tsar Gorinstal. Even in the face of the Donjon herself, she stares into his eyes with a mad fervor — until she has the extreme satisfaction of seeing him flinch.
Once outside the temple, the bogatyrs decide to gather more information. Kazimeer opts to meet Zorev Malioki, and Gennadiy and Mika accompany him. Anfisa directs Iazmina to go scout in the direction of the Cathedral district, and then she and Gullet go to mingle with the soldiers to see what they might know.
Kazimeer’s group receives directions to a bookbinder’s house. They are met at the door by a halfling woman with an odd glass eyepiece who introduces herself as Flute Fineglass. Flute, also an agent of the Vizier, brings them into the house, where they see the workshops have been repurposed into a small glassworks and a library of books likely scavenged from throughout Valgrad. Zorev Malioki descends the stairs and greets them warmly. The tiefling offers them hospitality, and they begin the discussion.
Zorev lays out a map of the Cathedral district as it was, and points out the Observatory. He shows them the most likely avenues of approach, through the Judicial Square, down Shieldgate Street, or through the Dawnside district. The tiefling adept tells them examples of the various card effects that they’ve catalogued so far, though of course he can’t speak accurately of areas too far from the safety of the Cathedral District. He even offers to divine the most powerful influences close to their goal. With a small ritual deck, Zorev performs a short divination ritual, and two cards fall from his hand — the Gem and the Void.
Zorev also shares what he knows of resisting and sometimes even negating the influence of rogue card imprints. He states that the most success has been gained by lengthy rituals, used in secured territory, but a few expensive countermeasures have been developed. He gives Kazimeer a small silver talisman worked into the likeness of the Talons card, and tells him that touching it to a card imprint will consume the talisman but disrupt the imprint’s power.
Anfisa moves among the assembled warriors, learning similar things about the threats around the Judicial Quarter and Dawnside, and stories of their encounters with the cards’ power and the survivors who were changed by them. Eventually, Iazmina returns and delivers a scouting report of her own. The two rejoin the others, and after sharing their information, they decide to wait and rest out the evening. They choose quarters from among the abandoned buildings within the district and sleep, taking some precautions in case the provoked Tsar Gorinstal decides to set assassins after them.
Iazmina is dispatched to scout again the next morning while Anfisa talks to Adwin Chokeknuckle about a possible way in. The dwarven architect speaks effusively about the quality of the Luskrin sewer engineering, and recommends an underground route. The power of the cardfall, as she puts it, often failed to penetrate below the streets, and the odds are good that a sewer route will avoid magically distorted areas. She recommends a potential path, and Anfisa carries the directions back to her teammates.
Iazmina returns with more news. She speaks of presences sensed in the university library building and voices in the auditorium. The bogatyrs decide it’s best to stick to a direct path to the observatory, ignoring potential distractions. They decide to have Iazmin and Yerek remain in the Cathedral District. Checking the route from the maps Adwin showed them one last time, they prepare themselves, find an entrance into the underground, and set out.
The expansive Luskrin sewers provide a safe path into the University district. The bogatyrs emerge with sign distance of the university’s clock tower, where a bright golden radiance shines from the clock face. The group crosses between the library, where Mika senses a strong undead presence — likely a Skull imprint — and the auditorium. They also come close enough to the Arts & Literature building to sense a potential Rogue imprint, but no closer.
The bogatyrs reach the back lawn of the observatory safely. The rear wall of the building seems to be free of card imprints, and the rear entrance appears clear. Kazimeer instead recommends that they enter through the front to be polite. They move around to the main entrance, where the doors and much of the surrounding wall has been transmuted to a pure form of brass. Anfisa examines the entry, and from the faint signs she finds, determines that a group of a dozen or so people of varying sizes entered the observatory a few days ago.
The bogatyrs enter themselves. The atrium is empty and silent, with the transformed brass spreading partly inside. Kazimeer points out that the west wing is likely full of workshops, classrooms, and staff living quarters; to the east is the main observatory tower, marked with a Void imprint. If the Magister is still in the Observatory, she could be in either area. At that point they pull out the whispering book and ask it, “Who is the wisest astromancer in the Royal Observatory tower?” The book responds, “Magister Topova Alimevna Biresla.”
They head east. The large spiral staircase dominating the wing disappears into a thick darkness that obscures the upper portion of the tower after about twenty feet; a man sits on the stairs, repetitively chanting to himself. The man is dressed in a ragged robe over light armor, and barely acknowledges the three of them as they approach. “Akhar. Weyrun. Chass… Akhar. Weyrun… Chass…”
Mika recognizes that the man is attempting to recite the months of the year. She kneels down and helps coach him through all twelve. His eyes light up as he completes the recitation — and then the light fades, and he begins to count in a monotone, losing his place and beginning again. And again.
The party decides to leave him and go up into the dark. Kazimeer first sends up a few dancing lights, but they are extinguished before they can illuminate much. The most the bogatyrs can see is a rectangular patch, even darker than the rest, on a wall — a Void imprint. Gullet and Anfisa are next up the stairs, but when they enter the darkness, they feel that it’s hungry. It drinks out a portion of the day’s memories before the two retreat back down.
As Anfisa and Gullet describe the experience, they hear heavy footfalls approaching from the west wing. The bogatyrs draw weapons and brace. The group that crosses the atrium is a mixed, dangerous-looking group. Most wear robes and light armor like the amnesiac they found on the stairs; a few carry no weapons and seem strangely addled. The group is dominated by a true ogre in heavy armor, but the ogre moves protectively to one side as another form steps out of the crowd. The ogrinka’s cloak partly covers his hunch, but not his distorted, large arms, nor the astromantic sigils carved down them. He taps his staff against the floor and chuckles.