Trumps of Winter

01- The Ghosts of Stolyich Field
Four heroes assemble in the troubled town of Rubyal.

In the western reaches of splintered Lokva, a caravan of a single wagon travels south from Golen Kar, on the road to Zelezka. The wagon, home to the tiefling Malioki family and the Malioki’s Miracles business, is accompanied by some extraordinary friends: the traveling author Gennadiy Milyukov, the reclusive priestess Mika Sokolov, and the metal-skinned sorcerer Kazimeer. Kazimeer knows that the Maliokis are quietly running a discreet errand for Alsvedun the Magnificent; what’s more, Gena has received a letter from the town of Rubyal asking for help. The Boyar Zarkozky is dead, and his daughter Rovina has requested Gena’s assistance on the grounds of the friendship he and her father shared.

When they reach Rubyal, the locals tell them that it’s a shame they’re traveling south, as the road’s dangerous. Bandits have been preying on small groups lately, and with most of Zarkozky’s fighting men lost alongside the boyar, the town can’t spare the swords to clear the way. The bandits apparently refer to themselves as the Ghosts of Stolyich Field, and cover themselves in ashes. Rumor has it that the neighbor to the south, Boyar Kurzkov — also called the Red Tusk — is offering his assistance, but in exchange for a very steep price.

Gena, Kazimeer and Mika pay a visit to the town constable, whom they find conversing with a lean Volyar woman accompanied by a night bear. The bear seems tame enough, though it still clearly unnerves many of the townsfolk. The woman, Anfisa, turns out to be a wandering saber-for-hire — and Mika secretly recognizes her as the daughter of Tsar Buresk’s head gamekeeper. Anfisa does not recognize Mika in turn, and the priestess doesn’t change the arrangement.

They go to the Zarkozky manse, and the trio take Anfisa’s side in intimidating the help into letting the bear Kostya come inside as well. They note that the stables house a number of horses and a carriage bearing the red tusks of Boyar Kurzkov. Gena stops to discreetly check the saddlebags of Kurzkov’s men, but he doesn’t find the ashes he’s looking for.

The group meets the 15-year-old Rovina Zarkozky inside. She is also playing host to Kurzkov’s representative, a smiling officer named Butrek. As they discuss the bandit troubles, it becomes clear that Kurzkov intends to become the “protector” of the Zarkozky lands, likely as a preface to absorbing them, while the young Rovina prefers to remain independent. She lacks both battle experience and a good quantity of men, though, and therefore cannot resist Kurzkov’s offer forever. What’s more, the bandits can bolster their numbers by use of a magic war horn that conjures ghostly allies. Gena, Mika, Kazimeer and Anfisa offer to deal with the bandits themselves.

Butrek leaves as it’s becoming clear that his offer is being put off; he promises to return later to continue negotiations. Rovina tells the group that the bandits are operating near an old bridge across the river, and likely from the watchtower that stands over it. She makes a present of 12 remarkable arrows with stained glass heads to Gena, as something of a recompense and a sign of their friendship — her father was also a loyalist to Commander Anrikka Valyevna, now the Trump of the Knight.

The four, as well as Butrek, attend dinner in the boyar’s home. During the course of the conversation, Butrek asks a peculiar astrological question of Kazimeer, who points out the flaws in the science. Gena surmises that it was a password of some sort, and tries to guess the proper answer — but he is clearly off-base, and Butrek ends that thread of the conversation abruptly.

After the meal, the adventurers talk about a potential approach. They decide to pose as farmers, renting a wagon to carry a load south. They secure Rovina’s assurances that the Maliokis will be well-guarded in town. Gena also brings up the likelihood that Butrek was attempting to use a recognition pass phrase on Kazimeer, and the sorcerer suddenly explodes into a tirade — Butrek seems to have some connection to the Cult of the Mad Star.

The next morning, Gena and Mika get up early to sabotage the Kurzkov men’s saddles, just in case. The group then sets out in their disguise as farmers, the night bear Kostya concealed under canvas in the back of the wagon.

Sure enough, as they approach the ancient bridge and watchtower, ash-covered men and women emerge from hiding, arrows nocked. The Ghosts of Stolyich Field, or at least a small band of them, demand that the group empty the wagon and turn around. The adventurers respond with naked steel.

Arrows go flying on both sides. Anfisa and Kostya are the first to charge, with Gen riding after them. Mika remains on the wagon, conjuring bone javelins from her vengeful god’s power. Kazimeer freezes the lead bandit solid. The rest of the bandits are quickly overwhelmed, and the last one surrenders in a desperate attempt to keep her ashen hide intact.

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02 - Capturing the Tower
The heroes throw themselves against the Ghosts’ core.

The four adventurers begin questioning the bandit woman, who gives her name as Ludova. She offers her cooperation emphatically, giving them a sense of numbers (roughly a dozen Ghosts remaining). She also tells them that the Volyar scout who opposed them is presently being held captive, on the orders of a dragon-priest who’s sought out the Ghosts of Stolyich Field. The Ruin’s agent wants to carry back the Volyar prisoner as a gift for his draconic master.

They send back the wagon, telling the drivers to take it around the bend out of sight and wait there. The four then scramble up the slope, and approach the watchtower along the ridge.

The bandits spot them at a distance, and shout for them to come no further. Gena and Kazimeer take a few steps forward to offer negotiations. They talk themselves about halfway through the remaining distance to the tower before the Ghosts’ leader Voresk demands they halt. A scattering of bandits, including at least one on the the stable keep bows leveled at the group, and a pair

The negotiations with the bandits stall when the dragon-priest, a burly orc, gets involved. Kazimeer attempts to bluff the priest by proclaiming that they’re here following a dire astrological omen, but the orc scoffs; nothing has the power to overcome Vilich Valyas Vozmei’s will, he maintains. But the discussion does distract the bandits, allowing Mika and Anfisa to draw stealthily closer to the tower; even Kostya is surprisingly quiet as they edge from stone to shrub.

Finally the diplomacy gives way to hostility. The bandits start loosing arrows, and the women break from cover as the bear charges up to the stable. Kazimeer and Gena focus on the dragon-priest, Gena charging the orc while the sorcerer hurls magical bolts at him. The bandits manning the ballista fire a bolt that strikes Kazimeer, badly ringing his metallic form.

The night bear Kostya makes quick work of the Ghost on the stable roof, then clambers up to the ballista’s level. Pressed by Gena and Mika, a wounded Voresk sounds the battered horn at his side. Mist spreads across the ground, and half a score of phantom warriors rise out of it.

But the bogatyrs anticipated as much. Anfisa cuts down two of the ghostly remnants with her sabers. Mika pulls out a tangle of strings and speaks old words as she burns them. The remainder of the summoned phantoms evaporate in a burst of flames. While the surviving bandits are still reeling in shock, Kazimeer hurls an eldritch bolt that blasts the dragon-priest down. Gena demands that Voresk surrender, but the Ghosts’ leader seems convinced that it would mean his death anyway. He fights until Kostya leaps from above, crushing him under a mass of ursine claws.

With the Ghosts of Kolyich Field defeated, the group investigates the tower. They find the captive Voylar inside, one Kreska Karkovich, and cut his bonds. The wiry scout tells them that there’s something in the barrow underneath the tower that drew the dragon-priest’s attention. The priest was hunting for the Banner of the Bloody Falcon, an enchanted war-banner entombed with the Rusdrakkr chief who carried it. Vilich Valyask Vozmei clearly wants the banner; Kreska muses it’s possible that Boyar Kurzkov has heard about the banner, too.

The group retrieves the wagon, and guide it around the winding road up to the tower. As the drovers load the stolen goods onto the wagon, the others go searching for a way into the barrow. They discover a false floor newer than the tower itself, and beneath it a trap door.

Kazimeer detaches the strange dodecahedron from his wrist again, and sends it through the door to scout. It returns after a few minutes, displaying peculiar heiroglyphs on its facets — skull, shield, gate. Kazimeer announces that the dead are on watch below.

The group decides to settle in and rest for a bit, binding their wounds and regathering their strength. If Butrek and his men don’t arrive and cause a problem, they’ll go down into the barrow at sunrise — hopefully when the dead are at their most quiescent.

On her watch, Anfisa talks to Ludova again. The bandit woman asks her about the rumors that her bear is under a witch’s curse, and Anfisa nods. Ludova makes an offer: free her, and she’ll tell Anfisa of a remedy against magic that’ll protect her, possibly in the barrow itself. After some consideration, Anfisa agrees, and moves to free the bandit while the others rest.

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03 - The Barrow of Warchief Guryakin
The adventurers go below in search of the bloody falcon.

During her watch, Anfisa strikes a covert deal with the captive bandit Ludova. The bandit tells Anfisa that the ghostly dead are best dealt with if you put blood on your blade. Anfisa cuts her loose in response. Gena’s not happy when he wakes and discovers the missing brigand, but Kazimeer and Mika are more interested in dealing with undead ghosts than the last Ghost of Stolyich Field.

Mika takes it upon herself to prepare breakfast. It is terrible.

As they prepare to descend into the barrow under the hill, they spot a small group of soldiers coming up the road toward the tower. The half-dozen men and women turn out to be loyalists to Commander Anrikka Valyevna, wielder of the Knight card. Their leader Lorsky tells Gena they’d hoped to aid the Boyaritsa, and heard about the group that had already left. They offer to keep watch in the tower in case Butrek tries anything, in exchange for assistance when the time comes to move south through Boyar Kurzkov’s lands. The adventurers agree to the bargain.

The four wrest open the trap door and descend into the barrow, their way lit by the chaotic ebb and flow of wisp-lights conjured by Kazimeer. The first chamber of the barrow appears to be an entry hall, with murals on the walls, mummified Rusdrakkr warriors on watch, and a pair of skeletal hounds with silver bells sitting to either side of the portal further in. Three fresher corpses lying in the center of the room. The newcomers might be as much as 200 years old — probably the same age as the false floor laid over the barrow’s entrance.

They go over the corpses, and Mika finds a journal written in a form of criminal cant. She’s vaguely familiar with the language, and deduces that the last pages speak of hiding an amulet safely outside before the bearer went into the barrow. She goes out to find it, and unearths its hiding place. In the meantime, Anfisa asks if it’s likely that the silver bells would wake the hounds. She pools her knowledge with Kazimeer, and they find a seam of silver inlaid in the inner threshold. Anfisa carefully stuffs the bells with loose fabric, muffling the clappers as best she can. When Mika rejoins the group, an amulet of bloody amber in hand, they carefully test the threshold. The bells quiver, but cannot ring, and the hounds remain at rest.

The next chamber is a trophy hall, with many gathered weapons, shields, banners among the skulls and pelts of ancient beasts. A quick glance shows the bloody falcon isn’t among the banners — likely it was the warchief’s own, not a trophy. As the group surveys the two exits, they note a cold and faintly luminescent mist rolling in along the floor from the right-hand exit. Figures rise from the mist, phantoms of poorly dressed men and women, all whispering the name “Guryakin” over and over. One figure in particular has stronger cohesion and a more apparent awareness — it’s this one who focuses on the group, and the phantoms surge forward.

The tattered ghosts have a painfully cold touch, drawing away some of the heroes’ vitality. But the forewarned Anfisa and Gennadiy have bloodied their blades, and they find themselves able to strike ghost-stuff as if it were flesh. The phantoms were clearly not warriors in life, and they are soon cut down. The whispers fade away, and the mist retreats into the room from whence it came. A quick look through that doorway shows a room with a pit where numerous bones lie, more of the mist hanging over them. The four determine that the bodies are probably slaves sacrificed to serve the Rusdrakkr chief in death, and leave the room be.

The left-hand room leads to a forge room and armory, apparently set up for the maintenance of weapons in the afterlife. The group looks around for anything of interest, but Kazimeer quickly decides that there’s nothing here on the level of artifice that he’s used to.

From the forge they move farther down into a feast hall. A massive table is set up, with the corpse of the warchief at its head and a cadre of dead huskra seated with him. The warchief’s eyes take on a dim bluish light. “Finally,” he rasps in a very old dialect of Lokvan, without raising his head or releasing his deathgrip on his throne’s armrests. “Someone has come to set me free.”

The four heroes parley with the Rusdrakker warchief, weapons drawn. He reveals that he’s been bound to his corpse for centuries, by the will of the ungrateful servants who were slain to look after him. He cares nothing for the banner, and is happy to offer it as payment for freeing him somehow. But before a proper ritual can be found, four of the skeletal huskra rise from their seats and take up their weapons. “No, you idiots!” shouts warchief Guryakin. “These ones can free me! Don’t slay them! I command you!”

The skeletal warriors ignore their master, and draw sword and bow against the living intruders. Gennadiy had cut and carried a wooden club in preparation for just such a moment, and he, Anfisa and Kostya leap into the brawl. The huskra are considerably stronger than the phantoms were, but they don’t manage to do more than batter the heroes before they’re put down with weapon and spell.

Mika sets to the business of freeing the dead, perhaps to face her cold mistress on the other side. She performs a ritual to free the slave spirits, and then turns her attention to Guryakin. The warchief rasps that they’ve served him well, and tells them to takes his saber and mail shirt as well-earned gifts. Mika then cuts the strands holding him there, and the warchief’s vestige departs. They take his saber and mail as instructed. The saber, a runed but strong antique with the name “Hungry Fang,” goes to Anfisa; the bronze coat of scales to Gena. Mika severs Guryakin’s hand as her prize, reasoning that it may be useful later. They also take the Banner of the Bloody Falcon from the wall. Kazimeer calculates that it would have to be “tamed” to serve a warband, as it seems to have some impulsive drive of its own.

The four finally emerge into the open air again, in the afternoon. They gather the drovers and Lorsky’s soldiers to return to Rubyal. Even with the Ghosts of Stolyich Field dispersed and the road clear, the troubles of Boyaritsa Rovina aren’t over.

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04 - The Briar-Crown Cauldron
Mika, Anfisa and Kazimeer sack a warlock's house while he's away.

The group returns to Rubyal, where their success is toasted with food and drink. Butrek is most congratulatory, though his enthusiasm for the Ghosts’ defeat is likely not genuine.

In the morning the four travellers get together with the soldier Lorsky and the Malioki tiefling family and discuss their next move. Anfisa presses for some means of helping Boyaritsa Rovina Zarkozky defend herself, but the others are reluctant to give her the horn. During the discussion, Rovina’s gamekeeper Oskvar appears and requests their assistance. Mika demands a round of drinks before they’ll listen, and the befuddled hunter obliges.

Oskvar tells them that one of the local figures of dread is the Briar Crown Warlock, who lives in the woods between the Zarkozky and Kurzkov domains. He suspects, though, that the Briar Crown Warlock is missing, as the wards around his territory haven’t been maintained for two moons. If the warlock is dead as Oskvar suspects, he might have something that could help protect the boyaritsa. He was supposed to own a cauldron that summoned forth mist to cloak an area. Those who drank from the cauldron could see through the mist, giving them a keen advantage over invaders. He asks if perhaps the heroes could steal that cauldron.

The group agrees to the task. Gennadiy remains behind in Rubyal, both to help Lorsky train up the local militia to a higher standard, but also to keep an eye on Butrek. The three borrow a pair of mules. When Oskvar reports there are owlbears in the woods, Anfisa puts some polished plates on each of the mules — her monster-hunting experiences have taught her that owlbears are irritated by flashing lights and reflections, and avoid the experience.

They travel for two hours through the woods before they begin seeing wards: small constructions of bone and skulls, with glyphs painted in old blood. Mika examines the craftsmanship and surmises that if they were fresh, they’d be more trouble.

Another half-hour brings them to a house on a hill, surrounded by a tall and thick hedge of dagger-thorned briars. A number of skulls, even complete skeletons, are embedded in the hedge. They find a single gateway in, with a warded skull placed prominently at the top of the arch. After some discussion, Kazimeers hurls an arcane bolt at the skull. It cracks but does not explode, and its jaw drops open with an unholy shriek.

Several skeletons rip themselves out of the hedge, vines acting like rough musculature holding them together. Anfisa and her bear confront a four-footed thorn-scarecrow built from wolf and bear bones, while another bipedal scarecrow attacks her. A third launches thorns from its torso at Kazimeer, and then charges the sorcerer. The heroes lose some blood to the briar scarecrows, but are ferocious enough to put them down. Mika calls on her cold goddess to heal Anfisa’s wounds, and then they venture through the gate, leaving Oskvar to watch the mules.

The warlock’s home is a large wooden house with a stony floor, held a few feet above the ground in a massive tree. An untended garden sits inside the hedge, as does what appears to be a battered smokehouse. The three heroes silently agree not to open the smokehouse door unless necessary.

The witch-house itself is locked by thorny vines, but a drop of blood and they recede. Inside, the house is one large room. It’s crammed with various implements and oddities, from a shelf of weathered books to a bone-laden workshop, with a central firepit. An iron cauldron with toad feet sits to one side.

As they approach the cauldron, a small goblinish figure appears from under the furniture. “You are not the master!” it exclaims. They speak carefully and politely with the twisted little domovoi, asking where the master of the house is. The creature responds that the Briar-Crown Warlock received a message by bird a couple of moons ago, probably the Grandmother calling him in. It’s happened before, according to the fey. He has even gone missing for as long as a year. The three muse that perhaps the warlock’s not dead after all.

That doesn’t change their resolve. Mika, remembering that a house-spirit can be freed by a gift, offers the dark domovoi a bowl of cream with three drops of her blood in it. The greedy thing drinks it down and muses for a bit. Then he laughs, overturns one of the laden tables, gives the three an obscene gesture, and vanishes up the chimney.

The three quietly loot the house. Kazimeer packs up all the books, and Mika sacks the component racks and vials. She finds the bits of a wand in the making there, something that could be completed by a ritualist. They then leave, rolling the cauldron with them.

But as they exit the gate, they see that half a dozen men and women, dressed in similar military gear, have surrounded the mules and taken Oskvar hostage. The woman in charge explains that she’s under orders to retrieve whatever they’ve found here. She stands up to Kazimeer’s intimidating pronouncements, reiterating that she cannot defy her orders. Mika realizes she likely has the Donjon’s Brand of Servitude — she’s a servant of the Iron Tsar.

Half a breath after it’s clear that neither side will back down, the woman lunges in with a lightning attack. Her blade actually scores Kazimeer’s metallic skin. But her fellows are much less quick to react, which places her in a bad situation. Anfisa and Kostya flank her, pinning her in place for Kazimeer to strike her down with acid and poison. Bone javelins pierce several of her supporters, and the hunter and her bear kill more.

Only the veteran scout remains, and he opts to run for it. The pursuit leads over a pair of low hills in the woods, as he dodges one of Anfisa’s arrows but takes a bone javelin to the shoulder. Kostya closes with him, and although he narrowly evades the bear’s claws, a thunder blast from Kazimeer sends him flying. He lands and doesn’t get up.

The group leaves the bodies in the woods, perhaps food for the owlbears and perhaps scapegoats for the cauldron’s theft. They then take the ugly vessel back to Rubyal.

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05 - Istvar’s Best
The search begins for something rotten in Boyar Kurzkov's domain.

Mika, Anfisa and Kazimeer safely return to Rubyal with the cauldron intact. Mika splits off from the others before they enter the town, and discreetly tells Gena and Lorsky what’s been happening.

The cauldron’s gift is well-received, and the adventurers visit the boyaritsa’s table for dinner again that evening. During the meal, Butrek announces that as the safety of Rubyal seems to be well in hand, he’ll be returning to Istvar to inform Boyar Kurzkov that their neighbor’s lands are secure. As a gesture of goodwill, he will leave five of his men behind until such time as the boyaritsa has more trained more soldiers.

The adventurers spend another day in Rubyal, and see Butrek off. Anfisa goes hunting in the woods; Mika and Kazimeer pore through the books stolen from the warlock’s house, and Gena spends a little time with Butrek’s five men who stayed behind. He evaluates that the leader doesn’t seem a trustworthy sort, and looks for a weak link among them. He settles on a younger man who doesn’t seem to trust his own fellows.

That evening, they spend some social time at the Rubyal inn, mingling with Butrek’s men. Mika distracts the second-in-command, gradually seducing him in a threatening manner to throw the others off guard. Gena isolates the “weak link” and starts talking to him. The young man, Pirin, seems unnerved by Kazimeer, and has a general apprehension of star-magic. When Pirin’s fellows start to notice his absence, Mika drags her target from the room, diverting their attention.
As his fellows discuss whether their colleague lucky or unlucky to have caught the witch’s attention, Pirin is free to talk to the others.

Pirin listens fearfully to Kazimeer, who makes dire predictions and eventually reveals that he stands against the Mad Star. Pirin whispers that the astrologer attending Boyar Kurzkov is, he suspects, influenced by the Mad Star and its cult. They let him return to his “friends.”

The group reconvenes later on with Belzec and Izmirra Malioki, Lorsky and Kreska Karkovich. Mika returns to them, having left claw marks in her paramour’s neck and giving them something else to talk fearfully about. The adventurers confirm with the Maliokis and Lorsky that it’ll be time to move south and look at Istvar. They review some of their information:

*Istvar is about 4500 people strong, with the boyar keeping a standing fighting force of 35 professional guards.
*Boyar Kurzkov rules from a small keep. His wife is deceased, and he has three daughters, none of whom he has nominated as a clear heir.
*The boyar’s daughters are Marisky, who seems resentful; Elska, a sympathetic friend to Boyaritsa Rovina; and Lanetsya, who is described as childish.
*The town’s claim to fame is locally produced korzalka, of average quality at best.
*Kurzkov’s men get to drink free at the local korzalka distillery, and many of them are sloppy and undisciplined as a result.
*Among his retinue are the astrologer Ulvo, a recent arrival, and his steward and right hand Girinka, a no-nonsense woman of strong loyalty who speaks well of allying with the Donjon.
*Trustworthy people in Istvar include Kradovar, an honorable veteran of skirmishes with the Ruin’s raiders, and Borchek, an aged half-Volyar hunter.

They leave the next morning, and reach Istvar in under an autumn day’s travel at the speed of the Malioki wagon. The town overlooks the river, and is surrounded by heavy stands of fir and a large bare stone hill. The guards on the town’s outskirts react to them as if they were expected, and direct them to the Snowy Bough Inn. There Mika blends in with the crowd as best she can, eavesdropping to see if anyone’s discussing the astrologer. She does hear that strange lights can be seen on the hill every third night.

Gena hears a shout of recognition. An old comrade from the battlefield, a warrior named Radenza, greets him cheerfully. They fall to talking, and Gena discovers that Radenza is here on Tsar Gorinstal’s business… to encourage Boyar Kurzkov to take the brand. The steward Girinka is on his side, but Butrek is counselling against it. The two talk cheerfully about how nice it would be if Butrek were to have some some sort of accident, such as falling down stairs.

“What about the old potato sack and shoes bit?” asks Radenza.

“Horseshoes?”

“I was thinking steel-toed boots, but I like the line of your thought!”

The next morning, the group heads out to look at the stone hill, perhaps to find some signs of what the lights mean. Along the way Butrek intercepts them with a smile. Gena splits off with Butrek to go do some drinking at the local distillery, convincing him to cash in some of those free drinks. Butrek is too canny to get drunk in Gena’s presence, and the feeling is mutual. The two carefully probe one another under the guise of honest dialogue, nursing their liquor until Radenza shows up and joins the conversation.

The other three make it up the hill, where they find the standing stone that was presumably erected recently by the astrologer Ulvo. Kazimeer has difficulty discerning the nature of the glyphs, which don’t read like any proper star-glyphs he knows, but Mika invokes a small divination in the name of the Lich Queen. The glyphs are apparently chains, holding some sort of spirit within the rock. Anfisa pores over the area, and her keen eyes pick out some traces of disturbance. She estimates that about half a dozen people come up the mountain at a time, and two of them stand on opposite sides of the stone.

They return down the hill, and stop by the hut of the hunter Borchek. The aged, catankerous huntsman says he watches the stargazing crowd now and then. They’re led by Ulvo and two men who came with him, one fat and one thin. He takes a small group up there every third night for “stargazing.”

When Gennadiy finally extracts himself from his impromptu drinking party, he meets with the others. They begin to make plans to cut out the sinister influence in Rubyal. It seems wisest to dispose of the astrologer first, then see what they can do about the Donjon’s supporters. The best course of action seems to be to discredit the astrologer, at which point they can perhaps more permanently be rid of him. Once that’s done, they can empower the boyar’s daughters, perhaps raise them in his estimation, and then have them mitigate the steward Girinka’s influence.

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06 - The Stargazer’s Secrets
A boyar’s daughter opens the way.

The adventurers have little time to cement their plans before a complication appears. A short-haired, stern woman, wearing something like livery in the Red Tusk’s colors, strides to their table. She identifies them as the heroes who routed the Ghosts of Stolyich Field, and Gena genially confirms her statement. She tells them that Boyar Kurzkov would like them to join him for dinner, by way of thanks for their assistance to his neighbor. Once the steward departs, the adventurers share some wary looks. Still, it would be rude — and possibly dangerous — to decline.

That evening finds them seated at the boyar’s table (save Kostya, who is compelled to remain in the courtyard). Kurzkov is a broad-shouldered man, morose of demeanor. His three daughters sit near him but not at his hand, and display varying amounts of interest in the heroes. The stargazer Ulvo, a bearded man with staring eyes, is also present, as is Butrek and the steward Girinka.

The boyar invites them to share the tale of the Ghosts’ defeat. Gennadiy gladly complies, telling the story accurately while carefully omitting any hints of Kurzkov’s culpability or Mika’s ability to perform magic. The boyar’s older daughter Marisky drops some of her sullen demeanor and shows particular interest in the tales of martial feats. The middle daughter Elska is an attentive and appreciative audience, and the youngest Lanetsya is drawn into the tale when Kazimeer’s magic is described.

This leads to a conversation about magic between Ulvo and Kazimeer. They discuss the nature of celestial magic, and how Kazimeer is able to draw on the power of the stars. Ulvo makes the observation that Kazimeer must draw more from the wandering bodies that draw nearer to the terrestrial sphere than do the fixed. Kazimeer compliments him on his insight, and asks about his own magic. Ulvo waves him off, claiming that he is a simple sage and not a wizard, but that they should certainly talk in more depth at a later date.

The boyar soon chooses to retire, telling the others to enjoy the remainder of the feast. Ulvo rises and leaves shortly afterwards, as do the daughters. The adventurers drain their glasses, and Anfisa purloins a number of pastries for Kostya.

As they trek back down the hill from the keep, a low whistle cuts through the dark. Marisky Kurzkov appears from the nearby bushes. She warns them that the stargazer Ulvo is much more dangerous than he seems, and tells them to meet her at the home of the herbalist Evda. She then slips back into the dark.

The adventurers play it casual. They drop by the inn, and then sneak out the back, leaving Kostya there as a bluff. A quick bit of scouting reveals that Butrek had casually followed them down to the inn, and is waiting outside to keep an eye on the establishment, but he fails to notice the ghostlike Mika. The four then circle around the darkened streets to the herbalist’s home.

Evda quietly lets them in. The herbalist is a woman in her 30s, who turns out to have lost a lover to Ulvo’s cult — first he was enthralled by the talk of shifting times, then when he attempted to escape, he was murdered. Marisky’s stake in the affair is less personal, but still heartfelt: she knows Ulvo follows the Doomsayer Prophet and the cult of the Mad Star, and she finds it revolting. The stargazer is promising her father some kind of power, and she suspects it’s a pledge to create him a particularly strong and “blessed” heir.

The adventurers immediately respond with a description of the stone and its contents. They determine that surely Ulvo means to have the captive spirit possess a child. Revolted by the concept, they contemplate ways to discredit the cultist, or perhaps to have him fall down a particularly tall and treacherous flight of stairs. They ask Marisky if she can get them into Ulvo’s tower in order to collect evidence. She says it’s possible; the ritual will start in two hours, so they should gather at the keep’s sally port in an hour and a half. She’ll unlock the way.

Evda brings out a carved coffer, and Mika immediately recognizes the rune on the lid — the sigil of Queen Norevna, the ice witch who holds the Fates trump. Evda says an ally gave her the box some time ago, and told her she’d know when they were needed. Within are five vials full of a shifting grey liquid. The herbalist says they’re supposed to make the drinker “like unto a shadow.” The adventurers take the potions, thank Evda, and tell Marisky they’ll be on time.

Mika slips back into the inn ahead of everyone else, where Butrek is waiting in the common room — not alone. Kradovar has joined him, and is engaging the clearly frustrated soldier in a long and one-sided conversation. Shortly thereafter, two armed men — one broad and fat, the other rail-thin — enter the inn. The fat man claps a hand on Butrek’s shoulder, and he rises in response, making his excuses to Kradovar. The three then exit, and Mika alerts the others.

The sally port is unlocked as promised. The four slip past a drunken guard and drink their potions, and cross the keep without trouble. A key sits in the lock of the tower waiting for them. They slip through the door without any disturbance.

The tower’s first story was given over as a storeroom some time back, and it appears the occupants added to the stores. The second story has become a small barracks with a pair of cots; judging by the different patterns of compression, Ulvo’s fat and thin bodyguards rest here. The third story, though, is much more cluttered. There’s enough furniture to serve as the stargazer’s quarters, but it’s also covered with various papers — star charts, celestial maps, and nativity charts among others.

The group goes through the papers in hopes of some sort of evidence. Kazimeer first uncovers a pair of nativity charts that pair Boyar Kurzkov with the Boyaritsa Rovina. While this does seem to explain some of the cultist’s intrigues, it doesn’t seem enough to actually turn the boyar against Ulvo. But soon enough something more damning appears. A set of nativity charts compare the odds of a “blessed offspring” if Ulvo sires a child with each of the boyar’s daughters — and a red mark stresses an “optimal” result if he’s paired with the thirteen-year-old Lanetsya in three months’ time. Revolted, the heroes take the charts as their primary tool.

Anfisa finds something as well — a small box of powder, that she recognizes as a witch’s tool. The stuff is used to dull the senses and sight of its targets. With enough doses, an occultist could turn a person into a mesmerized servant. That would, they reason, perhaps explain Boyar Kurzkov’s detached melancholy.

The third thing they find is hidden behind the bed’s headboard — a small pouch containing an ivory plaque. The card is clearly a cruder (and thankfully non-magical) representation of the Idiot’s trump. They argue whether to take or to leave the evidence, but finally opt to take all three — the charts, the dust and the card. Thus armed, they set out for Marisky’s quarters before the potions wear off.

The Boyar’s daughter is disgusted to learn of Ulvo’s designs on her sister. She leads the heroes to collect Girinka and her father. Gena insists on finding a runner to go collect Lorsky and his men, for there’s sure to be trouble. As he does so, he looks out a window to see the lights descending the stone hill — and it seems there’s far more than the expected six people in the stargazer’s retinue.

Kurzkov is slow to start once awake, but Marisky’s story begins to stir up his temper. Gennadiy and Kazimeer fill in more details, rousing him further. Finally, Mika tells the story of a fallen tsar who listened to a wicked deceiver of a southlander vizier, and lost everything from his throne to his legacy. The boyar snarls for Girinka to bring his arms and armor, and muster all the men in the keep. Ulvo will answer for these outrages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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