Trumps of Winter

50 - The Broken Capital
The heroes receive a cold welcome in Valgrad.

Spring comes to High Miska, and with it the date of the bogatyrs’ reunion. They gather at the Bear King inn. Gena and Yerek are first to arrive, and Kazimeer the next. Anfisa appears in the company of Kostya, Gullet, and Iazmina. Finally, Mika rides up on an aged gray mare, which she turns loose in the street.

The four confirm that it’s time to leave, and that Valgrad will be their next destination. The deck of portals should take them directly into the city if they draw the Sun card, because its owner — Elbeska of the Higher Nine — claims no territory outside the capital’s Cathedral District. Iazmina affirms that she’s still willing to travel with them, as does Gullet and Yerek (to varying degrees of enthusiasm).

They visit the palace, and find that a number of their Miskan allies have gathered in the tsaritsa’s audience hall to see them off: Huntmaster Koden, Captain Ironjoy, Irska Redhoof, Vasil Vargavich, Holak, even Roadwarden Korgoslav Karkovich Ironglove. Tsaritsa Kascha thanks them again for all their efforts, and they thank her for Miska’s hospitality. She provides them with a final gift, a draught of water taken from a hidden well in the Kosvodd that has potent healing and purification power. The bogatyrs make their farewells, then draw the Sun card from the deck of portals and step through.

On the other side is chaos.

The bogatyrs find themselves on the pedestal of a hippogriff statue, one of the endpieces of the grand bridge over the Sorad River. Around and below them, a desperate battle. A small force of Volyar warriors stands where the bridge meets the streets of the eastern bank, led by a tall, white-haired woman in hetman-quality armor, and assisted by a burly bear cavalryman hurling firebombs into the opposing ranks. Those enemies are the undead — squadrons of skeletal warriors on each of the three adjoining streets, and a small unit of ghoul skirmishers that have clambered atop the bridge itself to strike from behind. To the north, the bogatyrs sense as much as see the dominating presence of the undead legion’s commander — a liche in the armor of a long-dead lord, a blackened sword in one hand.

Anfisa immediately sends one of the tripling arrows at the deathknight, following it with another of her regular shafts as Gullet jumps off the pedestal into the battle. Gennadiy charges through the fray directly for the undead commander. Kazimeer conjures the power of the stars to make a number of the unliving soldiers recall what it was like to sleep. Mika is the last to move, torn between the necessity of the cause and her role as a priestess of the goddess of undeath.

The skeletal soldiers are fast and dangerous, suffused with the necromantic power of a master, but the bogatyrs are far finer still. Gena and Anfisa suffer only glancing hits as they split into the melee. The deathknight is another matter — Gena manages to parry one of his strikes, and still feels part of his life force ebb away. He retaliates with a furious riposte that cuts deep. Anfisa fights in a different direction, attempting to cut a path through the thickest mass of undead who block the street to the Cathedral District. Kazimeer supports them with more sorcery, while Mika terrifies some of the nearest undead with her supernatural presence. Even Yerek launches a few arrows, while Iazmina swoops down to pick up the occasional straggling undead and drop it in the river.

Mika raises the ghost-summoning horn to her lips and calls on undead troops of her own. The spectral warriors plunge into the fray, though their opponents appear to be equally strong. The press of bone pushes further into the Volyar ranks, and the giant-blooded hetman falls. Her bear-riding lieutenant is quick to scoop her up. Mika spits out a curse of disgust at the Volyar woman’s weakness, and casts a healing spell to stabilize her.

Then a rumbling underfoot grows even louder, and a strange metal engine bursts through a nearby building. The conveyance seems fashioned to look roughly like a bulette forged of steel, but running on treads that immediately crush a dozen skeletons under the juggernaut’s weight. The “jaw” in the prow of the device opens, and flame gushes out of hidden nozzles, pouring over more of the undead. Then a hatch in the back of the metal beast opens, and a dwarf woman sticks her head out, blinking surprisedly at the bogatyrs — Aidalore, emissary of Golen Kar, last seen astride a clockwork hippogriff en route to Miska. She nervously grins at the heroes and then drops back inside, resealing the hatch.

Gennadiy rallies during the distraction, striking harder and harder at the deathknight. A spell from Kazimeer strips away the last of the animating force, sending armor and bones clattering onto the street. The remaining ghouls panic at the loss of their commander, and bolt away across the bridge. Mika spears two with her icy needles, and the last survivor dives into the river — a poor decision, as the water rises up like a fist around it, crushing it into paste that drifts with the current.

Anfisa and Gullet keep carving forward, as Aidalore’s metallic siege engine grinds more skeletons under it. Soon the main street is clear, and the last of the undead attackers are dispatched. The Volyars work on triage for their casualties, Gena assisting. Thanks to Mika’s magic, the hetman is able to stand and take charge again. She thanks the bogatyrs and Aidalore for their assistance, in particular wondering at the bogatyrs’ arrival from nowhere. The butcher’s bill is six fine Volyar veterans dead and more than that wounded, but all things considered, it would have been much worse.

The giant-blooded Volyar introduces herself as Hetman Varya Votevna Winterbones, and her bear-cavalry lieutenant Okvar Chenesky. She asks Okvar to guide the bogatyrs to the Cathedral District while Aidalore stays to keep a watch until reinforcements arrive. “Gorinstal is going to offer to put some of his men here with us,” she says, “and I don’t trust him.”

“I don’t, either,” adds Gennadiy.

Before they leave, Mika examines the corpse of the deathknight. She confirms to herself that it was a pawn of the Skull, and recognizes the sword as a barrow-blade, blackened from long centuries in a burial cairn and suffused with necromantic energy. The priestess takes the deathknight’s scabbard and buckles the barrow-blade around her own waist.

Okvar rides his bear with the bogatyrs as they head towards the warded portion of the Cathedral District. They pass down a stretch of rubble — “the Ruin’s Road,” Okvar calls it as he asks the bogatyrs various questions. Gennadiy takes charge of the conversation, as he is accustomed to doing. He asks Okvar for all the information he can get about the conflicting bands fighting over the scarred capital. Among other things, Okvar mentions some Tsar Gorinstal’s forces — “about twenty personal guard, some more camped at the territory’s edge. We don’t know their full numbers. We have a lot to keep track of.”

Okvar also describes some of the card-scarred areas they’ve seen. Statues animated with the power of the Key. Valgrad survivors bound by strange oaths laid by the Knight card, a street where anyone walking down it is stricken by confusion thanks to the Idiot’s power.

“Are there other card-marked areas we should be aware of?” asks Gennadiy.

“Yeah. Everywhere.” Okvar cranes his neck, then rides to a nearby cross-street and points down the way. A large mark, faintly shining, stretches across the cobbles of the street, and the bogatyrs recognize the pattern — the face of the Ruin card, the size of an alewagon. “They’re all over,” says Okvar quietly.

The heroes reach the central section of the Cathedral District. The Sun’s warding isn’t visible, but they feel its presence as they pass through it. The central hill and the various temples standing around it are jarringly out of place — they seem just as they were before the Disastrous Draw, a portion of the city that has completely ignored the ruin and scarring all around. A number of people and beasts move in and out of various buildings and even a small orchard-park near the temple to the nature gods. “So who do you want to talk to first?” asks Okvar. The heroes choose the Sun.

Okvar takes them to Ninespires, the grand cathedral to the Higher Nine, where Elbeska holds court. Among the people waiting outside they note half a score of warriors in Gorinstal’s colors, at least two of whom are clearly Branded. A pair of templars open the cathedral doors for them.

The interior of the Ninespires temple seems restful, even warm. More templars are inside, as well as an assortment of warriors, soldiers, and envoys from around the realm. As they draw near to the central portion of the worship hall, they see ten more of the Branded gathered. A woman dressed in robes, the Sun card about her neck below her holy symbol, is speaking with man in full armor. As the bogatyrs draw near, the man turns. For the first time in quite a while, Gennadiy and Mika find themselves face to face with the Iron Tsar, Doryevni Gorinstal — the Donjon.

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49 - Winter in Miska
Time heals wounds, if not pride.

Gena, Anfisa, and Kostya flee into the woods, carrying the wounded bodies of their comrades, Gullet following close behind. A few of the Ruin’s warriors make to pursue, then choose not to split their forces and fall back to support their bleeding, furious leader. Anfisa obscures the trail, and finds a place for them to lie low. Gullet vanishes into the woods and soon returns with an ally — a young leshy by the name of Cousin Ferntoes, who helps treat Mika’s wounds and then guides the group to the river. There the Winged Pike meets them, warned by more of Gullet’s contacts.

Kazimeer and Mika are conscious and mobile by the time the riverboat carries the bogatyrs back to High Miska. Huntmaster Koden meets them at the docks, where they tell him the short version of the conflict. He offers condolences on their defeat, and has them sent to the healing wing of the royal palace. There the tsaritsa’s healers — a strange, snowy woman and a married pair of domovoi and domovikha — speed them to full health in a matter of days. During that time, Huntmaster Koden visits them again several times, gathering more details on the story. On one visit, he’s accompanied by his young daughters, who engage immediately with Kostya, and determine that the clearly intelligent yet mute bear must be cursed.

Koden tells the bogatyrs that Tsaritsa Silverchild will see them tomorrow, in a morning audience. A servant brings clean, fine clothes for the bogatyrs, and others polish and repair armor and other gear. Mika takes some offense at the gesture, and rubs ash back on her armor before going to bed.

The group attends the audience promptly the next morning. The court has fewer courtiers in attendance than might otherwise be expected, though some are clear dignitaries — in particular, Ivar Tyurinov, the young nephew of Tsar Barakir Tyurinov, representative of the Throne. The noble youth is clearly rattled as the bogatyrs enter, for although Kazimeer, Anfisa, Gennadiy, Kostya, and even Gullet are opted for courtly decorum, Mika wears the full regalia of her priesthood. Her face is painted half black, half in skull makeup, and Ivar steps out almost reflexively to protect the tsaritsa. Mika favors him with a wink, which does nothing to ease his nerves.

The bogatyrs get their first look at Tsaritsa Kascha Silverchild. The Miskan tsaritsa is only eighteen, pretty but not beautiful, with silvery eyes and a silver crescent-moon mark on her brow. She wears a royal dress that Mika easily disdains as “provincial.” To her right is Huntmaster Koden; to her left, a heavily scarred woman in medium armor who carries not only a blade, but a quiver of arrows with no bow to be seen.

The court herald announces the bogatyrs. He describes their deeds in service to Miska — the discovery and capture of the treacherous seer Wotanfel, the reduction of the Euryale’s influence in Witchfeather Gorge, the diplomatic errand that secured the loyalty of the Blue Scar ogres, and the courageous attempt to drive out the forces of the Ruin.

The tsaritsa speaks then, with warmth in her voice. She names the bogatyrs friends of Miska, and forthwith honorary road-wardens of the land with all attendant privileges. The courtiers bow or salute the bogatyrs, and then the tsaritsa rises. “Please, adjourn with me,” she says. She leaves the audience hall with her bodyguard, Huntmaster Koden, and a pair of guards.

The bogatyrs follow her to a wide tower within the palace, daylight entering through the windows, plants growing in pots, and a small fountain bubbling. A servant brings fresh drinks for the adventurers, and the Moon invites them to sit and talk.

The tsaritsa asks for the full story of the bogatyrs’ time in Miska, in their own words. Gena is honored to oblige — “happy” not being quite the right word. He tells of their experiences from arriving near Honeythorn and battling the ghost of the Shrike Knight to the forced retreat near Raintowers. Gennadiy is uncharacteristically humble near the end of the tale, admitting that they challenged more than they could defeat.

The Moon thanks them for their efforts in a kind tone. She expresses sympathy for their pain and loss, but tells them that it wasn’t completely in vain. When Grandmother Yedza came to Tyurin and warned the assembly that the Ruin was moving to Miska, the old witch didn’t do so from the goodness of her heart. Koden clarifies that it was a distraction. Because the bogatyrs took on the challenge of the Ruin’s warband, many of Miska’s own champions were available to resist the Euryale’s cunning attempt to gain a foothold in the south of the nation. Certainly it’s a blow that the Ruin will now possess the Black Chalice — but it might have been even worse for the realm.

Gennadiy voices his anger at the Donjon’s band of Forgiven tricking them and setting the Ruin after them before they were ready. As he voices the possibility of opposing Tsar Gorinstal, Anfisa off-handedly mentions that the group intends to unify the Deck anyway — much to the chagrin of her comrades.

After a hasty back-and-forth, the bogatyrs explain that they’ve been thinking on the possibility that the Vizier’s representative mentioned at the recent Tyurin summit. They have been investigating ways to unify the Deck, even though they know it may make an enemy of practically every single cardholder. The loyalist forces of Lokva would lose great power — particularly the Knight, the Sun, the Comet, and the Moon — but Gorinstal would lose the ironclad loyalty of his troops, the Skull, Flames, and Euryale would all be greatly reduced, and perhaps some of the outside forces such as the Fool and Void would give up on Lokva altogether.

Tsaritsa Silverchild surprises everyone in the room when she says she would be at peace with such a solution. While Koden and her bodyguard protest, she elaborates. “I want to think that Miska would be strong without the card protecting it,” she says. “And… I do not want to hold the Moon long enough that I would be seduced by the power.”

Her subordinates are clearly not willing to immediately cede the point, but the tsaritsa overrules them and continues the discussion. The bogatyrs speak of many possible plans and possibilities, though they do not yet have a solid plan of action by the end of the audience. Over the course of the conversation, Kostya admits to being a human under a curse, which attracts the tsaritsa’s attention. She offers to send assistance — in Miska, they have a regrettably long history dealing with curses. Finally, she ends the audience, but invites the bogatyrs to remain in Miska for as long as they require to heal, train, and prepare.

Thus begins the bogatyrs’ winter in Miska. The first week, Anfisa and Kostya meet the tsaritsa’s curse-breaker, an aged orc woman named Grisha. Grisha casts a lengthy ritual over Kostya, determining what she can of the curse. She states that she’s learned the escape clause that would break the curse — for a beautiful girl to fall in unrequited love with Kostya. He admits that it would be a difficult task; Anfisa verifies that her brother would have trouble not returning a beautiful and sincere girl’s feelings. Grisha then commits to undoing the curse the more difficult way. On the night of the new moon, she gives Kostya a ritual bath, and then leads him to the chapel at dawn. Anfisa has difficulty not flinching when the orc woman pulls a knife and slashes across Kostya’s throat — but there’s no blood, and then the wiry old adept pulls the bearskin away, revealing the man beneath. Kostya and his sister embrace, both human, for the first time in years.

Gennadiy and Mika start out their winter gaining a drinking companion in the form of Malyetta the Sparrow, a deserter from Gorinstal’s army who found asylum in Miska. Malyetta has been hoping for a chance to get some form of revenge on her former lord for some time, and finds sympathetic allies in both Gena and Mika. Mika’s promises of vengeance are very much to Malyetta’s liking, and the Sparrow makes a gift of an enchanted cloak to the young priestess. She also shares what information she has that might still be useful, helping Gennadiy with plans to recover what’s left of his treasures from Gorinstal.

Kazimeer asks the whispering book a new question: “Who is the nearest person who knows the true meaning of the comet that appeared above Valgrad before the Disastrous Draw?” The book whispers a name: Magister Topova Alimevna Biresia. Kazimeer recognizes the title, as does Gennadiy — she was a scholar, lecturer, and professor at the Grand University in Valgrad. However, she was also reputed to have perished when Valgrad fell. Kazimeer begins research to learn more, and determines that she might still be in the University — only not in the reclaimed section. He begins making inquiries about contacts in Valgrad.

In the following weeks, Mika leaves the capital and heads downriver to the Spider Marshes. The Namalukii priestess has felt the first flashes of doubt regarding her own mental stability, and chooses to retreat to the bleak haunts to meditate. Gennadiy, anticipating that the fighting may worsen instead of abate if the Deck is unified, offers his help in preparing Miska’s defenses against potential invasion. He even passes on some of his weapons, including the firebrass axe, to Miskan champions who might make use of them.

Kazimeer and Anfisa decide to return to Schuka and guide Holak into the Kosvodd. The two are just as curious about Pelza Threetoes and the manse of Vilivin the Dreamer; for his part, Gullet is not, but he tags along all the same. The bellicose wolverine has taken a liking to Anfisa, and has (very informally) agreed to accompany her on her travels, especially now that Kostya is relearning how to fight as a human.

On an impulse, Kazimeer asks the book another question during the trip: “Who is the nearest entity who knows the true meaning of the comet that appeared above Valgrad before the Disastrous Draw?” The book’s whispered response is Haalvakith. The name is obscure, but Kazimeer identifies it as the devil of hidden meanings, a powerful and unique fiend in the service of Hothos [link]. The question becomes why Haalvakith is near, and not in the shadowy recesses of the Hooded God’s section of Hell. Kazimeer and Anfisa develop a theory that Haalvakith was not only one of the muses of Vilivin the Dreamer, but he might still be present in Vilivin’s manse.

Kazimeer collects Holak in Schuka, while Anfisa asks her Kos contacts for advice navigating the forest. Once prepared, the small expedition goes into the Kosvodd. During the trek, Holak relates what he’s learned of Pelza Three-Toes. She is by repute a mage, a thief, and a scholar, and if the rumors are to be believed, she managed to get into Vilivin’s manse once.

The group finally arrives at an odd dwelling deep in the forest. It seems to be half of a large stone manor house, overgrown with vines, bisected by some unknown force and with its missing half replaced by a crude wood structure that seems as much cultivated as built. Holak knocks at the door, and soon an odd fey woman opens the door — a goat-horned, goat-legged gylion in a shabby once-fine coat. Holak begs her pardon, and explains that they’ve come a long way to talk. The gylion lets the four visitors in, and as she guides them through the front room, they see she’s missing half of a hoof.

The interior of Pelza Three-Toes’ house is even more eclectic. Paintings, tapestries, and hanging art of wildly differing schools and even cultures hangs on the walls. The furniture is just as mismatched, and Kazimeer dutifully sits on an engraved anvil by the overstuffed chair and settee as the bogatyrs settle in for tea.

Pelza tells her guests that the manse of Viivin the Dreamer is trouble. She visited it for a very short time, and would not have wanted to stay longer. She describes how Vilivin had a different studio to paint each card, because the magical power made each room unsuitable for any other purpose. The power of the cards still haunts the manse, as do other things. At Kazimeer’s request, she sketches out a rough layout of the first floor and tells them that the studios come in groups: a card might have been painted across the hall from its opposite number, such as the Knight and Rogue. But the magic is a consistent danger — she lost half her hoof when she cast the teleportation circle to escape, and it closed too soon.

“How would you get in, then?” asks Kazimeer.

She shakes her head. “I wouldn’t. Not again.”

“Is it possible his two muses are still there? The angel and devil?”

Pelza thinks for a minute, very somber. “It could be.”

The winter months roll on. Kazimeer visits the forges in High Miska, putting his skill as an artificer to work — there are foes as dangerous as Mirsha Vozmeyvich in the land, and he decides he will need protective garments of a much stronger weave.

Gennadiy spends some time practicing his old trade as a noble tutor for the tsaritsa. Kascha Silverchild is an attentive student, and asks many questions about the nobles of other cities; Gena suspects her of attempting to deduce how best to detect their schemes.

Anfisa drinks and hunts with the Kos, and spends time with her brother. Irska Redhoof invites her on a dangerous hunt for a blue-scaled lightning-drake, and at the hard-won conclusion, Anfisa affixes the beast’s horn to her trophy vest. Irska is very impressed, and gives Anfisa a fine gift, an enchanted bow with a blacksnake motif.

Mika reconciles, to limited degree, with her mentor in the Spider Marshes. But she spends most of her time on her own, meditating on the tasks her goddess may have set before her. She contemplates vengeance, and ambition, and winter. As the rivers begin to rise with the onset of spring, Mika receives a visitation one chill predawn. A rusalka rises from the river waters that feed into the marshes, and Mika recognizes her as Fair Mirinka, the guardian of Zelezka. The rusalka hands her a corroded box, and within it is an old helm with a partial visor worked to resemble half a skull’s face. As Mika examines the Namalukii relic, Fair Mirinka takes her by the wrists, and pulls her forward, almost into the water. The rusalka leans forward and whispers into Mika’s ear, “Heal Casivir’s wound”. Then she releases the priestess, sinks back into the water, and is gone.

When the winter has finally run its course, the bogatyrs reunite in High Miska. With spring comes the necessity for action, and they are decided: if they are to reunite the Deck and perhaps end the various power struggles in the land, they will have to visit Vilivin’s manse. But first, they must warn the other cardholders on their side. They know where to find the Sun, and perhaps the Knight if she visits — the shattered capital. Valgrad.

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48 - Ruin
Four against a warband.

The bogatyrs’ decision is simple enough: scout out the ruins of Raintowers, and survey the camp of Vilich Valyask Vozmei’s warband. They set out immediately. Anfisa and, surprisingly, Kazimeer are able to get the group quietly into a hiding position, on a rise with a good view of the broken stones.

The broken keep of Raintowers sits on a small island, where the wide stream flowing to the river divides around a tall, pointed stone and then rejoins, forming a natural moat around the tumbled manse. A damaged yet still functional bridge is the only obvious crossing point, leading to the smashed gatehouse. The entire keep has been opened to the elements; the back walls still stand, but the main entry is just rubble. And among the broken stones: the Ruin band. The bogatyrs count over a dozen, sifting through piles of rubble. A few scouts stand atop portions of the second floor that have not been entirely smashed, keeping a wary eye out for enemies.

The bogatyrs decide to settle in and watch the camp. In particular, there might be the chance of catching one of the elven scouts on patrol. A long hour passes before Anfisa catches a glimpse of a form moving quietly through the forest — yet clearly not one of the Tilvash elves. She sends a warning shot at a tree near the woman, and the woman starts and moves quickly away. Anfisa creeps after her, unseen and unheard, until she is able to spot the woman again.

Anfisa lets out a short Volyar whistle, often used among scouts who follow the Comet — but no response. As the woman looks around, one hand on the hilt of an oversized sword across her back, Anfisa gets a better look at her. From the mismatched armor and weapons, she guesses that the woman matches Gennadiy’s description of Belka the Looter — one of Tsar Gorinstal’s infiltrating band of Forgiven. Belka catches sight of Anfisa, and chooses to quietly retreat.

The ranger returns to her companions and tells them what she’s seen. Mika, increasingly impatient, argues that the group should start isolating their enemies and cutting them down. The bogatyrs decide to set an ambush. Anfisa leaves a false trail for any enemy scouts to discover, then rejoins her comrades and lies in wait.

Three hours pass. Then at last they hear boots in the leaves and snow — far more than expected. As the enemy comes into view, it becomes clear that the Ruin’s entire warband has mobilized. A cruelly handsome man in black armor leads the band. The war-leader’s elite forces seem to include two elven archers wearing the blue fire and black flower of House Tilvash and drakeskull leather helms; a scarred man in a fur hood and drakeskull mask, carrying the twisted serpentine staff of a dragon-sorcerer; a hulking orc in plate armor with draconic motifs; and the young witch last seen desperately escaping the bogatyrs down the slopes of Corpse-Chewer Mountain. A baker’s dozen of lesser, but by no means harmless, Ruin warriors bulk out the band. The bogatyrs exchange quick hand-signals to determine their plan — and they choose to fight.

The fight is a bloody, brutal brawl. The Ruin enemies are at least as dangerous as any the bogatyrs have faced before, and have a strong numerical advantage. Anfisa desperately tries to keep her bear-brother alive in the face of the waves. Gena endures more punishment than he has in any other battle. Kazimeer and Mika exhaust their magic, Mika even sounding the ghost-calling horn wrested from the Ghosts of Stolyich Field. And Gullet flanks from behind, keeping the witch from contributing anything other than an effort to save her own hide. But the fight goes ever against them.

The orc juggernaut falls, and only four of the Ruin’s rank-and-file are left standing when Gennadiy sorely wounds the dragon-child leader. The padlock on the dragon-spawned warrior’s neck snaps open, and he swells into a huge dragonlike form, the size of a small house. The newly drake-form warrior tears wildly at his foes — and at the same time, Kazimeer and Mika finally fall to arrow fire.

With three of the Ruin’s elites still standing, to say nothing of the wounded, furious drake, Gena and Anfisa abandon the fight. They take advantage of the dragon-spawn’s pained frenzy to scoop up the fallen forms of Mika and Kazimeer, and they flee deep into the woods.

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47 - The Pursuit to Cairnbridge
The faintest of trails leads from the site of a massacre.

The Winged Pike leaves Schuka before sunrise. Aboard are the bogatyrs, Yerek, a somewhat hungover Gullet, and the harpy Iazmina. As Captain Ironjoy pilots the boat swiftly downriver, the bogatyrs discuss the next question for the whispering book. They decide on learning what more they can about the conflict around the Skinner Knight’s former keep, and who might still be camped there.

“Who is the most dangerous being guarding Briarthrone?”

The book hisses. “Queen Tanglecrown.”

The bogatyrs recall Iazmina asking yesterday about “human people or thorn people,” and assume that Queen Tanglecrown must be one of the latter. According to local lore, when the Skinner Knight was overthrown along with the others of the Black Chalice, her keep was reclaimed by the woods. The bogatyrs muse about the possibility of the thorn-queen being pacted with the Ruin; it would not be the first keep captured by the forces of Vilich Valyask Vozmei.

Before the day is out, the Winged Pike reaches the strip of riverbank where Iazmina says the knight-in-red and her followers reached the water. The bogatyrs disembark and tell Ironjoy to wait for the harpy to return before he continues on to High Miska. Anfisa then begins hunting for tracks. She finds signs of about eight people in the Red Crusader’s party, and what seems to be two light-footed trackers who had followed them. The two trackers, probably elves, seemed to double back once they followed the original trail to the river.

The group follows the trail to the north until it starts becoming too dark. The bogatyrs make camp for the night. Mika consults the hag’s eye amulet before they rest, and it stares to the north.

Morning comes safely. Over breakfast, the bogatyrs decide not to consult the whispering book immediately; they have no pressing questions, and perhaps it would be more useful once they have more information. They break camp and march north to Briarthrone. When they reach the edge of the woods that swallowed the fortress, they find the remains of a bloody battle. Many of the corpses lying about are blackened and distorted by poison. The bogatyrs note only a few corpses of the Ruin’s band have been left behind. They also discover the signs of a few corpses being dragged from the field towards the wood, and to the thorn-choked castle of Briarthrone. Anfisa carefully studies the strange prints where it seems a person temporarily became something larger and more reptilian, and suspects that the Ruin band’s leader is one of the dragon-warriors spawned from Vilich Valyask Vozmei’s teeth.

Anfisa turns her attention to the Ruin band’s tracks, which lead roughly to the northeast, but she soon loses the trail — clearly this warband has members with excellent woodcraft. The group dispatches Iazmina to scout ahead, and marches on all the same. When twilight comes, the bogatyrs have yet to discover the Ruin band’s trail, and Iazmina has not yet returned. The bogatyrs light a fire in their camp in hopes that the harpy can use it to find them.

Mika spends some time pondering the hag’s eye, and recalls old lore suggesting that only hags can use such a thing to its extent. Unfortunately, while it does seem possible to manipulate the amulet’s enchantment so that it recognizes her as a hag, the only options seem to be either fashion a token from a hag’s hand — and she does not have such among her grisly trophies — or altering herself so that some portion of her becomes haglike — a finger, an eye, an appetite. Vanity wins out, and Mika decides against it.

Around the fire, the group determines the day’s question for the whispering book: “Who has harmed the harpy Iazmina today?”

The book responds. “Asurien Ilvarisa.” Gennadiy and Anfisa recognize it as an elven name, and Anfisa suspects the two trackers.

But in an hour’s time, Iazmina flutters heavily into the camp by the fire, bleeding from a wound on her thigh. “Who gave you the elf-shot?” says Kazimeer.

“Sorcerous divination skill you have, ta!” Iazmina allows Mika to tend to her wound. “Laid a cunningsome trap for us. Set out a thing—” and the harpy frowns at the looks on the bogatyr’s faces. “Not a bauble, that! A treasure, proper-seeming. A weapon. And when I lighted to have an assay, an elf shot at me. Lucky it were in the leg and not the wing, ta?”

Mika heals the harpy’s wound completely, and the bogatyrs debate their next move. They decide to keep pursuing the Ruin’s band. They tell Iazmina to go find the boat as soon as she’s rested and able to fly again, and to tell Ironjoy to go ahead to High Miska. Once that’s done, she’s to return and find the bogatyrs again. Gullet confirms that he’s interested in continuing on the hunt alongside them. They then camp the night, preparing to leave early one more time.

The next day’s travel continues overland. As best as they can tell, the warband’s route avoided the scattered villages, and the bogatyrs do the same. By the time the sky is darkening and they need to consider camping, Anfisa estimates they’re within a mile or so of the river. They withdraw the whispering book for their evening’s question: “Who is our nearest enemy?”

Again the book whispers an unfamiliar name: “Dravekna Dragoshevna.” Gullet’s apathetic ignorance regarding human names isn’t much help. The bogatyrs decide that although they can’t be sure, it seems most likely this is the name of the former Skinner Knight.

Once more they rise early on a mild winter morning, and make it to the river before the sun is up. Anfisa estimates that the group is a couple of miles upriver from the town of Cairnbridge. “A bridge? Sounds promising,” muses Gennadiy.

Unfortunately, once they arrive, they find no bridge across the river — the town seems to be named for a bridge across a tributary that runs in from the east. They do find a ferry, however, and signal for a ride. An ogrinka ferryman brings his raft across, and although he finds Gullet a somewhat disreputable-looking passenger, he takes their coin and brings them across to Cairnbridge.

Along the way, Gennadiy slips a few questions into casual conversation. “Any visitors of late?”

“Yeah,” says the ogrinka, “treasure hunters like you lot. They stopped by the town to get more supplies and asked a bunch of questions.” He shrugs. “Then they got back on the river.” A few more questions reveals that the visiting band were about 10 in number and had a boat of their own. The bogatyrs quickly decide amongst themselves that it’s a strong possibility the visitors were Tsar Gorinstal’s covert band of Forgiven.

In Cairnbridge, the ferryman points out the Silver Moon as the place to buy drinks (once it opens around noon), and a general store where visitors might buy more supplies. The bogatyrs tip the ogrinka handsomely and visit the general store. There Gennadiy asks a few more innocuous questions, learning that the recent visitors bought roughly three days’ worth of food for their group. The store proprietor describes the two men who interacted with her the most: a genial, large man shaped a bit like a barrel who carried a pair of chopping blades, and a rather high-class seeming gentleman with a few dandyish affectations. The group completes the transaction and thanks the store proprietor. Then, it being nearly midday, they adjourn outside to consider their next move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Human people. And don’t get seen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A hostage,” says Anfisa.

“That would suffice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nobody can fight alone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who could possibly threaten you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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