Trumps of Winter

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

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

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

“Ah!” says Gena. “Which one?”

Reeki’s eyes widen. “There are more?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have nothing to give,” she says.

“Do you not have loyalty?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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36 - Perska and the East Wind
The bogatyrs investigate several things, such as drinks.

Gennadiy, Anfisa, and Kazimeer gather up the dead necromancer’s effects: a satchel with 319 gold coins; a pair of tarnished silver candlesticks with a fish-skeleton motif; a mummified, gilded, and bejeweled severed hand; and a knife with an ornate decoration on the blade. Kazimeer notes the peculiar pattern on the knife as reminiscent of an unfamiliar constellation. They gather wood from the forest, set a pyre in the stone tower for the body, and finally leave the hunting lodge.

The village of Honeythorn is still awake when they return, with nervous villagers on watch. Road-Warden Ironglove announces that the threat of the Shrike Knight’s return is ended. As the villagers begin to accept the news, the wedding celebration resumes and redoubles in fervor. Gennadiy stays up and regales the townsfolk with tales of the battle into the wee hours. He winds up staying the night in a fine guest room belonging to one of the better-off families, while Anfisa stays with a family that will accept Kostya.

Gena wakes up the next morning to find a note has been slipped under his door. It reads “I’ll catch up,” in handwriting he recognizes as Mika’s. He joins the others for breakfast, where they share information on the “minstrel” who passed through town. When the disguised necromancer visited Honeythorn, a local woman with a penchant for drink put him up for the evening. Nobody remembers the woman, Martya, attending the wedding.

The bogatyrs pay a call on Martya’s home to find the door latched and the fire out. They finesse the latch and enter to find her unconscious on the floor by a table, where a half-empty bottle of illyist and a pair of cups remain. Kazimeer discerns from her peculiar pallor that she was the victim of an enervating necromantic spell that struck her comatose.

After some quick medical attention restores her to consciousness, Martya tells the story of her guest. She admits that the two of them started drinking mead and his illyist. When she was properly inebriated, she started going through his things while he was out using the bathroom. She discovered a strange knife and a human skull in his backpack, and he returned while she was still trying to put them back. He spoke a word, she felt very cold, and then she remembers nothing more.

Gena examines the bottle of illyist on the table. The bottle itself has a fancy relief of an amphisbaena, which he recognizes as the mark of the Double Venom distillery. The bottle’s cork has an astrological glyph on the underside, which Gena shears off and passes to Kazimeer. The sorcerer studies the mark, and slips into a contemplative trance. He identifies the mark as a glyph of the Drowned Man, a hidden constellation which is reputed to eclipse traditional constellations in times of dire portent.

The bogatyrs spend the rest of the day and another night in Honeythorn. They leave the next morning, with Mika still absent. They accept Korgoslav Karkovich Ironglove’s offer of guidance to the next town, and the ogrinka regales them with various stories along the journey. The ride along the forest road is peaceful, though they do cross paths with another road-warden, a half-elf named Yosian. Yosian greets them peaceably and recognizes Anfisa as someone who’s done hunting along the river.

Ironglove and the others relate the story of the Shrike Knight’s ghost and the minstrel-clad necromancer who raised her. In return, Yosian tells them that there’s some rumors that a witch or even a coven has reached out to Ruguta the Red Crusader, potentially making a pact with the Black Chalice renegade. With the news that the bogatyrs are likely to fight against several enemies of the realm, the half-elf offers Anfisa six arrows enchanted with a lignifying effect. Gennadiy returns the favor, passing several of his deadliest arrows to the road-warden. With that, both parties bid each other farewell and continue.

Korgoslav Karkovich Ironglove explains about the Red Crusader as the forest thins and they pass through the fields on the outskirts of Perska. Ruguta Falkevna Trossotyr was knighted into the Black Chalice, and given Perska as her domain. She was openly pious, practicing a slightly warped philosophy that assumed loyalty and conviction would vindicate necessarily bloody deeds in the eyes of the Higher Nine. Ironglove points out the keep overlooking the southern portion of the town as her seat, and a freshly planted orchard as the former site of a tourney-field she established. The group also notices a number of weathervanes adorning the town, as well as the spectacular stone bridge crossing the river.

As they move into the town proper, Gena thanks the ogrinka road-warden for his assistance, and asks if he might be able to join them for a drink. “Drink!” The bogatyrs look down to see that the shout came from a thick-bodied wolverine that has fallen into step alongside the group. “Excellent idea! Drinks!”

Road-warden Ironglove greets the wolverine, Gullet, and politely bows out of the invitation. Gena tries to deflect the wolverine, but Gullet has none of it. “You think you’re tough because you’re so fuckin’ tall? I’ll tear your fuckin’ nuts off!”

Despite Gullet’s bloody-minded profanity, the beast doesn’t seem genuinely angry or malicious, and Gennadiy finally agrees to buy the wolverine a drink. They visit the finer establishment on the south riverside, the East Wind. The innkeeper is not initially glad to see Gullet entering with the strangers, but the color of the bogatyrs’ money, of course, alters his disposition. Gena purchases a drink for the wolverine, and says “You’ll have to earn the others.”

“What? No fuckin’ way. I’m not wearin’ a fuckin’ tutu for you. Not again!”

“I meant information,” smiles Gennadiy.

“Oh. Okay.”

Gena buys drink after drink for Gullet, who talks garrulously about the uprising against Tsar Govroska. He describes the Perska uprising against Ruguta the Red Crusader, and how she fled the field rather than fighting until the end. As he tells of other battles (many of which feature “tearing their fuckin’ nuts off”), he mentions a creature that he describes the greatest and most powerful talking beast of Miska — the ancient owlbear Uncle Ripper, who taught the Tsar and his nobles that some woods were not for hunting. “He took their heads off as easy as tearin’ off a testicle!”

Gennadiy floats a number of topics of conversation as this continues, and watches the innkeeper’s reactions. The innkeeper doesn’t respond interestingly to the topic of the Double Venom or to other intimations of the Mad Star cult, but he does answer a few simple questions once asked. He describes the scholarly boyar of Perska and relates that Redshield Keep is now abandoned, save for a crafter that moved in to examine the Red Crusader’s forges and armories.

Partway through the conversation, a pair of familiar faces enter the East Wind. Kovor and Zilya, the mercenary cohorts last seen in Zelezka, greet the bogatyrs enthusiastically. They drop into conversation with Anfisa, telling her about the latest rumors about the Ruin’s movements, and that if any warband is in Miska, they likely are close to the southwest town of Schuka.

The bogatyrs pass the afternoon with food and drinks, and eventually prepare to rest for the evening. Gullet staggers out into the night, pausing only to slap a paw on Kostya’s shoulder. “You’re okay,” he says.

The next morning, the group goes to visit the boyar of Perska. The boyar’s page is somewhat alarmed to see the small band of armed individuals, but a guardsman recognizes them by reputation. They enter and meet Boyar Saanal Mothwise, an elf of gentle demeanor. They ask if they might use his library. Mothwise is obliging, though he does apologize in advance for its small size.

The boyar takes them to his office, with a library consisting of two large bookshelves. Though the pickings are not what the group had hoped, Kazimeer does notice that the boyar has three books on astrology. Two of them are simple texts, but one is fairly obscure: The Eightfold Firmament, which has a respectable section on hidden constellations. Kazimeer reads about the Drowned Man, a star-sign which carries cultic significance among superstitious riverfolk. He also learns that the sign features in certain rituals, in particular a grim rite to bind a drowned girl’s spirit as a rusalka.

While Kazimeer peruses The Eightfold Firmament, the others chat with the boyar. He talks with them about the crafter Tirafir, whom he seems to trust despite a few eccentricities. Tirafir is apparently responsible for making many of the town’s replacement weathervanes, which were confiscated and melted down in the time of Ruguta Falkevna Trossotyr. As for the Red Crusader herself, she has not raided the town since being deposed, though there have certainly been sightings of renegades wearing red armor. Boyar Mothwise notes that there seems to be little cause for concern that she would attack the town openly, given her limited resources. Gennadiy mentions the prospect of her allegiance with the Donjon, and in much more sober tones the elven boyar admits that would be a different, and much more dangerous situation.

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35 - Ghost of the Shrike Knight
Old scars reopen in Miska.

It’s early afternoon when the bogatyrs leave the Golden Tsar’s palace. They agree to set out for Miska as soon as possible. They spend two hours packing, gathering supplies, acquiring bear food, and otherwise preparing.

Yerek answers his summons partway through, excited and startled. He asks if they’d heard the news — the Rogue has struck again! After leaving the summit, he went to the Giided Tombs, subverted the guards, stole an artifact from one of the crypts, and vanished along with his representative and the guards. All of Tyurin is shocked, and everyone wants to know whether Casivir the Betrayer is simply acting on an old family rivalry, or if he’s choosing to undercut the Throne in favor of the Moon or the Donjon.

When their preparations are complete, the bogatyrs ride two miles outside the Tyurin walls. There they unwrap the deck of portals and carefully draw the Moon card. The card vanishes, a shimmering portal appears, and the group steps through.

They emerge onto a forest road, wide enough for a large cart. A slight gap between the trees on either side shows a cloudy sky. The winter air is much milder than it was in Tyurin or on the western steppe; a faint dusting of snow hides in the deepest root crevices, and no more. As the group gets their bearings, they hear music to the northwest.

They follow the sound along the road to a small village. The townsfolk have lit fires and brought out tables of food, and appear to be about to celebrate an evening wedding. The ceremony stands around a young oak tree, less than a couple of years grown, in the center of the town square. As the group moves into the village proper, an armored ogrinka wearing a Miskan road-warden’s badge intercepts them. He announces himself as Korgoslav Karkovich Ironglove, and demands to know the traveler’s business. They assure him they mean him no harm, and at his request bare their arms.

The ogrinka warden apologizes for his suspicion, but says they can’t be too careful these days. Bands of Tsar Gorinstal’s men have been sighted moving north of the neighboring elven kingdom of Galespire. He introduces them to a few of the village elders, who welcome the travellers and insist they stay for the wedding celebration, and a visitor from the woods, the talking she-bear Cinnamon (who scoffs at the “unintelligent” Kostya). Gena recognizes the mark on some of the barrels of mead set about, and realizes they must be in the meadery-town of Honeythorn.

The wedding begins shortly thereafter. The bride, pretty though she is, has asymmetrical scars across her face and arms, as if from repeated knife wounds. The three bogatyrs — for Mika has vanished again — note that a few other young men and women in the village have similar scars. They move to the table of wedding presents and leave a few gifts of their own. Anfisa leaves a bottle of fine brandy and a purse of gold, while Kazimeer discreetly asks after the bride and groom’s birthdays so that he can begin a horoscope.

During the ceremony, a great wind rushes through the village. A phantasmal image forms around the young tree — a much larger tree, with the corpses of men and women impaled on branches sharpened into stakes. Screams break out among the villagers as the bride, looking up from the tree, begins to bleed from her numerous scars. Then the wind is gone, and the phantom tree fades… but the bride’s gown is still stained with blood. Her groom holds on to her, reassuring her. “It’s okay,” he says. “She’s dead. She’s dead.”

The bogatyrs turn to the baffled Road-Warden Ironglove, who admits he doesn’t understand what’s going on. The aged priestess joins them and begins to explain. She tells the story of Shesdiny Kuloshneva Salvalk, sworn vassal of Tsar Govroska, knight of the Black Chalice, known as the Shrike Knight. She was once the governor of Honeythorn and the woods around it. She impaled those who rebelled against her, and scarred the faces and bodies of her squires and handmaids to keep anyone from falling in love with them and taking them away. The Shrike Knight was overthrown a year and a half ago, after the fall of Govroska, and the priestess notes that she met a… “poetic fate.” She was buried a month later with full ritual to prevent her from rising as one of the undead.

“Well,” says Gena, “someone may have woken her up.”

The bogatyrs immediately gather their things and recruit Ironglove to guide them to the Shrike Knight’s keep. Gena downs another mug of mead, leaves a poem under a purse of gold among the wedding gifts, and they depart.

They ride for an hour and a half north before they find a toppled lamp post among the growth at the side of the road. The post marks an overgrown road leading deeper into the forest — the path to the Shrike Knight’s hunting lodge. As the bogatyrs follow the path, four lights appear in the darkness ahead of them. The lights coalesce into burning skeletons hanging in midair, and then the apparition of a blazing coach forms between them, the skeletons impaled on hooks at the four corners. The coach races down the road toward them, and the bogatyrs and the road warden ride into the trees for cover. The carriage screams past them and then fades into nothingness.

They march another quarter-mile, and the gates to the hunting lodge estate come into view. As the group draws closer, a skull hanging from a tree unhinges its jaw and shrieks. Kazimeer shatters it with a bolt of ice before the echoes can die out.

They push past the gates. The Shrike Knight’s lodge is a long-burned ruin of charred timbers, save for a large coachhouse standing near the gate and a stone tower crowned with rusted metal thorns.The bogatyrs first check the coachhouse, and find nothing inside. They choose to leave their horses there.

As they cross the courtyard toward the tower, another unnatural wind stirs into a small spiral. Human and animal bones pull free from the ground, lit by a ghostly glow that forms into a spectral whirlwind. The phantom aggregation engulfs Gennadiy, chilling his flesh and biting at him with a dozen mismatched skulls. The necromantic conjuration might have torn apart hardy townsfolk, but the bogatyrs swiftly overmatch it, shattering its bones and scattering its wraithly essence.

They catch their breath and push open the door to the stone tower. The wooden floors are long burnt and destroyed, but a stone staircase still runs around the inner wall to the roof. From above, a voice drifts down: “I invoke you, I implore you, I bind you. I invoke you, I implore you, I bind you. I invoke you…”

The bogatyrs charge up the stairs. They emerge onto the stone roof to see a single man, dressed in the garb of a traveling minstrel, holding a ritual knife in one hand and a dirt-smeared skull in the other. Several vaguely human phantoms shimmer into being next to the chanting man, and as they drift toward the party, Anfisa and Kostya are among them.

Gena is still lunging forward and Kazimeer still gathering power as the man completes his chant. “In the name of the Doomstar, I bind you, Shesdiny Kuloshneva Salvalk!” Another ghostly figure appears, but the difference is profound. The entire rooftop is bathed in a grave chill, emanating from the armored spectre with a great bloody wound in her breastplate. She surveys the intruders, and lunches for them.

A brutal conflict erupts. Gennadiy charges the necromancer as Anfisa, her brother, and the ogrinka warden tear through his phantom bodyguards and Kazimeer looses empyrean forces. The spectre of the Shrike Knight moves to intercept Gennadiy with a terrible shriek that rattles the bogatyrs to their souls. It takes only a few passes for Anfisa and Gennadiy to realize that the Shrike Knight is perhaps more terrible in undeath than she was in life. The wounded necromancer casts a spell, turning his flesh into ghostly matter and sinking through the floor, as the spectre stabs Gena through the heart.

Gena reels back, and for a moment feels a dreadful pause before his heart beats again. He raises his shield and braces. Behind him, Kazimeer runs back down the stairs into the burned tower, sighting the wraith-form necromancer descending through the central space. Kazimeer conjures a psychic bolt that passes directly through the ghostly mage. He shocks back into solidity, and plummets to the stone floor with a hideous crunch.

Anfisa, Kostya, and Gennadiy desperately exchange blows with the Shrike Knight. Gena has one foot in the grave before the spectre flinches away. She glances at one of the rusty iron thorns at the outside of the tower, and then flees through the battlements.

Back inside the tower Kazimeer races down to the necromancer’s broken corpse, hastily pulling free the knife and the skull. His companions come pounding down the stairs after him, shouting for him to send her back and put her to rest. Kazimeer tries to focus on an answer. He contemplates altering his sleep spell, and casts about his memories of the Vizier’s books… how does one lay a spectre to rest? He remembers only the importance of “something appropriate”…

“The thorn!” shouts Gena.

Kazimeer races back up the stairs. Gennadiy charges with him while Anfisa, Kostya, and Korgoslav Karkovich spread out to guard the lower tower. As Kazimeer reaches the roof, he makes for the nearest long hooked iron spike. He leans out across the battlement, and below him he sees the Shrike Knight’s spectre rising up towards him, eyes wide and teeth bared. Kazimeer takes the skull in both hands, and impales it on the end of the thorn. The spectre shrieks one final time, splintering apart like a dropped mirror, each phantom shard dissolving like mist as they fall back into the night.

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34 - The Summit
A gathering with more Trumps than expected.

The bogatyrs drag Havek back to the Westhill district, striking him about the head now and again to keep him pacified. As they draw closer to the chapterhouse where the remaining Huntsmen are under house arrest, Havek futilely attempts to bargain with his captors. They alternately mock him, threaten to strike him, and ignore him.

When they reach the Red Tears’ perimeter, Gena greets Sergeant Orskin again. The sergeant escorts them to Hovrisk, acting commander of the Huntsmen, and the group hands over Havek with the assurances that they’ll see no more of Yelgor Greencap. The bogatyrs then depart, but not before Gennadiy invites Orskin to dinner with himself and Captain Byelnikov.

Over the course of that evening, each of the bogatyrs receives a formal invitation to the summit, to accompany one of the various ambassadors — Otr Grimbrow, Arimna the Cold, Hetman Kolvitsa Arrowteeth, and Captain Miyar Byelnikov. They write their individual acceptances.

They meet their sponsors the next morning and gather at the palace. Guards escort them to the western wing, where they enter a large meeting room with twelve stations set about a huge table. Each station is marked by a painted card in a stand, representing one of the Trumps. The ambassadors each take a seat, and their aides and escorts stand nearby.

When the eleven visitors and their retinues are in place, a herald announce the tsar’s arrival. Tsar Barakir Torevich Tyurinov, in the lavish regalia of the Golden Tsar, is a surprisingly baby-faced man, who would seem almost harmless if not for the dominating presence that radiates from him. A single guard in elaborate armor and a full helm stands behind him as he takes his seat at the head of the table.

The tsar opens the summit by thanking all the assembled attendees, and declaring two orders of business. The first topic is the shattered capital of Valgrad, and the movements of the foes there. Captain Byelnikov reports that the Prince Kulyich the Deathless and Rukvaas the Damned — the Skull and the Flames — seem to have made an alliance, as their forces are moving to flank the Cathedral district where the Sun resides. The Skull’s troops, as expected, are focusing on the catacombs, while the Flame’s agents are working to secure the imperial library.

Most of the other dangerous icons have followers in play in Valgrad as well. Kolvitsa declares that the Ruin’s bands are mostly in the noble neighborhoods, perhaps searching for unclaimed plunder. Otr reveals that the doom-cultists of the Idiot seem to have an interest in the royal observatory.

“What of our other enemies?” asks Gennadiy. “The Donjon and such? Will they join this alliance?”

Doctor Morezhka, the speaker for Elbeska of the Higher Nine, says that she believes it unlikely that the Iron Tsar will move directly against the Sun. To move against the realm’s foremost living saint would be to destroy his credibility among the people. As for the Void and the Fool, neither have demonstrated an openly strong presence in Valgrad — a few ogre raiders and scavengers, nothing more.

Miska then speaks up, asking what Tsar Barakir would have the assembly do. The direct question causes a stir among the delegates. The Golden Tsar considers and then says that if he had the unqualified support of all others, he would take the capital and rebuild.

The bogatyrs spend the following discussion taking stock of where the various representatives and their patrons may stand. But partway through the conversation, Arimna Ever-Cold raises her voice and addresses the Golden Tsar. “You said there were two issues for us to discuss today,” she says. “Is it time you addressed the second?” Her expression is not curious, but evaluating.

Otr Grimbrow rises to answer the assembly. Alsvedun the Magnificent, he says, has divined an unusual possibility from the Vizier card. With the right artifacts, and the right spell, the Deck could be magically reunited. Each of the cards would leave its holder, taking its power with it, and the Deck would return to the state it was in before the Disastrous Draw.

The news causes a great stir among the assembly. Otr continues, saying that Alsvedun knows most card-holders would be unwilling to cooperate. He also acknowledges that it would be a sacrifice — reunifying the Deck would take things beneficial and baneful out of the world, averting tragedies and miracles alike. But it might replace the current conflict with a conflict that could more easily be resolved… for better or for worse.

Arimna adds that the reunification is not the only possibility: a similar spell might be used to reshuffle the Deck, so to speak. Each card would find a new holder. There would be little to gain from such an event, but a few might pursue the option — those who feel they could claim one of the cards in a redraw, and those who might simply enjoy the upheaval… such as the Jester.

The discussion is still in full animation when a loud caw interrupts. A crow leaves its perch on the chandelier above, and drops a small thimble on the floor. The thimble grows as it rolls until it’s the size of a wine barrel, and as it comes to a rest, a withered hand emerges. An old woman pulls herself from the thimble — Grandmother Yedza, holder of the Euryale card.

Grandmother Yedza chides Tsar Barakir for not inviting her to the summit. She then waves a hand and says she’s not here for trouble. The Golden Tsar regards her stiffly, then bows his head slightly and steps to one side, offering her his seat. The ancient witch cackles appreciatively, and accepts his hospitality.

As she settles in, Yedza announces that she’s been approached by others — the sort who also weren’t invited to the summit. The Ruin asked permission to move some of her people through Yedza’s wood. She sent “one of her pretty dragon boys” to ask nicely, but his followers were rude and trampled one of her gardens. The Grandmother chuckles malevolently and mentions that they did not ask for a promise of secrecy. So she decided to pass along the word.

The old witch claims not to know the Ruin’s purpose in Miska. But she does know something else. The Donjon has sent some of his Forgiven into Miska as well — searching for the Black Chalice itself, the artifact that Tsar Govroska’s knights swore their loyalty on. Yedza chews thoughtfully on some unknown tidbit as the various emissaries contemplate the implications. With the cup, Tsar Gorinstal could potentially bring the surviving members of the Black Chalice order into his fealty, giving him strong followers with old ties and great knowledge of Miska.

Yedza cackles again, and gets up, pulling away parts of the table as she does. She bids the assembly a mocking farewell, then climbs back into her thimble. The thimble shrinks again, spinning on the floor. The crow swoops down and picks it up, then flies through the wall and is gone.

The summit spends a few minutes in confusion before the chaos deepens. The aide standing with Katissa the Fisher speaks up, addressing Tsar Barakir. As Katissa steps almost deferentially to one side, the young man asks if the Throne is going to go to the aid of his rival the Moon. Barakir’s gaze narrows as the aide draws back his hood. Then he inhales sharply.

“Casivir”.

Prince Casivir the Betrayer smiles back at his cousin. Barakir tenses, his knuckles resting on the table. The Golden Tsar thanks the assembly for coming, and says that perhaps it would be best to adjourn and inform their various patrons of the revelations.

As the group breaks up, the bogatyrs reassemble. They all agree that the time has come to visit Miska — where they can oppose a dragon and a Donjon.

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