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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