Shardland report

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This is an impossibly long campaign report from our Shardland campaign. It’s weird, it’s too much, it was a ton of fun to play and I post this here because I promised Jon Freeman to do so. 😉

GM:       Christian
PCs:       Aljikhan, blind swordsman of the Green Lotus (point of view) (archetype from the book) (Judith)
Anastasia, snappy healer and alchemist, murderer of her late husband (Jan)
Sasha Ilyushin, Captain of the Pack, disgrace of his noble family, Czar’s cavalry veteran (Klaus)
[outgame parts in italics]

 

Wolf Aljikhan reports to command.

I can… explain a lot of what happened. First of all I have to explain a few things that happened earlier, because we were send to Ayankau directly after our last mission and without being able to complete this one. Earlier, we had to retrieve a Shadow egg and bring it to the Czar’s Shadow Chambers, but the egg never arrived there because we had no opportunity to return to Stare Traha. My comrade Anastasia took over the responsibility for the egg. And… I have to explain something else. A few weeks ago, there was this mission where I had to join another pack for a mission during a masked ball? And suddenly, there was a sect involved and a dark ritual and we had to protect the Czarina? Yes, that’s where I met a young woman, a debutante. I might have saved her from a dark fate and her mother invited me to have tea with them. So, that’s Tasja Tolstoievska. Yes, the late author’s daughter, I guess you already heard of her. Yes, I hear that she is very beautiful. I can only tell that she has a lovely voice… Well, however, both details might be of some importance later, so: We had to protect a Shadow egg the size of a goose egg and I know Miss Tolstoievska.

When we wanted to return the egg to Stare Traha, we were intercepted by a Shadow courier of the Czar who guided us through the Shadow paths to another urgent mission. Anastasia was already feeling very anxious about taking the egg onto the Shadow paths, but nothing happened except for a strange thrumming pulse she could feel emanating from the egg. When the courier led us out of the Shadow, we had travelled thousands of Verst to the Eastern border of Both Realms. He dropped us at the edge of a battlefield and told us that we had to take over command to prevent a failure.

The situation was already dire. I tried to understand as much as possible of the situation, but it wasn’t easy because our troops and the hostile Cossacks and peasants (who had hung the local Voyvod and declared to rule the land as a committee) were already in combat, cannons thundered and muskets fired, and in such a situation, it is very uncomfortable not to be able to see. Our side was about to deploy the cavalry, but the admittedly inexperienced commanding officers were disputing in their command tent.

A lieutenant called Gagarin informed us that our old enemy Galerkin is part of the riots. The peasants were retreating by now, but they kept aiming back which is really unusual. A Captain who was called “Send them to hell” wanted to pursuit the peasants against Sasha’s counsel. Before both Captains could argue, Gagarin took us to the tent to meet the commanding officer Nardič, but before we could arrive there, hell broke loose within. A musket fired, men screamed, and when we entered, I could sense the Shadow presence of two fighters who were not corporeal and fought like ghosts. It took us precious time to find a way to kill or scatter them – and their fighting style reminded me of something: Since the Czar’s mercenaries destroyed monasteries of the Green Lotus, legend has it that surviving monks who wanted revenge formed a movement called the Black Lotus. They combine their ancient fighting skills with dark magic and don’t believe in Shi-fu Lu’s lores of the Eternal Peaceful Void anymore but turned to the Four-Faced Perunkya. I almost found my match in these Shadow fighters and I believe that they are former brethren who joined the Black Lotus.

(No, Sir, of course I don’t consider myself a monk anymore. Yes, Sir, of course I left my past behind when I spoke the oath. I thought it to be a valuable information. Yes, Sir, whether an information is valuable is entirely up to you, Sir. I’ll continue.)

We took care of the Black Lotus fighters [whom we dubbed Shadow Ninjas] and realized that it was too late to meet Nardič, he was already dead. Captain “Send them to hell” took the opportunity to take command and pursue the peasants with the cavalry – and Anastasia, my fellow Wolf comrade, who promised to have an eye on the whole situation.

A Captain called Imerov argued with Sasha over competences, whereas I wanted to know the source of the Shadow fighters and searched the tent and Nardič’s corpse. Words showed me the origin of the ghastly assassins: It was an old woman, and as I “touched” her mind, she called to me and claimed to be the Black Lotus. I retreated at once and tried to warn the charging cavalry that pursued the peasants in the same direction in which I assumed the Black Lotus. But I was too late – Cossacks and Galerkin’s renegade troops appeared out of nowhere. Sasha dragged me to the horses, we had to attack the enemy’s flank, but we were outnumbered by far. Anastasia sabotaged a cannon, and within smoke and gunfire we and only 300 soldiers succeeded in escaping the battlefield.

We had to retreat farther into the mountains. At the end of a narrow gorge, a border fortress awaited us – a last stronghold on the border between the East Realm and the Yugurs. On our journey there, Anastasia saved Imerov’s arm [but she added some narcotics to keep him from trying to prevent Sasha from taking command.].

The border fortress and its small town was called Ayankau. Everyone remembered: It’s famous for its sausages! We camped in front of its walls, left Gagarin in command and entered the town as civilian refugees to scout ahead. A black banner with a red double-headed dragon fluttered on the tower. Anastasia remembered the story of an ancient noble house: Legend has it, that virgins were sacrificed to a dragon on this very spot until Ivan the Dragonslayer put an end to this.

As we entered, we were informed that Ayankau’s Voyvod Stanislav had married some days before and the town was still celebrating. Nonetheless the inhabitants seemed to be worried, but not by the battle and the soldiers in front of their gates, but by something else. I pretended to be a beggar, but I was soon informed that begging was punished by impaling, which sounded like a ridiculously severe measure. Someone who meant well whispered “Death lurks in this town”, which was about as reassuring. We soon took off our disguises and knocked on the gates of the Voyvod’s stronghold residence. His servant, Igor, told us to wait quite some time (usually, Wolves aren’t told to wait that long!) until nightfall and would open the gate no sooner. But then we were invited to dine with the Voyvod – venison and wine, although he didn’t touch the wine himself. His bride was a shy, mousy girl who said nothing.

My comrades told me that literally everything in that stronghold was decorated with dragons. The pillars, the windows, the old portrait frames, the chandeliers, the furniture. I could find them on the cutlery and the plates as well. He bragged a little with his potent ancestor, the Dragonslayer, and with his own power, that the Cossacks wouldn’t dare to attack him and so on, but when Sasha insisted that he as the Czar’s Voyvod was obliged to let our soldiers inside the walls, he finally agreed on letting us in. I was send out to tell Gagarin the good news (“Caution, Aljikhan, it’s almost new moon. Very dark!” So funny.), and my comrades stayed with their host. Anastasia told me the other morning that a “wanderer” from the Shadow Realm visited her and told her to keep the egg safe. Sasha had a bad dream about a dancing bride and a dragon. As I met Igor, the Voyvod’s servant, the other morning, his presence sent a shiver down my spine. Everything seemed like a bad omen, but Wolves are not prone to superstition.

The troops were uneasy as well, even behind the walls. Sasha appealed to their discipline, but it didn’t sound as if it would last. Scouts reported that the hostile army didn’t come any closer but was blocking the entrance of the gorge. Soon, carrier pidgeons arrived at the Voyvod’s stronghold. As we received one message, Igor gave another message to the Voyvod – and I could sense this urgent shiver again. Was it the servant or the message that forebade something? Captain “Send them to hell” did not send anyone to hell, but he sent a carrier pidgeon – he escaped with parts of the cavalry to General Pushkin, but now they are besieged. They couldn’t come to our help, and we, in turn, couldn’t come to theirs.

I investigated with Anastasia’s help where the second carrier pidgeon came from. It wore a little tag on its leg: It came from Kargur. I don’t know anyone from Kargur. Wait… didn’t Tasja tell me her father’s estates were near Kargur?

At night the roar of a giant beast woke us. We couldn’t tell whether it was in the mountain, in the gorge – or in the town itself, because it fell silent again when we got up. In the morning, there was news from the palace: The Voyvod’s bride had died!

We had a problem within our ranks as well: At night, a young woman had been raped and she and her father approached us and demanded the impaling of the soldier who did this. When we mustered our troops, one soldier murmured: “When Captain Ilyushin [Sasha] is allowed to drink too much, we’re allowed as well!” Anastasia looked after the girl and I was left alone with the father who demanded revenge for his daughter’s honour. He brought a few associates who were ready to make trouble.

The girl confessed to Anastasia that she drank too much with some soldier boys, gave her consent at first and then withdrew it. When we switched positions, Anastasia confronted the father: He would marry his daughter to the soldier who raped her to obtain her honour. I asked the girl what should be done with the soldier once we found him: Did she want to marry the swine or did she want me to take care of him? She chose the latter, and I was determined to carry out her sentence because revenge is a dish best served cold. While she talked to me, she let some things slide: The Voyvod’s bride wasn’t his first one. His brides died soon after the marriage, and it was not good for a girl in Ayankau to stay a virgin for long. I was very much alarmed – I had a bad feeling about this town…

Anastasia and I had to find the delinquent – the girl recognized the four soldiers who drank with her, but she could not remember who raped her. We summoned the four young men and Anastasia knew quite a few tricks, and so we threatened, cajoled and used a truth serum. We could narrow our suspicion down to one soldier – and at night, Anastasia brought him to the stronghold’s patch of garden, I challenged him to a duel, and as it was night and he wasn’t exactly very confident with his sabre, he happened to die. Anastasia sentenced his corpse to death the other day, and the civilians and the Voyvod were happy with this. The Voyvod even invited us into his stronghold once more – we condoled, but he admitted that his whole dynasty had bad luck with their marriages. He himself and his father before him were bastards who inherited because there had been no legal heir. Yet, he was willing to try and marry again, he told us. This man gave me the chills.

The other morning, my comrades saw smoke on the horizon – fugitives escaped the raiding Cossacks and tried to break through to the Ayankau gorge. The Cossack’s rode to intercept them – and Sasha led the few horses and riders who form our cavalry now. Not all of them came back, but he succeeded in capturing a Cossack and escorting the civilians close to Ayankau. Anastasia’s smoke bombs were of assistance. I was part of the infantry that secured the civilians’ path. (Gagarin assured me helpfully that I’m aiming in the right direction.) Before we reached the gates, the Cossacks broke through our ranks and slaughtered civilians. I witnessed how a Cossack cut the throat of a Cikani woman who closed her wound by wheezing a dark Word. With our last combined effort we saved the civilians and suffered only seven losses.

We discovered that a young woman among the refugees is Stanislav’s new fiancée. The Cikani, Lulu, however, confided in Anastasia that she believed that the young woman, Sonya, was pregnant. Sonya was fiercely protected by a young man who was send with her to Ayankau. When she was brought to the stronghold, the man, Bolko, stayed with our soldiers and is soon recruited by Sasha.

Gagarin and Sasha discussed our situation: Ayankau was under siege now. Anastasia and Lulu talked and obviously became friends. And I went and fetched carrier pidgeons. I spoke the Word that lures animals to you and pretends you are friendly. I caught the Voyvod’s doves and rid them of their letters to and from the stronghold. My only problem: I cannot read. When I burst in on Anastasia’s quarters, I seemed to interrupt some… pleasant interactions with the Cikani, both women commented on how I am not able to watch them and shooed me away. I left the letters there – confident that Ana would tell me what’s inside them in due time.

The other day, Anastasia and I decided to visit the stronghold once more. I attended Stanislav during dinner, while Ana tended to Sonya, his new fiancée. The girl didn’t know whether she wanted to escape or to pass off the child she’s carrying as the Voyvod’s child. Ana handed over a potion that feigns all signs of an illness without being dangerous – when Sonya needed her, she could take it and Ana would be summoned as a healer.

I had a very awkward conversation with the Voyvod but at last, he agreed that we could have a look into ancient books in the archive under the stronghold. He had an old annalist working down there. The tunnels went even deeper, I could feel the air changing and the echoes going on and on, but Anastasia kept to the books and the old family chronicles. The Voyvod is… was… 32 years old – and Sonya would be his 51st bride. His father and grandfather married many, many times as well. His mother had never been married to his father and died during a riding accident. There was no cause of death mentioned in all the other brides’ entries… The most ancient book was over 500 years old: The first wife of Ivan the Dragonslayer died 12 years after their wedding – every other woman died soon after the wedding, and the heir had always been a bastard. So, obviously the marriages have never been about sustaining the dynasty, but they have been a means of peacekeeping – with whatever. I heard stories about how the Yugurs condemn their daughters to guard Shadow cracks. I tried to press the annalist into telling us which kind of truce the Voyvod is trying to maintain, but Igor interrupted us and led us back into the stronghold.

Anastasia had a ring of hair from Tanya for Bolko and delivered it. We interrogated the captured Cossack about the Black Lotus – where was she? Perhaps we needed to join forces to fight the source of Ayankau’s curse. We could not let the Voyvod or his Shadow demons devour one bride after the other! The Cossack arranged a meeting under white flag with the Cossacks’ leader and a legate of the Black Lotus, a sorceress named Cheo Fe. We met in front of the gates on neutral ground. I spoke my mother tongue Tongeya with Cheo Fe, and this is about the only positive thing I can say about that meeting. She was fascinated with our report from the stronghold’s depth and Anastasia and I feared that they would try harder now to get to what possibly was a source of power. Ana was impressed by the Cossacks’ leader, who offered her a chance to survive and told her in the meantime that artillery would arrive soon and that Ayankau was doomed. She believed that there is no other way than to yield. To demonstrate their power, Cheo Fe blew a powder cart in Ayankau – either from afar or with the help of a traitor! We had to watch (or listen) helplessly while screams arose in town and flames blazed into the sky. Cheo Fe offered us and our soldiers safe conduct, but when the artillery would arrive and the first shot would be fired, this offer would expire. Should we go? Should we leave Ayankau to its troubles? Would the Cossacks spare the civilians? Would Stanislav deal with them with the help of whatever powers he could summon? Were we willing to pay the price for that? Condemn innocent women?

We returned into town and discovered that two soldiers lay dead within the wreckage of the powder cart – both with cut throats. So it wasn’t Cheo Fe’s dark power but a traitor within our walls. At least this was good to know! 

Ana’s friend Lulu spoke Words and saw an egg in her cards – I kept forgetting that Ana was still the guardian of that damned Shadow egg! Lulu believed that her cards pointed her towards Koshtshey Besmertny, the God of War. That a great war was about to come – and if she could only find the egg, she could kill War itself! At night, Lulu charmed Ana with Words and disappeared with the egg. (Please, didn’t we already have a shitload of problems? Forgive my choice of words, Sir…)

Because of the sabotage and the Shadow egg thief, we closed off the whole town, even the gates that led into the mountains. Anastasia prepared great amounts of oil for a trap, when the artillery arrived. Ana was called to Sonya again, the girl used the potion. She told Anastasia that a midwife was to examine her to confirm that she was still a virgin. She was panicking – the stakes and poles in the fortress’s gardens spoke their own language of the gruesome punishments in Ayankau. Ana came to a decision: She had to free the girl! Anastasia poisoned the midwife, who thus couldn’t attend. She disguised as her, in her clothing and a hood, while I tried to track down Lulu. The captain struggled to find a solution to cut the advancing artillery off from the rest of the host. While he was drinking and thinking, a young woman approached him. He returned kind of relieved in the morning, but he muttered something about “the last virgin of Ayankau.” I found Lulu’s hideout and waited there for her. When she returned from wherever she was, I confronted her and promised her that we would use the egg for evil.

Yes, Sir. Of course, I still meant to bring it back to the Czar’s Shadow chambers!

I had to vow for Anastasia and her aims – the Cikani and I made a Shady deal, sealed by Words and blood. If Anastasia screwed this up, I was the one to pay for it. I didn’t know if that was a good idea, given Ana’s temper, but at that time I just wanted to solve as many immediate problems as possible.

In the meantime, Ana and Sasha were summoned by the Voyvod. He was raging – his bride escaped! The Voyvod had already investigated – the guards at the flood gate that led to a small and dangerous stream in the mountains told him that they had to open the blocked doors because a Wolf of the Czar ordered them to. The Voyvod accused Anastasia, and she admitted her deed: She let out Sonya and Bolko on a makeshift raft. He was about to condemn her to be – surprise, surprise! – impaled, but luckily, she informed him about the status of her virginity and her pregnancy. The Voyvod slumped down on his chair, all too relieved, and admitted that Ana’s treachery saved everyone from a great catastrophe. He demanded as compensation for Anastasia’s deceit that she summoned the Coachmen from Hell.

“We are besieged. I need a new bride now, and there is no virgin in Ayankau left.” (Obviously, he kept track.) These are words, my friends, that should perplex everyone. Who wants to marry under siege? Who needs virgins under siege? Why would you summon a Coachman from Hell for a man like this?

But Ana spoke the Word the Voyvod’s annalist told her about, the Word to summon the Coachmen from Hell – and she named the next fiancée the Voyvod intended to marry. The coachman took his time though.

I wasn’t present to hear the name spoken – I still was at Lulu’s and witnessed the execution of the tricked midwife. The Voyvod had sent guards because he believed the woman to have lied to him about Sonya’s virginity, not realizing that this had been Ana all along. I couldn’t do anything – or I wouldn’t do anything? This was a woman who condemned many, many girls to die. But it was the Voyvod who made her do this, so she was just a means to an end – and I wish I had saved her.

When Ana and Sasha returned, there was no time for a chat. Imerov was on his feet again and questioning Sasha’s leadership. Sasha tried his best to flutter him and to make him think he came up with the plans Sasha came up with. It’s new moon and Anastasia and Lulu worked on a ritual to discover what’s inside of the egg. Sasha, I and several soldiers sneaked out of town. It was so dark that I had to lead the scout mission to the enemy artillery. Sasha and the soldiers tried to cut ditches and fill them with oil. When we would lit the fire at day, the flames would cut off the artillery and spread disturbance among the attackers. Too bad we didn’t even realize that the ditches weren’t properly cut.

In Ayankau, Ana was weary after the ritual and went to bed. She was disturbed by a Black Lotus fighter – our saboteur! She fought him and was badly wounded, but he died and she lived.

She dragged herself to the gates when Sasha and I came back, in the dead of the night. At this very moment, the Coachman from Hell arrived. The Voyvod greeted him in front of the stronghold’s gates. The doors of the coach opened and a dazed woman stumbled out of it. The Coachman was chained to the coach box, but dark magic must have forced her into the coach and now into the Voyvod’s arms. I heard her steps. I listened to the sharp intake of her breath. The cold touch of realization froze me, when the scraping voice of the Coachman declared: “This is Tasja Tolstoievska as you wished, mistress.”

It was Tasja. I knew it before I heard her name. The Voyvod took her on his arms and carried her to his stronghold. She was barely conscious, kidnapped by a hell creature and spat out here in this dreadful town! The gates closed behind the Voyvod and his new bride.

I slammed my sword to the ground in front of my comrades and spread my arms. “Kill me now, as long as I’m unarmed, because if you don’t, I won’t let anyone live who gets in my way. This includes you as you gave the name of my love to the Coachman from Hell, and I will never forgive you if she dies.” The captain took my sword from the ground and gave it back to me.

“Don’t be silly, Aljikhan. Take Anastasia to a healer, and we’ll think of something.”

“She knows the way”, I said, took the sword and turned my back on them to face the dark gate of the Voyvod’s stronghold.

I heard our hedonistic captain, murmuring to Anastasia: “If he loves her, why is she still a virgin?” But I’m a decent person and when I’m invited to a cup of tea, I drink tea! And now I was going to kill a Voyvod and slay a dragon and burn down an entire town if necessary.

I left my comrades behind – I remembered that I heard noises from an inn’s cellar when Anastasia and I were down in the castle’s archive – one of the tunnels had to lead up into town! The stronghold’s gate was closed and the Voyvod wouldn’t be dumb enough to let me inside, so I turned away and soon found the inn I remembered, huddled against the mountain flank. Nearby was a ruined building and in there I could find an access to the tunnels.

The Voyvod was feeling clever that night and had his guards positioned on every corner of his underground maze. I killed them all. I came out of the darkness and snuffed out the candle of their lives. I hid the bodies, but I cannot tell whether or not I left a trail of blood behind. I didn’t care. Soon, I felt something beneath my boots and smelled a scent in the moist air: small flowers were strewn out and marked a path through the labyrinthine tunnels. I followed it warily with drawn blade and ventured deeper and deeper into the mountain. Was Tasja already down there? Was she alive? My mind was focused on one thing: To kill everyone who opposed me or just happened to be in the wrong place on my way down.

I’m a vengeful man. I never forgave nor forgot how mercenaries burnt down the monastery that was my home and pierced my eyes with a filthy dagger when I was but a boy. I will find them and make them pay someday. They were men of the Czar and now I am a man of the Czar, and I will find them one day. I know that I swore an oath to forget my past, and the Peaceful Void of my order demands peace and emptiness, but I cannot meet either of these expectations. When Tasja was taken, I could heed neither oath nor lore, and only heeded the dark angry pulse in my veins.

I came into a vast cavern. I could hear that the floor gave way into a bottomless chasm where Shadows seeped up towards me and made me shudder. Two huge braziers stood aside and spent warmth and – I suppose – light. They were too heavy to topple them over or extinguish their flames, although I would have preferred to meet my opponents in total darkness. I found something else: A large stone which reminded me of an altar, with shackles for arms and legs. It smelled of old blood and I recoiled. I waited in the altar’s shadow. They had not yet been down here. I would couch and wait.

I heard steps, one person with a crippled leg, I heard his hobble. It was Igor, the Voyvod’s servant. He halted and drew in a sharp breath.

“The flowers betray you, whoever you are!” he hailed me. “Come out!”

I came out. I killed him, too. Before he died, however, his voice changed and he was possessed by the Lady of the Black Lotus. She called to me, told me that she could give me power to overcome my opponent. “He is strong”, she said. “Stronger than you. You could use the power of the Black Lotus.” I pierced my blade into Igor’s chest and said: “The Lotus is dead.” And then I draped Igor on the altar.

A very silly voice inside me told me that perhaps whatever dwelt in that chasm would be satisfied with Igor’s old and withered body.

But nothing happened and I waited again. After a timeless time I heard several footsteps. I recognized the Voyvod’s clanking armour, the unsteady steps of a drugged woman who was dragged along with him, and four guards. I stood in the shadows.

The Voyvod entered and halted in his steps. He whispered his servant’s name and then he demanded that I’d show myself.

I stepped out of my hiding and said: “I challenge you to a duel.”

He beckoned his guards to stay behind and said: “Take care of my wife. Bring her to the altar.” Then he turned to me and said: “We will duel. And if I lose you will have to pay the price I pay for the well-being of this town.”

And I said: “Everyone has to pay someday. You will die.” And then we dueled.

I heard later that the battle for Ayankau started around that time, but neither Ayankau’s lord nor me did know or participate.

My fellow Wolves had to deal with the advancing artillery. They paid the price for our bad ditch-cutting at night: Imerov ordered the sally, led by Sasha, but as they lit the oil, flames arose between our cavalry and cut it off from retreating to Ayankau. Chaos, bloodshed… Anastasia managed to destroy the enemy cannons, but they had mortars and fired on the cavalry. Sasha led the horses through the flames and tried to get them back to town.

The Voyvod and I began our duel. His armour was viciously impenetrable and he was a formidable fencer. He wielded his sword with both strength and finesse, but I was eager to kill him. I wore no armour, but I was faster, and his bulk made him loud – his movements were easy to track. I hit him many times, but my sword would hardly pierce his armour. He hit me only once, but his sword gouged a deep wound. We fought and we bled, and only a sudden, monstrous snarl out of the depth interrupted us. Something stirred, an unnatural, gruesome beast, huge and hungry. Its cry sank deep into my bones and planted the seed of panic in my guts, but the Voyvod was even more terrified, staggered back, the panic fully blossomed inside of him. Even his guards shrank away from the chasm – I heard them cry out and shuffle into hiding. I seized the opportunity to throw my pistol in Tasja’s direction – but the Voyvod attacked me again, desperate now, because this dreaded Shadow beast approached us from beneath. Again, my sword hit a weak spot on his armour, but it did not cut deep enough. His sword bit deep into my side, cut through ribs and into my lung. He cried out in triumph – he would kill me now, and I remembered the words of the Lady of the Black Lotus and wished I hadn’t turned down her offer… I cried out a Word to make the impossible possible – if I had to die, I wanted to take him with me, make it possible for Tasja to run and save herself! I spoke the Word to render my foe vulnerable, but my voice tasted like blood, pain rushed through my veins. I gave my everything to this Word, bent the Shadows to my will and to my sheer panic and felt his armour dissolving like haze, like smoke. I felt it swirl around him, dissipating, nothing but Shadow.

And then, a shot rang out. Even the stirring beast fell silent for a moment. A bullet hit the Voyvod’s head, blood sprayed onto my face, a sword clattered onto the ground, the Voyvod’s already lifeless figure broke down, nothing but flesh without his forefather’s armour.

Tasja had shot him. And behind her, a creature rose. I cannot describe it because its majesty befuddled my senses. I could hardly understand how immensely huge it was, fiery and cold at the same time, breathing smoke and Shadow. I lurched forward, grabbed Tasja’s arm and dragged her to the tunnel entrance. Her hand still held my pistol and both, pistol and arm, were utterly cold. In a way, this frightened me even more than the hungry creature behind us. I know that Words come with a price, and I felt that she would have to pay for my last, hopeless attempt to save our lives.

[I needed +4 to dissolve his armour, but I only got +3 and I had nothing left whatsoever, so it was a success at serious cost. Which I love. I LOVE success at serious cost because oh the drama!]

[Here, we made a pause of TWO weeks (very hard weeks for me). I thought about changing Aljikhan’s Word aspect to something that had to do with the Black Lotus, but then I decided to change his trouble first. Instead of “Revenge is blind” I chose “Love is blind” because I want to change Aljikhan’s “life goal” to get a Boyar’s title from the Czar, so he can attempt to marry Tasja. Thus, he might do some stupid, bold deeds in the future to impress the Czar and Czarina…]

I cannot speak of bravery. We ran, the immense creature behind us and I relied on Tasja’s sense of sight. We ducked into a small crevice, something went past us, breathing fire, seeping Shadows… We crept on through tunnels that were too narrow for the beast. It found its way into the town of Ayankau, breaking free from the caves just as the cavalry and the enemy forces reached Ayankau’s doorstep.

Sasha’s remaining horsemen were ambushed by the Cossack leader Miroslav, Ana led the infantry to aid the cavalry. From the mountains, two sharp shooters attacked the Wolves to rob our troops of their leaders. They wounded Ana and Sasha, but both succeeded against Miroslav’s troop.

Tasja and I escaped into Ayankau’s hinterland. The two snipers were busy shooting on the Czar’s soldiers. When I tried to take them out, my wound proved to be too severe – they discovered me before I was even near them and I surrendered. As they had to tie me and Tasja up and bring us to their encampment, they stopped shooting on my comrades, so I guess I got the job done anyway.

Ana ordered the infantry to form a wall with the business ends of their bayonets, but a grenadier tried to throw his grenades into their ranks. Her Words bound the grenade to his hand, soon he was history. Sasha inspired his men to charge – but then, a dragon rose with gruesome roars onto the tower of the stronghold. The fighting ceased. Ana was suddenly full of doubts and about to flee – she already foresaw evil in this town, but this evil was impossible to overcome. Sasha was fearless, dragged her with him and Imerov was witty enough to at least open the gate and let our men and woman in, while the enemy forces were still deciding whether or not they wanted to storm a town with a dragon on top.

Tasja and I were captives now – in the Black Lotus’ hands … I was semi-conscious, near dead, my lungs filling with blood, Tasja was eaten alive by a Shadow that crept up her arm. We were given a choice by Cheo Fe, the apprentice of the Black Lotus. I agreed and she halted the Shadow on Tasja’s hand for one year. If I do what she asked of me, Tasja will be freed. If I don’t – she is doomed. To fulfill this dark fate, she healed me, and when they retreated, they left me and Tasja on the field while the dragon rained fire and fear onto Ayankau.

Sasha took back the command from Imerov, who was too frightened to think of anything against a dragon. He evacuated everyone into the stronghold, where the annalist awaited. Ana believed the Voyvod had turned into the dragon, but the annalist told her that the Voyvod was dead and with it every chance to tame the beast.

“Only a God can kill a dragon!”, he said, and Gods are ever-absent when you need them. (I for once think, they don’t exist. They are just Shadow creatures who crave our begging and pledging. Yes, Sir. No philosophical insights from a soldier, I understand, Sir!)

Sasha’s response was: “A God – or a good cannon!” and he raced to the last cannon with every man he could muster.

The dragon killed all lifestock in Ayankau. Anastasia searched Lulu, now was the time to break the egg and use whatever power it contained. Lulu gave Word syllables to Ana and together they bred the Shadow inside the egg. A thunderstorm clouded the swirling darkness inside. Ana fed it with energy from the Shadow gap beneath the mountain. It would have been so much easier to step into the Shadow Realm and break the egg on the other side – but so much harder to control what’s inside.

Finally, the egg broke apart without Ana having to step into the Shadow Realm – I don’t know what would have happened if she had done this… Lulu was devasted: She was looking for the needle to destroy Koshtshey, War Himself, but inside the egg was no needle. It was a banned God of thunder and chaos. Ana wanted to turn him against the dragon, but he demanded a price. Belief is a price that’s valued above everything else by those creatures, and Ana offered him belief, faith, devotion… He told her that he needed one brave warrior soul to help her – and in this moment, Sasha yelled: “FIRE!”

The dragon hovered before him, Sasha was severely wounded, most of his men dead, but he fired the cannon and tried to aim at the creature’s mouth. It opened wide to spit fire and end him, the cannon spit fire as well – and the cannon ball missed the dragon’s maw. But as Sasha was sure the ball would bounce off the dragon’s impossible scales, a thunderstorm awoke inside of the metal and it ate its way into the dragon’s innards. It tore the scales open, the ball birthed a Shadow creature and it blasted the dragon to pieces. Sasha fell from the tower, badly wounded. Our soldiers stormed after the Cossacks and drove them away, Yugurs suddenly came out of the mountains and ambushed the enemy forces. They annihilated them.

The God from Smoke and Thunder rose above Ayankau and then dived into the Shadow chasm below the town (Ana believes he is Czernybog, one part of an old twin God from the Altayra – I’m from Altayra, but I never lived in one of the simple villages so I know very little about Czernybog and Bielybog.).

I stumbled back to town with Tasja. When we arrived at the gates, a Yugur delegation reached it as well. A man with an impressive booming voice proclaimed that he intended to raze Ayankau and have the Shadow gap sealed by one of the Yugurs’ daughters. Sasha and Ana dragged themselves to the gate and discussed a compromise: We knew that the Yugurs indeed have ways to seal gaps into the Shadow Realm, but we insisted on a guard from Both Realms as well. Ayankau is a border town and we will not yield, but hold it in the name of the Czar. Nonetheless, we needed the Yugurs’ help and so we agreed on a truce for Ayankau.

Our own army was to march on – Captain Send-them-to-hell was still besieged by Galerkin’s forces. Tasja stayed with me – I wouldn’t trust a Shadow courier to bring her back to Stare Traha, but we sent one with a report for the Czar and… Is that true? The report was much sketchier than what I just told you? Well, parchment was scarce and I wasn’t able to read or write it, so… consider this as our full report. Sasha’s Wolves saved Ayankau – or what’s left of it – from its old curse!

[The “choice” Aljikhan had to make for his and Tasja’s life, was to kill Marshall Vadim, the commandant of the Czar’s army. I agreed, because, haha, new trouble: Love is blind – and we will see how and if and when… He’s certainly conflicted now and I changed one of his aspects “Sight from the dark arts” into “In the clutches of the Black Lotus”.]