Chapter 25– Walls of Bone and Flaming Skulls
Chonkorchuk returns from his search for the bridge to the sounds of his companions looking for trees to chop down. Though he did not find what he was looking for, his journey was eventful. An hour away, along the River of Fire and on the edge of the woods, he encountered a curious hairy man with small horns, wearing his clothes backwards, and bast shoes on the wrong feet. The man demanded tribute for trespassing through his woods, and would not countenance Chonkorchuk’s claim to be working for Baba Yaga, so the hermit decided it would be best to turn invisible and to make himself scarce. Along the way back to where he left his companions, he saw what appeared to be a storm drifting along the edge of the River of Fire. Divining the storm to be an intelligence of some sort, Chonkorchuk went deeper into the woods. At the riverbank, his companions try to decide on a course of action after the Knights took away Plamen and Khurshid, and severed the rope across the River of Fire to prevent them from being followed. Raskel, who led the effort to build that bridge, is at a bit of a loss: his spellbook, and his casting ring have both been taken by the knights, and his abilities without them are limited. He can still summon Kutkh, and toys with the idea of having the raven fly him in fox form across the ravine, but then decides the plan is too risky, and initiates a plan to chop down a tall tree so that the party can somehow get it to stretch across the canyon. Unfortunately, no one has an axe. Across the river, he sees a large storm cloud, or whirlwind, moving quickly in their direction, and bids his companions to take cover deeper in the woods. That is when Chonkorchuk invisibly comes up behind them. Chonkorchuk does have an axe – two, actually, one being a battleaxe he stole from the Knights. But there is no way to drag a huge tree to the ravine. Instead, Raskel has Kutkh carry Chonkorchuk’s fefila – much lighter than his fox form – across the ravine, and then has her fetch the severed ropes that dangle down into the chasm. The fefila proves surprisingly adept at tying knots, and after checking and rechecking the rigging, and refashioning the harnesses, the entire rest of the party, along with Katarina and Vasya, cross to the other side. The black rider passes somewhere nearby soon thereafter, and darkness descends, so the party breaks camp, deciding to leave off the search for their companions until the return of the light.
* * *The darkness falls on the Knights and their prisoners at roughly the same time. They have not gotten far from the River of Fire, and also have no desire to travel through Baba Yaga's realm in darkness. On top of that, Khushid, who is exhausted after his transformation, is useless to them until he rests up. They set up their camp, and release their mounts into the woods. Inside the prisoner’s tent, and under the watchful eyes of Hans and Franz, who do not speak the Norik tongue, Khurshid and Plamen exchange words after the southerner’s nightly prayers. He informs his companion that he cannot perform the transformation until he has regained his strength, and therefore, does not intend an immediate escape. Plamen, for his part, tells Khurshid that he also can transform into an animal, but has kept this ability secret for the time being. The following morning, the Knights break camp, load their prisoners onto one of the horses, and set off in search of Baba Yaga. Along the way, Plamen converses with a raven who is Kutkh, sent by Raskel to find his companions. Plamen informs the bird about the direction they are traveling in, but Father Sigismund grows suspicious, and Plamen is forced to break off, while Kutkh flies back with news for her master. Surprisingly, they are rewarded after less than half a day’s travel. In a clearing in the woods, they discover a large roughly circular wall built of bones, with a padlocked gate made of femurs and tibias. Bone posts along the wall are crowned with skulls. Father Sigismund and Andreas von Drachenberg inform their captives that it is time for them to do their job, and to find a way to enter the compound. They recommend that Khurshid perform his transformation trick again, but the Rakhman says that he cannot do so again until tomorrow. After toying with the idea of smashing the gate, he and Plamen decide to circle the compound under the cover of an obscurement the healer conjures up by burning some leaves. While they do so, the Knights keep an eye on them as best they can from under cover of the forest. Initially, all goes according to plan, but Khursid steps on a branch, and the skulls awake, and float up from their perches. One hovers over its post, and launches a fireball out of its mouth before the two prisoners are able to take cover. The fireball strikes Plamen directly, devouring his bearskin cover, scorching his skin, and sending him into shock. His companion is a bit luckier – he is blown over by the blazing heat of the ball, has his hair singed and his skin covered with soot, but he manages to keep hold of his senses, and drags Plamen back into the woods before the skull can pursue them, or other skulls arrive on the scene. Unexpectedly, Father Sigismund and the knights turn out to possess healing abilities, and between three of them, they are able to restore their prisoners and stop their skin from breaking out in terrible blisters. The price of their aid – Plamen and Khushid must return to circling the compound to look for another way in. Plamen calls on his obscurement again, and the two continue to circle the wall of bone, hoping that their magical veil offers them better protection this time around.
- Raskel and Chonkorchuk rebuild the rope bridge across the River of Fire
- The rest of the party crosses the River of Fire into Baba Yaga's domain
- Plamen and Khurshid (guided by the Knights) discover Baba Yaga's compound
- They discover the frightful power of Baba Yaga's guardian skulls