Raskel hurries down the road, but tipsy Chonkorchuk is stumbling around. Plamen rushes over to steady him, but they are immediately confronted by two hungry wolves, who emerge from behind the fence. Chonkorchuk tries to react, and while a crackling sound emerges from him, he ends up falling to the ground, which actually surprises a charging wolf. Plamen interposes himself between his fellow suitor and the beast, and clocks it on the leg with his staff. Flickering lights created by Raskel drive it off, but the second wolf manages to bite Plamen in the ankle twice. Chonkorchuk continues his unsteady flailing, so the wolf takes the young healer down with the second bite, and begins dragging him off toward a breach in the fence. A sound of howling from behind the fence (and conjured up by Raskel) distracts the wolf, and he runs off. Chonkorchuk has the presence of mind to pour a libation down his companion’s throat, Plamen regains consciousness, and begins limping away, still moving faster than his lanky, inebriated friend. Raskel remains in the lead, calling out for help. He directs villagers accompanied by dogs toward the scene of the confrontation. The three newly-met companions finally make it to the waystation, and ignoring the other people in the guest barn, turn in for a well-deserved sleep.
The next morning, Raskel rises early. He has an agenda for the day, but wants to be back in a safe location by nightfall, to avoid further run-ins with rampaging beasts. The first order of business is to summon a companion - a raven - who can serve as the group’s scout. After consulting with his companions when they awake, he makes a list of ingredients he will need to effect the ritual – some charcoal, aromatic grasses, and bones. Plamen knows just the place – in his meadow, only a verst or so upriver from the village. He also volunteers his camping cauldron as a brazier. Raskel gathers some charcoal from the stove in the barn where the group spent the night, and they all head off for the meadow.
The home in which Plamen grew up is in a series of tunnels beneath the meadow. His polevik family is inside, slumbering for the winter. Plamen collects some dried sage from his family’s storerooms, and then goes off looking for bones on the topside. He manages to locate some, and picks the dried stalks that grow out of the place where he finds them. He then lights the fire in the cauldron, while Raskel conjures some flickering lights that a raven might find attractive, and begins to walk around it, chanting his summons. Ravens typically assemble in the field, ever since the massacre that took place here decades ago, and within an hour, one begins to circle the fire, and lands on Raskel’s hat. It is able to communicate with him telepathically. As Plamen is unaware of any portals here, Raskel sends the raven to scout out the lay of the land. It is able to see a settlement “where there is lots of food” downstream (the village of Lazarevo), and another, smaller settlement “with large structures” upstream (this is probably the ancestral fort of the Trofimovs, Raskel gathers, since he had occasion to visit it long ago).
|A new, still nameless (but symbolic?) member of the party|
There is a patch not two miles hence where faerie rings grow. Plamen harvests mushrooms there in the early fall, but he decides to check it. Though late in the season, finding something there may prove useful, as the mushrooms, when eaten, weaken the barrier between the visible world and the Otherworld. After an intensive search, he does manage to find a lone toadstool underneath a leaf. At this point, the group decides to head back to Lazarevo. It begins to drizzle, and, Plamen offers, a mad boar makes its den nearby, so to avoid complications, they return to the waystation. The raven perches on the rooftop.
The proprietor – Terentii Timofeevich – greets the guests. He informs Raskel then men from the abbey – relatives of Chonkorchuk, as he later recognizes – were there looking for the three men earlier, apparently in connection with yesterday’s wolf attack. Raskel asks Terentii not to inform the hegumen of their arrival, alleging that they will speak to him later. Terentii replies that he'll respect Raskel’s wish, as he is a paying tenant, but he is suspicious of the other two, especially as he recognizes that Chonkorchuk has a bad history with Hegumen Yaakov. Plamen pays for their stay with a couple of nutritious berries that he produces, and, after his initial skepticism, Terentii agrees that they are wholesome, and agrees to let all three stay. He summons his son to deliver something. Raskel has the raven watch to see if he is summoning people from the abbey, but nothing happens. Ignoring the other two people inside – the Yam messenger, and a nightly companion, who in turn ignore them, the group settles in for the night.
The next day – clear, crisp, and breezy, the group decides to head off to Chonkorchuk’s hermitage, as the nearby portal he mentioned seems like the most promising place to initiate their search. Raskel purchases some pitch for torches from Terentii for a few copper pulo – the group expects to spend the night in less hospitable surroundings. The journey covers about eight versts, across a ford in the Vydra River. It transpires uneventfully, and the group arrives at the hermitage - a glorified lean-to, with a treehouse above - long before nightfall. Chonkorchuk gets a fire going to get warm, while Raskel inspects the tiny structure. As Chonkorchuk related earlier, it is covered by a variety of markings, both in the Noriki language, and in others, which seem to derive from an old script used long ago by heathen priests. Plamen has seen their like before. Some of the circular and cruciform symbols represent the old gods – sky lords, the Earth Mother, and others. The writing in Noriki seems to contain Gaalite prayers and incantations, though some of it is faded. Raskel, who is literate and has some training in arcane texts recognizes that the pagan symbols have some magical protective power. Moreover, as he is an expert in handwriting and forgery, he concludes that both sets of writing were executed by the same person. It is known, from Chonkorchuk’s telling, that prior to him, the hermitage was occupied by Hegumen Yaakov, though perhaps others resided here even further in time. Whether he was the one to put up the wards or not, it seems they are the reason Chonkorchuk dwelt here all these years unmolested.
Before it gets too late, the group goes forth to look for the hole in the ground. Chonkorchuk was charged not to look for it, and to keep these woods safe from intruders, so he has not sought it until now, but this seems like the appropriate time. The group traverses a spiral route from the hermitage, checking thickets and bushes. The plan is to turn back before the sun sets, but by late afternoon, Chonkorchuk realizes that the lay of the land is unfamiliar to him. Not wishing to search for the way back in the dark, Raskel changes into foxman form (to see in the dark) and begins to build a shelter, while Plamen gather firewood and lights it. Chonkorchuk sits on the ground and tries to gather his thoughts about what went wrong. Suddenly, a large cat leaps from the branch at Raskel, and savages him. Chonkorchuk quickly leaps into action, and conjures up a hex that temporarily stuns the lynx. Plamen throws a burning brand at it, and prepares to ignite the sparks that hit it, while Chonkorchuk knocks it out with another blast. Raskel manages to recover from the pain inflicted by the lynx’s teeth, and starts rousing himself, when suddenly, an old hag emerges, as if out of nowhere. “How dare you!” she hisses. “You will pay for this!”
|Another nameless, yet familiar personage|