Lionia urges the group on – there is not telling when Plamen might follow them, and this is work best done without him. The five cross over the frozen Vydra on foot, and proceed to Crows’ Meadow, skirting around Lazarevo. Plamen knows a long tunnel that leads into the warren from one of the taverns in the village, but no one else has seen it, and there is no telling how confusing the passage might be, and what might be waiting for them there. Better to face the dough guardian – (now affectionately called “cookie monster”) by going down the way they know.
|Aren't crows supposed to go to Crows' Meadow?|
However, as soon as the group leaves, it is followed by a flock of crows from the woods beyond Yelizarov’s keep. Chonkorchuk is especially worried that they will spy on them, and reveal what they saw to their own nechist’ master. Dmitri suggests misleading them by going into the woods for a while, while Chonkorchuk suggests going back to his hermitage, and returning later. But Lionia is impatient: he says if they wait any longer, more people will learn of the warren’s secret (he nods at Druvvaldis as he says this). In any event, the master of the forest is asleep until spring, and he can be dealt with later. A vote is taken, and the majority sides with the Old Fox – it’s now or never.
The chute into the warren has been partly sealed up, and then frozen, so Dmitri takes to the shovel, and is aided by Druvvaldis, who grows a torch flame, and softens up the dirt. It’s time to give it a try. Rodion conjures up an invisible servitor to carry the torch into Plamen’s chamber, so as to get the cookie monster to follow the flame, and give more people a way to join the attack against him. The plan seems to work, though not without some sweat, as brawny Dmitri gets stuck in the chute on the way down, and has to be wiggled free by Rodion’s arcane hand. When he makes it down, he sees the shape in the chamber, stomping out the torch, so he rushes in to attack with his spear. Lionia soon joins him, though Chonkorchuk, who is next, also gets stuck.
While the hermit struggles to make it down the chute, Dmitri and Lionia are having a tough go of it. The guardian is easy enough to hit, but weapons get stuck inside him, and the monster pummels both repeatedly with his doughy fists, which also make them stick to it. Worse, the dough reforms itself around the rends and divots made by saber and spear. When Chonkorchuk, and following him Druvvaldis and Rodion, finally make it down, and begin blasting the monster, it continues to demonstrate resilience. If anything, the cold makes it tougher. It crushes Druvvaldis’ crow, though he quickly summons a weasel to replace it. Finally, Dmitri manages to pull away enough to change – into a wolf-headed humanoid – and then bites the creature through a hole just made by his spear. The cookie monster’s head comes off, and it tumbles onto the ground.
Having won their way back into the warren, it is time to rest: a lot of arcane energy went into the fight, and Lionia and Dmitri are pretty well pummeled. The five decide to camp out right there in Plamen’s chamber: though the owner might appear at any time, there is hay and straw there, to make for a comfortable rest. The sheep that was there earlier seems to be gone.
After an extended and undisturbed rest, the group is ready to go on. They heard occasional creaks coming from the tunnels, and Druvvaldis sensed the presence of nechist’ in the area, but nothing appeared. It is best to follow the way they know, especially since it leads to where they need to go – Plamenka’s chamber, and her special trinkets. Progressing around the maze, the group suddenly encounters four skeleton warriors, dressed in scraps of rusty Kochmak armor, around the corner from the Mother’s chamber. Plamen’s lost sheep is behind them, bleating loudly. Perhaps it was set up as an alarm system, because the noise awakens Plamenka, who comes up, livid as ever, behind the skeletons. The skeletons’ rusty weapons prove relatively ineffective, and most of the warriors are dispatched quickly, though Plamenka succeeds in frightening Lionia and Druvvaldis, who flee back toward the entrance. The rest summon up reserves of courage: after Dmitri dispatches the final skeleton, Plamenka sends him to sleep (along with the sheep), but Rodion succeeds in putting Plamenka herself into a deep slumber. Awakening Dmitri, they tie her up in their net, gag her, and put the iron manacles found earlier near Chonkorchuk’s hermitage on her hands.The battle appears to have been won without murdering Plamen’s mother. However, Lionia, changed to foxman form, soon returns, and while no one is looking, slips a dagger into his hand, and slices at the captive’s throat. While the companions are at first aghast, he shouts that they will never have peace while she is alive. In any event, she has many deaths on her head, as the skeletons warriors attest, and should be dealt with quickly. It is not Lionia’s day, however. He succeeds only in waking the prisoner, and in the blink of an eye, she transforms into a cat, breaks out of her bonds, and vanishes. Rodion manages to locate her and put her to sleep again. In the ensuing chaos, Lionia continues going about his dirty business, Dmitri attempts to shield the falling Plamenka, and Druvvaldis, who has now also returned, aims a frosty blast at her, but hits Dmitri in the back instead. Rodion finally lays her down again with a blast of magical force, but the resilient poludnitsa gets up again. Finally, Lionia hacks her to pieces with his saber. The band drags the mutilated body, oozing black blood, into her chamber, and collapses from