The House of Gorska Maika

Playlist: Teddy Bears' Picnic (If you Go Down to the Woods Today) - DJ Taz

Tundra, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Northern USSR, December 9th 1941 14:45

As they travelled on, the weather deteriorated and it began to snow. Through the thickening blizzard, another dense forest came into view, and they pushed on under the trees, visibility shrinking even further. Igor, his mental state fragile and Anné, still feverish after her dump into the White Sea and swearing constantly at the weather in lurid French, were doing particularly badly. For some hours they slogged through the trees until the early twilight of the just-sub-arctic climate began to close in. The more skilled arctic hands were beginning to consider a camp, despite the sinking feeling that some of their party might not make it through the night, when Joe suddenly leaned forward, his eyes narrowing. "What's that?" he muttered.

The others gathered around and, sure enough, ahead through the dimness and trees, they could see a twinkle of warm, reddish-orange firelight. "If I didn't know better," said Olga, "I'd swear that that is a lit window..."

The Cottage of Gorska Malia - click it for larger image!

Cautiously, the group moved forward, weapons gripped in gloved fists that were chilled almost into immobility by the icy metal. Gradually, a dark shape resolved itself from the endless trees, until there was no doubt. Ahead of them was a small cottage, from one of the windows of which a light shone.

Two hundred yards out, the party as a whole stopped and Joe moved stealthily forward to investigate. From fifty yards out, he could see the shapes under the snow of the usual surroundings of a rustic dwelling like this, a drying-rack for meat and furs, a well, a privy, compost heap and so on. At ten yards, he cast the Voorish Sign, and felt the impressions of the place hammer eternally into his memory. The cottage was as it seemed; a cottage. It was really there. For some reason, it occurred to Joe that in some ways, it was more "really there" than anything surrounding it. Nothing seemed threatening, so he moved up to the door and knocked, stepping back and sideways.

"Zakhodi!" [Come in!] called a voice from inside; a woman's voice, aged but strong. He paused for a moment. "Zakhodi! Vy vse!" [Come in! All of you]. Blinking, he pushed the door open and stepped inside. He'd been braced for any kind of horror or attack when he opened the door, but what struck him was - in a word - warm. Half-frozen through, his body relished the pleasure of the warmth, bypassing the suspicions of his mind.

Inside, the little cottage's main room was cosy and busy. Drying meats and herbs hung from the ceiling, shelves on the walls bore a bewildering variety of clay jars and wooden boxes, and a roaring fire filled a hearth at one end. A pot of some kind of stew was bubbling over the fire, with a samovar and smaller pan off to one side. In the middle of the floor stood a worn wooden table, with several chairs around it. Behind the table sat an old woman, dressed in peasant garb, and slicing an onion. She looked up at Joe, and gestured at him. "Come in and shut the door," she said, "stop letting all the heat out. And bring your friends in."

Joe poked his head back out, and called the others to come in. With various degrees of trepidation, the party followed him into the cottage, but Birapeer, distrustful of this strangely fortuitous shelter, demurred, and settled down among the trees at the edge of the clearing, setting a fire and making camp. Noticing this, Cyril did likewise, more to keep the Sikh company than out of distrust of their prospective host.

As they ducked throuh the low doorway into the cottage, Francoise and Marcus glanced at each other; their knowledge of folklore had given them suspcicions about this place. However, both settled into chairs and held their hands out to the warming flames. "You are welcome to my hospitality," said the old woman, "even those who prefer to sit in the snow and set fire to my garden," she ended a little dryly.

It dawned on Joe that, despite his very basic knowledge of the Russian language, he understood her speech without difficulty. Her words seemed somehow clearer, more clearly pronounced and less colloquial than other Soviets he had met. It was obvious the others were experiencing the same thing. As they settled into chairs, she lifted the samovar from the hearth and began to pour tea into small earthenware cups. When done, she took two and headed out of the door and over to where Birapeer and Cyril were just beginning to get warm from their own fire. "Some tea for you", she said, handing the cups over. "Dinner will be ready soon." Neither commented, but as the woman was half-way back to the cottage, Birapeer very deliberately poured his out onto the ground. The woman did not turn or speak, but hesitated slightly and shook her head before carrying on back inside.

"Who are you?" asked Francoise, quite politely; her instincts were screaming at her not to offend this strange person. "Ah, you may call me Gorska Malia," said the strange old woman. "How did you know I had friends, Babuskha? [old woman]" asked Joe sharply. She laughed. "Ah! Powerful witchcraft, dark magic, boy! I have an evil magical device called .. window." and she cackled at him.


Marcus made a play of getting out his pipe and matches, and heading outside for a smoke. Once there, he quietly cast a Detect Enchantment and scanned the building. Unlike previous times he'd used the spell, the vision he gained was obscured, concealed, as if seen through thick glass. There was definitely some enchantment on the place, but it was either concealed somehow, long faded or very faint. He exchanged a few words with Birapeer and Cyril before going back inside.

The spell was still active as he came back in, and Gorska glanced at him irritably. "Now, now! Enough of that. What, you think I'm some kind of witch?" Glancing at her, his enhanced sight saw her as very similar to her earlier appearance, though slightly more gnarled and longer in the nose - and more bad-tempered. He let the spell drop. After a while, she went back to the hearth and served out bowls of the stew she had been cooking. Spotting some worried glances, she clicked her tongue and said, "It's only chicken. You can call your friends in for some if you want." Cautiously at first, they ate, finding the food tasty and heartening.

"Now, what brings a group as ... varied as you out here into my forests?" she asked curiously. Francoise looked back at her. "You do know there's a war on?" she asked carefully - it was a remote corner of the world after all. "War!" she snorted. "Men are always having their little wars, here and there, but I care naught for that." Clearing away the cooking materials, she picked up a rather overlarge pestle and dropped it into its' mortar lying on a shelf.

As they spoke to her, the set of her face and her diamond-hard eyes began to remind each of them of female relatives they had known, mothers or aunts, who were Not to Be Crossed. There was determination, willpower and strength of character behind those eyes in limitless quantities.

"Forgive me for saying so," said Marcus very politely, "but I believe that you are a person with ... powers, not available to everyone?" he left it as a question. She chuckled. "I am not alone here in that," she said archly. "am I?" Joe nodded, "Our magic comes from contact with other powers, Babuskha, bad things, and is damaging," he said, "but you seem not to be as we are," by which he meant half-mad, "where do you get your power?" This immediately felt like one of those questions not quite polite to ask a practitioner, but Gorska simply smiled. "I live in the forest and understand nature," she said "I have nothing to do with demons and angels and such."

"Anyway," said Joe, "we are in pursuit of a group of Germans, five soldiers and a civilian; have you seen them go past? They were headed to the diamond mine south-east of here." She cackled, "Ah! The big hole where men grub in the dirt for their trinkets. Fools. No, I have not had any nemtsy soldiers to visit, nor would I want to, nevezlivy [impolite] people." Joe leaned forward. "They are taking evil power to the mine, to kill people, and we are trying to stop them." "Yes," she said, "I felt that power pass. Contrary to nature, their magic. Breaking the lines between living and dead, never a good thing." She eyed them narrowly, and then seemed to make a decision. "I propose a bargain. Quite apart from the weather - which may defeat you all by itself - you face foes that may be beyond your strength. I can help you with both problems." Joe looked levelly back at her. "What do you want in return?" he asked carefully, wary of a trap or enchanted pact of some kind.

"The men you pursue carry a powerful artifact of magic, misused by them for necromantic purposes. I have heard of it but never seen one; sleza demona, the Demon's Tear it is called by some. That is my price for my aid. Bring me that after your victory, and I shall aid your blades to strike true, your souls to resist the Necromancer's art - and I shall get you to where you are going. Do we have an agreement?"

The team looked at each other. The Demon's Tear, referred to in the hideous Prozess zur Abpraller as Dämonen Tränstein, was a key component in the manufacture of the Reagent, and the agents were pretty sure that their superiors were definitely going to want them to retrieve it - though as someone said later, the last powerful artifact they had recovered had ended up being effectively buried again as too dangerous to use. As the meal concluded, Joe spoke up again. "We would like to discuss this amongst ourselves before we decide, if that is all right with you." Gorksa shrugged. "As you wish. Make yourselves comfortable here," she gestured to the spacious main room of the cottage. "I will hear your answer in the morning."

Keeper Note: Although the players didn't actually go out to discuss their choice, it makes a lot of sense to retcon it that they did as Steve and Aimo contributed to the discussion. It doesn't alter the story and I hope doesn't upset the players!

The group reassembled around Birapeer's fire and took counsel on their answer. The debate raged back and forth, with some in favour of taking the deal, some not trusting Gorska (and contrasting her with the monks of Kyung Ri - despite the latter's abduction of the party) and Joe suggesting accepting and then reneging on the bargain by taking the stone home anyway.

Birapeer flatly refused to have anything to do with the bargain, not least because no Sikh was ever, ever going to let some foreign ਅਨ੍ਬਿਲੀਵਰ witch mess about with his personal blades. His increasingly anti-magical stance also encouraged him to prefer a course that would lead to the destruction of the stone.

Again, the idea of simply summoning a Byakhee and returning to England to report successful completion of their assigned mission gained considerable traction. Despite Anné still not being up to serious magic, Marcus and Joe were pretty sure they could handle the required workings.

Eventually, by a narrow margin, the group decided to decline Gorska's offer and make their own way, reconnoitring the mine before deciding whether to venture in or retreat. That settled, they retired to their respective locations to sleep, setting careful watches in both places. Gradually, those chosen to sleep settled down, and the fires burned low in the darkness. The sentinels sat alert, watching for any attack or treachery, but when it came the event was as gentle as settling snow. Everything went black as they simply fell asleep.

One Mile from Ard Griba Diamond Mine, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Northern USSR, December 10th 1941 08:30

All the party jerked awake at the same moment, thin winter morning sunshine around them. Despite a very suspicious good night's sleep, they seemed to be exactly where they had been the night before, some in the cottage, some under a tree outside. However, as the main group emerged from the cottage to check on the others, it struck them that some things looked.. diffferent.

While the cottage was set back into the trees behind it, in front of it they thinned and ended at the edge of a clear space of tundra. About half a mile away the forest began again - south-east from the position of the rising sun - and threads of smoke comensurate with chimneys or a factory of some sort rose from beyond it. Either they had vastly misjudged their position the previous evening - or they had moved in the night!

Disgusted with this arbitrary treatment, Birapeer and Cyril packed up their camp and left, heading towards the smoke until they were out of sight in the forest, where they stopped to wait for the others.

Gorska made her appearance from the bedroom of the cottage and served breakfast as she awaited their response to her offer. Joe, still addressing her as Babushka despite Francoise and Olga's nervous glances, tried some alternatives, asking if whatever she had done to move them here could get them back to England - where they could request permission to make the bargain. She shook her head; "I dislike leaving my domain," she said, "and I think the people between here and Angliya would be most distressed by our passage!"

"We may not make your bargain," he said slightly apologetically. "Our masters would probably not agree to it, and as we cannot ask them, we cannot agree. We thank you for your help and hospitality though."

"If we did come back with the stone, how will we find you?" he asked then. "Oh, if you work any of your magics in my woods, I will know you," she said rather worryingly. "Good luck to you then," she said, and went back inside her cottage. The team gathered their gear and hiked off across the tundra to where Birapeer and Cyril waited.

Francoise sighed. "You know?" she said, "I think we just turned down a bargain with Baba Yaga...."

Ard Griba Diamond Mine, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Northern USSR, December 10th 1941 10:30

There should be a beautiful hand-crafted map here. Sorry, I didn't get round to it in time. This is what I managed to throw onto Roll20 on the night. Click it for a bigger image

Around an hour later, the team reached the perimeter fence of the mine complex. The trees went right up to the north side of the fence, and on the far side was a large cleared area, sloping down to what appeared to be a frozen lake, possibly water storage for the processing side.

A small concrete building sat in a clear space on the far side, from which a road ran to the main area. Roads from the main pit ran up to an unloading conveyor which fed the raw product into the extraction sheds, where the chunks were pounded to bits and separated. At least part of this process was still running; the conveyor seemed to be moving and the shed shook with deafening noise, while smoke rose from the chimney.

Next door was a set of smaller buildings for processing, where the extracted diamonds were sorted into dust (for abrasive paper and so on), industrial grade diamonds (for cutting and drilling) and - very rarely - gem grade stones.

Beyond that were some admin and operational buildings, including one that looked remarkably like a barracks and was probably the security office. Beyond that was a small airstrip. The team's hearts surged at sight of that, but no planes were visible.

Finally, a scatter of frugal-looking dwellings for the mineworkers occupied a space the size of a small town.

A road ran off to the south-west, almost certainly towards Archangel and civilization.

Beyond that was the Pit. Almost a mile across, it was an awesome sight, with a spiralling road actually leading down into the earth around its edge. The bottom was invisible from their vantage, but an abandoned truck was visible about half-way down what they could see.

Nowhere had they seen any signs of life, beyond thin smoke from some chimneys. Settling into cover, they spent a good hour observing the place, scanning for any signs of movement. After a while, they did observe occasional humanoid figures. Having seen one before, the distinctive quick lurching gait of an Abpraller was easily identified. As they watched, a movement caught Marcus' eye, and he noticed a figure walking across the Admin section of the mine, near the tentatively identified barracks. Suddenly, the thing was snatched backwards to sprawl on its' back. Several seconds later the whiplash crack of a heavy rifle echoed across the mine. A few seconds later, the thing staggered back to its feet and resumed its journey.

Someone was still fighting in there....

Session Date: 23rd June 2020 - in CyberSpace!