At long last, the party makes its way toward Fifthsent, that oasis in the Orst described by the Strazh. Laden with coin (not to mention their aforementioned individual burdens), our heroes move slowly through the rough terrain and scrub of the valley that separates the Orstfell from the unknown. Of course, this area, too, is unknown to the stalwarts, though they have become acutely aware of the capricious weather patterns of oncoming winter in the Fell. Once again, a great storm brews, and the group finds itself barely keeping ahead of it.
But before the freezing ice, sleet and snow hails down, an interlude. Traversing a narrow canyon, several members of the group decide to drop their packs and reapportion the great share of loot carried by the acquisitive Gromminique Riptor. As they bicker over their slow pace, a rumbling in the distance is heard. Young Warren, having scrambled up the top of a large rock set in the canyon center, spots the cause — horses, a river of them, and before them (barely) a wildly tatooed elf. Behind the horses, a hunting party of “Leaf Eaters,” goblins who nevertheless enjoy meat when winter descends.
In short order, the company scrambles on top of the rock, riding out the wave of hooved fury that pounds around them. One of the horses, a great, noble, white stallion, is injured by goblin arrow fire. The leaf eaters, mounted on great wolves, close on their prey, still unaware of the party’s appearance.
This changes immediately. Moved by the plight of the stallion, the heroes take action. A volley of arrows from bow masters Bronwen and Aurina flies into a pair of riders, slaying them immediately. Not to be outdone, knight errant Dimitri Xant loads one of his magical Bolts of Slaying into his heavy crossbow and fires a lethal strike, bringing down two goblins with one fell swoop (including the largest of the party). The lone remaining rider turns his mount around and retreats, receiving a fierce wound as he does so. With the herd of horses off in the distance the other direction, the party is now safe to come off the rock. But it could be a case of frying pan and fire, as the riderless Worgs, their nostrils full of blood from the wounded stallion, are intent on making a meal of the beast right then and there. The party sends a pair running, but one huge, snarling beast remains.
Enter the fighters, Grommonique and Laurence, and in moments said “fire” is no more. Fighting alongside their mail companion Xant, the three send lethal slices through the remaining Worg, punctuated by a killing stroke from Xant (who, at long last, is not patching up and/or defending everyone else). The stallion is saved, and a new friend is made — Ilveck, tattoo mage and dealer in herbs who also happens to be headed to Fifthsent, and knows the way. Happening upon the horse herd,but outnumbered by Leaf Eaters, he incited the creatures to bolt, only to end up in their path.
Ilveck’s strange appearance intrigues the curious Aurina, who, along with Warren, questions him about his people. Meanwhile, Xant, sensing a kinship with the great stallion, heals him with divine power and, on something of a whim, mounts and rides the noble beast. There is an instant connection. Wind in his hair, bringing the horse to full sprint back up the canyon, Xant realizes he has found his godsent companion. He christens the shining white creature “Orstrunner.”
But there is always little time for contentment with our crew. In short order, they realize the winter storm lay less than two hours behind them. Thankfully, the appearance of Orstrunner provides the party with a desperately needed pack animal. Quickly, Laurance and Xant use their long-neglected “civilian skills” to lash several of the party’s packs to Orstrunner, and off they all go, somewhat faster than before. But will it be faster than the storm?
Ilveck is chosen to lead the way, and the nimble elf quickly guides them through the rough terrain. Unfortunately, Fifthsent is still a day and a half away, while the storm is minutes behind. Ilveck informs his new friends of a nearby Dwarving mining emcampment belonging to the “Maluene” (which Gromm quickly informs them means “the Sundered” in his native tongue). Knowing nothing about the miners, the party realizes it has little choice. It must have shelter or risk perishing in the oncoming freeze. Unfortunately, it is upon them before they can reach the camp.
Yet does not luck ALWAYS smile down upon the heroes of Bale Keep? Rushing onward as the blizzard comes down, they locate a large, overturned wagon, wheels busted, but salvageable. There is evidence of a struggle here, but the group has little time to investigate. Instead, they rapidly set about converting the wagon into a shelter, using the twin struts connected to the tongue for support of a lean-to, then attaching and staking down the canvas. A great bear skin located back at Clear Lake covers the opening facing the storm, and soon, the group is snug (quite tightly) inside, a fire burning from the hastily gathered wood provided by Ilveck and Laurance.
As the storm rages, the smaller, but no less important aspects of adventuring life take place. There is shared drink and song. In addition, the budding romance between Bronwen and Laurance blooms full, as the latter is assured of her feelings for him. Months of adventuring, first with the Silverswords, and now with the members of Bale Keep have strengthened their bond beyond the kindship of soldiers. Meanwhile, Gromminique strengthens his own bond with Alasharta, while Xant broods over his future — what is he? King? Herald? Catspaw?
The storm rushes through overnight, leading to a crisp dawn. Now inured to the cold, the cold, the party packs its things and decides they must head directly to Fifthsent, passing up the side trek to the mines altogether, despite the clues left in the wagon (most clearly, a case of theft of fine silver ore and murder). A second possible trek is left behind when the party locates a sinkhole, thanks to the faint smell of decay coming from the area, plus the keen eyes of Tobias, Warren’s familiar. From the hawk’s vantage point, there appear to be Orst of the largest variety inside the hole.
The group vows to come back to explore these. With Fifthsent a day and a half away, they make straight for the hamlet, with but one more night to spend on the road. The day’s somewhat uneventful night behind them, they bed down in the middle of what Ilveck’s people call “The Valley of Fallen Trees.” The name is ironic at best, as no trees are fallen. Indeed, it is mostly scrub and thick brush nestled into rough hills. Yet, Ilveck assures them that his people usually take pains to avoid it, as there have been many unexplained disappearances.
Before long, however, the reasons for both the name of the area, as well as the disappearances, becomes all too clear. During Dimitri’s watch, the sound of snapping trees is heard, at first faintly, then growing in volume. The knight uses his divine senses to detect evil, and does so — a strong aura that shatters him to the marrow. As the sounds of large, cracking trunks approachs from all sides, the party takes up arms, staring off into the darkness, a darkness that appears…to be moving!
A vast wave of black soot suddenly rushes over the group, and the terrain mystically changes. No more a scrub-filled hill, the group is now on a charred and blasted battlefield, the smell of smoke and death all around them. They have little time to analyze their surroundings, as suddenly, a band of dusky skeletons sprouts from the ground beneath their feet!
At first, the party is momentarily relieved to be facing such pitiful opponents. It soon becomes clear, however, that these are not the bone creatures they are familiar with, but rather skeletons made of the earth itself. The party’s weapons explode into the skeletons, only to see the creatures immediately reform. Our heroes are truly in trouble this time (or so it seems).
Yet this is no ordinary group of adventurers. After the first onslaught, an attack that leaves Xant with a terrible wound across his face, the group recovers, using their wits instead of their weapons. Where steel has failed them, they find water works, and they begin spraying their skins on the creatures, which has a decidedly lethal effect. Better yet, a pair of attacks somehow, through the strange alchemy of the magical world the now inhabit, conjure a pair of water elementals. The group triumphs once again! As the last vestiges if the dusky skeletons explodes, the party recovers, bracing for more. They peer off into the distance, and see an army of similar creatures surrounding them, led by a fearsome creature the scholars of the party recognize as a Thorn Lord — one of the evil druids who beset the lands west of the Orstfell some half century ago. This is a battle that a handful of stalwarts cannot win, not with these odds.
Thankfully, no battle is required. The great wave of soot reappears and explodes, sending the party back to their own time and place. They realize they are on cursed ground now, and quickly pack up, preferring an exhausted trek over an additional attack. By dawn of the next day, they are finally within sight of Fifthsent, a walled hamlet that promises safe haven, and, as the group inevitably finds out, another test of their resolve.