The party travelled to Astaroka's capital to meet with the Triumverate of Astaroka, Pule Volmi, Alfonzo and Natalia Volg, and Dwarven Princess Kiri Forgemantle. They were rewarded in gold for helping defend Throughway Keep. The evening was productive, but had its share of friction:
- The party helped settle a long-standing argument between Sybil and Illaryia Astaroka over resettling the war-ravaged portions of the country. Yuna and Ireni came down on Illaryia's side, wanting to hold the East of the country and recover cautiously. Vani and Uli favored Sybil's aggressive push West, concerned about the risks of surrendering so much land and resources. The rulers agreed to split the difference and recover half of the raided farmland and mines, using conscription to restore some of their depleted military's strength.
-Kiri Forgemantle's expedition would be joined by the party. They would receive a cut of the loot, the Dwarves would claim material wealth and mining sites, and Astaroka would receive information and items/documents of magical import.
-Ireni got into an argument with Argus Forsythe after he refused to put his name on the conscription order, fearing for his public image. Vani clashed briefly with the Volgs over their lack of trained combat mages despite Volg Keep's defensible position and trove of magical knowledge.
With a week to prepare, the party gathered supplies and readied themselves for uncharted territory. Uli purchased a mastiff, whom she named Maximus. Vani received a powerful shortbow as a gift from Gurn Rockwright, a token of his thanks for getting him safely to Astaroka's capital.
On the way to the mountains, Vani had a troubling dream, the contents of which she shared with the party after they noticed her visibly shaken features the next morning. In the dream, the sky was melting. The corpse of a one-eyed bear had been filled with strange, white orbs, merged by a mysterious force. Vani felt that the force would have melded with her as well. Uli speculated that the one-eyed bear could represent Grummush and Luthic, gods of the Orcish pantheon.
Kiri decided to take the expedition up through the mountains rather than through the pass between them, worrying that whatever drove the orcs out would find them if they took the easy route. The party found orcish bones and weapons littering the mountains. The skeletons were dotted with fine holes, as if something small had bored into or out of them. Vani could not detect any orcs in the vicinity, however.
The party split with the dwarves as the evening drew near; Kiri and her party would secure and scout a mountain cave to make camp for the day, while the party scouted ahead on the mountainside to see if they could get a glimpse at the lands they were venturing into. The group came upon a ruined set of orcish wayforts and rope bridges that connected to another mountain, one that would allow them a great vantage point at the lands beyond.
To their horror, the forts were filled with giant spiders, and horrible amalgamations of arachnid origin: Orc zombies animated by thousands of tiny spiders that writhed within them, and goblins that had sprouted sets of venomous fangs and eight black, bulbous eyes. Ireni was ambushed and the party nearly overwhelmed. Yuna and Ireni faced death more than once each during the conflict. The group was saved by judicious use of potions, Vani's healing magic, sound tactics, and a brief distraction created by Uli's new hound Maximus, who did not survive the encounter.
Bloodied and chilled, the party crossed the pass and managed to get a look at the orcish lands beyond. But are they still truly held by orcs? The horrors they'd just encountered suggested something far more troubling had arrived.
A glimpse beyond the mountains.