Next time you see our dear elder brother Malu, would you please tell him that I won our bet, and he owes me a chicken dinner? That's right, I've finally seen a you-know-what.
It happened like this: after we finished cleansing the altar (and if you haven't read that letter, read it first - now I'm in town at last, I can finally send you all the ones I've been writing) we decided to keep going around the mountain, following what seemed to be a lightly-used trail.
It wasn't long before we came to a sort of crossroads. One faint trail led uphill, and there were two more heavily-used branches - one running downhill, the other continuing around the mountain.
As you can tell from my previous letters, we'd been out on the mountain for several days now, and we thought it might be worth heading downhill to see if we could find a town, resupply, and maybe spend a night in a comfortable bed. (Although I'm getting quite used to sleeping on rocks... travel has toughened me, I think.)
We hadn't gone very far downhill when stones started whizzing past our heads. One flew past Osh, another bounced off Thonk's helmet, and we saw two small heads peering at us from amongst the rocks. We were unsure whether we were dealing with attackers, or just mischievous children; either way, they seemed like little threat, and they started to flee as I gave chase.
Unfortunately, Osh is somewhat lacking in judgement; he picked up a stone and threw it back. I think I have mentioned that Osh is a half-orc, big and strong even for his kind, and he hit the poor boy (for child it was) square in the back of the head. The little fellow fell down a slope, landing hard on some rocks, and I was sure he was dead; only with Bimp's prompt intervention were we able to save his life.
To cut a long story short, we had two children on our hands; they told us they had been sent out from a nearby town (by the name of Florn) to take their parents' goats to pasture, and having been told to protect the goats from monsters and bandits they had been trying to scare off Osh and Thonk. They were not due to return for another day, but after nearly killing the poor lad we felt we should bring them back home and apologise to their parents. (I was horrified at the thought of two children, less than ten years old, wandering in that desolate and dangerous area by themselves, but as we were to discover, their parents had little alternative.)
The children showed us the way to town (along the track, around the mountain) and mentioned that the town's spring equinox celebration would be held the next day. We accompanied them (and their goats), and as nightfall approached we came into view of Florn.
I have to say, it was not one of the most attractive towns I've visited. The terrain was very steep here, and the town was squeezed into a small flattish space with a cliff on one side and a chasm on the other. Between where we stood and the town gates, the path dipped into a hollow; a low sort of mist filled the town, and rolled down the path to a pool at the bottom of the hollow. The pool itself was rather swampy, and as we approached we could see the locals were cutting peat from it; there being no trees in the area, this was about all they had for their fires.
Thonk warned us that there was something unwholesome in the place; a strange symbol was carved into a rock standing over the pool, and there was another in the town wall near the gate. (We would later discover a third, inside the village.)
The guards at the gate told us that for the town's protection, we must bathe in the pool before entering. We were rather reluctant, but there seemed little alternative (other than several days more trekking across the mountain), so in the end I went down to test the waters; when nothing emerged to eat me, the others did the same, and the guards waved us in.
The town was quite small, and on entering we discovered that only about half the buildings within were still occupied; the rest looked to have been abandoned, some recently, some long ago. We met the children's parents and made our apologies, and bought a goat to donate to the spring equinox festivities the next day.
After this, we were introduced to the town priest, who told us (rather cryptically) about the history of the village. It seemed Florn had been here a very long time, and during the great cataclysm of several hundred years ago it had been spared by the good graces of a being he called the Guardian.
He showed us a platform, elevated about thirty feet above the town and built out over the chasm, and this is where the third of the symbols I mentioned was carved. He told us that twice a year, at the equinoxes, a few of the townsfolk would be selected for a great honour; they would be decorated with jewellery and stand on the platform as night fell. Usually, that was it, but once in a long time the Guardian would honour the village by sending one of her children, who would select one of the chosen few and take them away to serve the Guardian.
By this stage, of course you will have realised that there was something very wrong here. I, however, did not, and nor did most of my companions; it seemed to us like an excellent arrangement, beneficial to the village, and we looked forwards to watching the ceremony the next day.
We slept in one of the abandoned houses overnight; we built a fire, with peat bought from one of the locals, and we saw that as it burned, it produced more of the white mist that pervaded the town; again, I thought less of this at the time than I ought.
The next day, the townsfolk celebrated the equinox, but truth be told it wasn't much of a celebration; with our donation, it totalled two goats, a few chickens, and little else. The priest told us a long and elaborate story about the Guardian, which revealed very little by way of specifics, and announced that three would be blessed: two from two families of the village, one adult, one child (these families showed a mixture of pride and dread) and one of the 'strangers'; initially it seemed it would be Osh, but when the priest mentioned that the Chosen Ones get to keep their regalia, Norton volunteered himself.
As the hour of sunset approached, I began feeling more and more uneasy, and I was not the only one. As if through a haze, I started to realise that I had not been thinking clearly, and I started to distrust the mist that pervaded the village. Ilde had been thinking along the same lines, and as the villagers thronged to the platform, we started to make our way through the town, sneaking into the houses and dousing the fires.
Then we returned to the square. Norton and the two other Chosen stood on the platform, with the priest; the rest of our companions stood close by. The fog was beginning to lift - both mentally and physically - and we were starting to prepare for trouble when we saw a light in the sky, coming from atop the mountain.
Yes, it was a dragon. Not nearly as big as some of those I've heard tales about - this one was only a little bigger than a horse - but still more than big enough, and its scales glinted red in the setting sun.
It was still quite some way off, so we started trying to get the villagers out of the way. This proved to be difficult; many of them were eager to see the 'Child' appear, and the two Chosen in particular were reluctant to relinquish the 'honour' that awaited them. I scaled the stairway to the platform and grabbed hold of the adult of the two, dragging him downstairs, while one of the guards - uncle to the child on the platform - seemed to have come around to our way of thinking, and started downwards, sword in one hand, child in the other.
This is where a double tragedy struck. By the time I had pulled my unwilling protege halfway down the stairs, the dragon was almost upon us; I thought he should be able to look after himself from there, and let him go so I could bring my crossbow to bear on the beast.
Unfortunately, the steps were still slick from the mist that had only just started to fade, and as the fellow tried to scramble back up to the platform, he slipped and fell off the edge; it was not a long fall, but he landed on his head, on stone, and there was nothing to be done for him. Almost at the same time, the guard who was coming down the stairs with his nephew also fell over the edge; he managed to protect the child, but at the cost of his own life, landing on his sword. That was perhaps bad fortune, but I feel I could perhaps have prevented the other one; should I have dragged him all the way to the bottom, or choked him into unconsciousness to protect him from himself? At the time I was in a hurry to fight off the dragon, and perhaps I placed that above the need to protect the townsfolk; I hope next time I can find better judgement.
As it happened, I achieved very little in the fight that followed; I'll tell you now that I shot the dragon twice, one bolt glancing off its scales and the other barely penetrating - I'm not sure it even noticed - and that was about all I managed. The glory went to the others; as the dragon flew in and let loose with a fiery burst that scorched those on the platform (by now Thonk and Osh had made their way up, as had Ilde) our magicians paid it back in kind. Norton hit it with a corrosive missile, but Bimp had the greater success - she hit it with a burst of light that blinded it, and it crashed into the platform in the middle of our muscle.
Osh was in the most perilous position of all, caught between the dragon and the chasm; he proceeded to lay into it with his axe, but was almost swept off the edge by a powerful blow of its tail, saved only by Ilde's nature-magic that sent tendrils of moss (I think) to grasp him and hold him firm.
Realising that it was surrounded, the dragon attempted to flee, but too late; between them, Thonk, Osh, and Ilde butchered the creature with their heavy weapons. And just in time, too - the platform was beginning to crack under the weight of so many heavy folk (and a dragon) thrashing around, and had things gone much longer I daresay it would have collapsed into the chasm.
With the dragon slain, Bimp attended to the injured as I reasoned with the townsfolk. The priest was appalled, telling them that they had offended the Guardian, and I think he truly believed in the righteousness of his faith... but with the mist clearing, the townsfolk were starting to understand the nature of the arrangement, whereby their money went to purchasing ornate regalia and their kin went to a dragon's belly, and some magic - stored perhaps in the pool, and carried through the village by the peat-fog and back to the pool again - kept them docile. We persuaded them that they could do far better by taking the remainder of the regalia and leaving the mountain, in favour of somewhere more fertile.
Indeed, it seemed to us that it might be a very prudent move. It had not escaped our notice that the dragon was barely more than a hatchling (although still a considerable menace!), and that implied at the very least a mother, and quite likely a breeding pair, and perhaps a grandmother to boot... so we urged the villagers to collect their belongings and be ready to leave the town at first light. They did not seem too bothered by the thought; the town had been gradually dwindling for some time now (not from the dragon's infrequent visits, so much as from its poverty and the barren surroundings), and as we rested they began to pack.
During the night, we heard a scream and a tremendous crash; when we investigated, the platform had finally fallen into the chasm, and the priest was nowhere to be found. Poor fellow, I think the loss of his beliefs and his status in the town was too much to bear; I had tried to comfort him, steering his dragonstruck soul to the worship of Bahamut, but it seems I was unable to shift him.
There being nothing more we could do there, we left the town as day dawned, firing the buildings to ensure no other passers-by fell victim to its enchantments. Although we glanced nervously and often at the sky behind us, our journey to the next town downhill was safe and uneventful; here the villagers took stock of what they had brought, and began to disperse towards the other townships in the region, looking to make a fresh start.
And that, my dear brother, brings me up to the present. I hope you and all our family are well, and I promise to write again soon!
Your loving sister - Imbezi
BIMP: Are they kobolds?
GM: No, they're children.
BIMP: Could we mistake them for kobolds?
UNKNOWN: Take that thing off his neck... no, not his head.