When last I wrote to you, we had just arrived in the town of Haut-Chevre, on the southern side of the mountain, in the company of around eighty refugees from the north.
We took the opportunity to take stock of the valuables we had collected in our travels and share them out among the six of us. I had no particular use for my share – as long as I have something to eat and somewhere to sleep, I shall be content – and being surrounded by people who had just been uprooted from their old lives, I felt they would reap more benefit from it than I ever might, so I distributed it accordingly.
While we were there, the mayor of the town asked us for our assistance. The region is not a very prosperous one, and it has been more than usually dry of late; the townsfolk have been driving their goats further afield in order to find sufficient grass, and lately several had gone missing. First a girl and her goats, then the girl's parents; when two town guards sent to investigate had not returned, the mayor realised something serious was afoot.
Having lost our companion Alice, we were looking to buy a mule; none of the villagers had one for sale, but one offered to lend us his because we were prepared to do the village a service. We considered it, and decided that – given our track record – we could not in good conscience take the mule when we might very well be unable to return it in one piece. So we set off on foot, accompanied by a farmer named Tertius; his farm lay uphill on the way to where the others had disappeared, so he had agreed to escort us part of the way and direct us from there.
Tertius had offered to provide us with lunch, but as we drew near his farmhouse we began to worry. He told us he lived with his father, wife, and daughter, but none of them were visible as we approached, and the goats had not been milked since morning. When Tertius looked over them more carefully, he realised they were missing a goat and two kids.
Having found nothing in the house, we began to search the farmyard. The soil was curiously churned up, and Ilde told us that giant burrowing insect-creatures have been known to attack farmers. She told Lightning to search for the missing farmers, and having sniffed at their bedding, he followed the scent to one of the churned patches of soil; looking at it closely, we could make out what seemed to be a partly-collapsed tunnel.
By this stage we had come to suspect the worst. We were about to try digging out the tunnel with a shovel, when we heard a yell from behind us – Norton, who had been standing some way back from the group, had been grabbed by a creature emerging from the earth. It looked very much like the 'ankhegs' of Ilde's tales, something like an earwig the size of a pony.
Having grabbed Norton, it began to pull him underground. I ducked into the tunnel and scrambled after it, risking a shot (which hit neither Norton nor the ankheg), with Bimp following after me. She blasted it with powerful magic, and as I caught up with it it relinquished its hold on Norton; I managed to kick it hard in one of the damaged spots, bursting something important, and as it collapsed writhing I picked him up. He was unconscious, badly hurt, but I managed to stop the bleeding; Bimp's healing magic soon set him back on his feet.
We emerged from the tunnel to find Thonk injured, and the farmer dead. In our absence, two more ankhegs had attacked, one biting the farmer in two before Osh could kill it, and the other attacking Thonk; fortunately that one, at least, was hacked to bits before it could do too much harm. Cutting them open, we found grisly evidence of what had happened to Tertius' family. While the remains were barely recognisable, we confirmed that there were two adults and a child, besides Tertius himself. Unwilling to bury them in the earth for obvious reasons, we gathered them on rocky ground and covered them with stones.
I thought that might be an end to it, but the others told us that while we were rescuing Norton, and before Tertius was killed by the ankheg, he had told them that the missing people had been much further along the way, another half-day's walk. We were uncertain whether the ankhegs had killed them before moving down the mountain, or whether something else might be to blame; either way, we thought it might be wise to investigate. But some of us were rather sore and weary by that point, so we returned to the village to let them know what had happened, and to find Tertius' next of kin.
We broke the news to Tertius' elder brother, and the next day we set off up the mountain again. We escorted the brother and his family to the farmhouse, and then continued along the road. As we did, we noticed clouds beginning to gather; good news for the farmers, at least.
As we travelled beyond Tertius' farm, the country grew steadily rockier, with less and less plants. Ilde told us that ankhegs usually subsist on vegetation, so it seemed unlikely country for them. Further up the road, our surroundings became ominously silent, with no birds singing and no animals to be seen.
Then, at last, we did see a bird standing in the road, up ahead of us. My first impression was of a very dilapidated rooster with a nasty look in its eye, and then as it flew towards us I saw a long lizard-like tail. At the same moment, two more of the creatures flew at us from either side of the road, and Ilde yelled out “Cockatrice!”
I had never seen a cockatrice in the flesh before, but I'd heard about them from other travellers. They look comical, in a repulsive sort of way, but they're not to be trifled with; their touch can turn a man to lifeless stone. Fortunately for us, they are hardly graceful flyers – better than the roosters they resemble, but not by much – and my companions were quick to react. Osh chopped one in half with an axe, Bimp pulverised another with her magic, and the third – disconcerted by our attacks – crashed into the ground just in front of Thonk and his axe. Needless to say, it didn't get another chance.
I pushed the unwholesome remains off the road with my staff, and Bimp sealed them into rock. As we looked around, we saw several curious rocks that were shaped suspiciously like birds and rabbits. Exploring the area, we soon found the mouth of a cave, and standing before it the statue of a young girl and two goats.
Well, it wouldn't be much of a tale if we'd turned around and gone home, would it? Bimp used magic to scry a little way into the cavern; while she found a fork in the tunnel and heard ominous scraping noises, she saw nothing more, so I offered to go in and scout. (I don't mind admitting that I was a little relieved when Bimp cast another spell to render me invisible.)
I tiptoed in, down the left-hand fork, and found two more statues – missing townsfolk, standing as if trying to defend themselves from something about ankle-height. Past them the cave opened up a little, and there were two more cockatrices pecking at the petrified remains of a goat.
I pulled back – the invisibility spell was beginning to wear off - and told the others what I'd seen. We agreed that I would go back in, with Norton following behind me, and I'd direct his firepower. That part of the plan worked pretty well: Norton caught the two cockatrices in a blast of fire, I winged one with a crossbow bolt, and Norton finished one of them off with another spell, as we pulled back towards the cave mouth.
That was when things got a little bit nastier. From the other branch of the fork came a grotesque creature, something like a big squat lizard with too many legs (eight, as it turned out, though I didn't stop to count them at the time). It stared at me, and as I caught its eye for a moment I could feel a horrible stiffness beginning to come over me... with some effort I broke away and ran, yelling a warning to my companions.
From there things were a bit chaotic, and I think it was mostly due to luck that none of us shared the fate of the townsfolk. The cockatrice Norton and I had mauled came flapping out after us, followed by two of the lizard-things – basilisks, Ilde calls them. I got a glancing hit on one of the basilisks with my crossbow, then Thonk and Osh waded in to do what they do best. Norton finished off the cockatrice and one of the basilisks with a blast of fire, and I managed to fire between Osh and Thonk to nail the other basilisk between the eyes. Several of the others had encountered the same unpleasant feeling as myself when they glimpsed the basilisks' eyes, and none of us were under any illusions as to the menace they posed; it was getting late, and we decided to move well away from the cave for a night's rest before pushing our luck further, especially since we could still hear faint scraping noises deeper inside.
The night was wet, and uneventful except for an earthquake during my watch – not the kind where we fall into cracks in the ground and die, just the noisy rumbly type. In the morning we returned to the cave and I went in to scout again, this time heading down the right-hand fork where the basilisks had appeared.
Soon the passage opened up, and around a corner I found two more basilisks tearing at the rotting corpse of what must have been an unlucky herdsman. I tiptoed away again, and had an idea: outside the cave, as the invisibility spell wore off, I used some chalk to draw two large 'eyes' on the back of the hood on my cloak.
As I was finishing this, I heard scraping from the cave; perhaps the basilisks had heard or scented me, perhaps they were just venturing outside. I ventured back into the cave, using a mirror to see where the basilisks were (I am not altogether sure whether this makes any difference – I still did my utmost to avoid looking at their eyes – but it can't hurt, can it?) There were two of them, one coming down each fork towards the junction; I stood at the junction until they were nearly upon me, relaying their whereabouts to my comrades, and then ran for the exit. I heard one of Norton's fireballs whoosh past my head and explode behind me, and as I emerged into the sunlight the others stood on either side of the entrance ready to fight.
Meanwhile, I stood in front of the opening, back to the basilisks, jumping around with my eyes closed and the hood pulled up. I am not certain, but I think it helped draw their attention away harmlessly from the real throats. Between them, Thonk, Osh, Norton, Ilde, and Bimp hacked and blasted the basilisks to bits – again, I think we were lucky to escape casualties – and once they were slain, we found no more of the horrible beasts in the cave. We did find the two missing guardsmen, also petrified; without a mule we were in no position to bring them back to town, so we moved the little girl inside the cave to get her out of the weather, and returned to Haut-Chevre to tell them what we had found and where they could retrieve their unfortunate kin. (Sadly, restoring stone to flesh is beyond Bimp and Norton's abilities, at least at present; I hope the villagers can find somebody who will do it for them.)
Well, that's all for now – it may be a little while before I get to write to you next. Much love as always (and happy birthday, if I don't write again before then!) - Imbezi
Bimp, attempting to be positive: “At least the whole family went down at once!
Osh: “I think someone with Strength 22 shouldn't try milking goats.”