More adventures of my current gaming group, floundering cheerfully and violently through Icewind Dale…
The triumphant return to Bryn Shander was a bit less triumphant in the end, Jeoff felt. They had Testikles out front of their little caravan, pathfinding through the snow on his huge gods-damned pig – but as the snow got heavier, Jeoff began to suspect that the little oaf had perhaps lost his way.
And what was with all the snow, anyhow? The temperatures hereabouts were universally and eternally in the Death To All Brass Monkeys range. Jeoff’s own brass monkey had shrunk to the point where he practically had to set his smallclothes a light just so as he could take a piss without dribbling down his legs. It shouldn’t be possible for snow to fall. Snow happened in the narrow temperature range close to freezing. If you got much below that, everything turned cold and clear and sharp, like ice.
It was much, much below freezing. And they had snow. Buckets of it.
Idly, Jeoff wondered if Testikles suffered from cryogenic microgonadism like everyone else. Certainly, he’d seen Testikles “war horn” often enough by now, and there seemed to be no particularly noticeable shrinkage of the organ in question. But who knew what size Testikles was when the temperatures were more clement? Jeoff shuddered. What if the damned thing got even bigger?
It didn’t bear thinking about. Luckily, something else came up.
“Has anybody seen Iledove?” said Alea. “She was at the back of the line. Now I can’t see her any more.”
“Fuck,” said Milo. “Hey Testikles. Slow up. We’ve lost Iledove.”
“There are others,” said Testikles, pointing back and across. “Perhaps they have seen Iledove.”
Jeoff took a look at the ‘others’. It was hard to tell in the snow, but there were maybe half a dozen. What with the universal fashion for wearing furs and heavy garments, it took quite a bit of peering before he saw that the newcomers weren’t human. They weren’t even elves or dwarves or, gods forbid, goddam halflings. No, they were sort of hyena-headed, furry-faced… people. And they looked kind of nervous.
“Are you lost?” said Jeoff.
“Uh,” said one of the things. It looked around at the others, but they all sort of shuffled away from it. “Yeah,” it said at last. It’s weird, growly voice and the persistent wind made it kind of hard to understand, but clearly it could handle the basic Common Talk. “Us… lost. Just out… uuhhh.” It scratched behind one ear, then raised a paw-like hand helplessly.
“Hunting!” put in one of the others helpfully.
“Yeah! Hunting,” said the first. “Not bandits attacking travellers or nothing. No. Just… hunting. Got lost!”
There were half a dozen or so. Iledove was… wherever the fuck she was. But Jeoff was pretty sure he could handle this bunch on his own if he had to. They didn’t look like much of a threat, the way they kept nervously glancing back and forth, their ears twitching like anxious puppies.
“Think we should kill ‘em?” said Milo quietly. But Testikles pushed forward, and made the question moot.
“You are lost,” said the disturbingly muscular little oaf. (And what with having recently jumped into a large fire to wrestle something undead, he was also disturbingly singed and largely hairless.) “We are lost. The snows are heavy. We could be enemies, but the snow hates us both. My people know the custom of Road-Truce. Do yours?”
The leader – or spokesthing, or whatever – of the hyena-heads nodded enthusiastically. “We don’t kill each other now? Just we… shelter until storm gone, then go different ways?”
“Aye,” said Testikles.
“Nobody kills nobody?” The hyena-guy was pathetically enthusiastic, and so were his anxious-looking comrades. If they had tails under all those warm winter furs, Jeoff was certain they were all wagging furiously right now. “This is good! We agree! Yes!”
“Peace between us on the road,” said Testikles, folding his massive arms.
That, of course, was the moment when Iledove sneaked up behind one of the hyena-heads and stuck him through the guts with her sword. “Vile creatures!” she screamed. “Die for Righteousness!”
Or something like that. Milo and Jeoff looked at Testikles. He shook his head. “Road-Truce,” he said. “My word is given.” He and the pig turned away.
“Iledove!” shouted Alea, firing arrows at random in the general direction of the hyena-heads. Jeoff ducked, just on principle.
“Truth! Justice!” shouted Iledove as the sad, confused-looking hyena-head looked down at the sword protruding from its guts, bloody and steaming.
“Gworp,” it said. Then blood poured from its open mouth, and it slumped to the ground. Iledove put her boot on its back and shoved it clear of her sword.
“Death to Evil!” she cried, waving her bloodied weapon about heroically. The hyena-heads recoiled. “Perish, miscreants!”
Jeoff and Milo looked at each other, and shrugged. “I’m not hanging around, listening to this rubbish all day,” said Jeoff. He reached within, and summoned up the lightning. “Stand clear!” he shouted, and let the power flow through his hands.
The lightning spell was good. A big improvement over his lesser flame stuff. He had reasonable control over where it flowed, and he managed to toast three of the hyena-heads that had the misfortune to stand in a line. The other two went down to Milo and Iledove, and then it was done.
Snow swirled. Dark blood stained the tundra. Testikles and his pig came over and looked at the carnage. The halfling gave Iledove a look. “They were no threat,” he said. “They called for Road-Truce.”
“They were evil!” said Iledove, tossing her hair back in the wind and raising her sword. “I am a Paladin of the Light! I slay evil!”
“By sneaking up and stabbing weaklings in the back,” said Testikles. He poked at the gutted hyena-head with his foot. Even in death, the creature still looked surprised and frightened. “It is good I am only a barbarian. I think I am too stupid to know how to be good and honourable like you civilised folk.” He turned on his heel, and led his pig away. Milo pounced on the corpse and rifled its pockets.
“Three coppers?” said Milo. “Cheap-ass fuckers!” Jeoff noticed he pocketed the coins anyway.
“They were evil!” Iledove called after the little barbarian, but if he heard, Testikles didn’t respond.
And didn’t that just make for a comfortable fifteen-hour session while they waited for the snows to clear? Everybody else tucked up inside the wagon, getting out of the cold. Testikles just grunted and said he’d keep watch.
“They were definitely evil,” said Alea to Iledove. “Anyway, you couldn’t possibly have known about the truce. You were too far away. You did the right thing.”
Once the snows cleared, they found the Bryn Shander track with ease. They dropped the wagon and the bears at the stable as usual, and for a wonder, Testikles didn’t have to bring out his axe to ‘encourage’ the stablemaster. Maybe that last death threat had finally turned the trick.
They returned to the Northlook Tavern. Jeoff wanted a warm drink. Milo wanted… well, no doubt he wanted free drinks and blowjobs, but Jeoff didn’t really care. Meanwhile, Alea and Iledove wanted words with Lihill Trollbane in regard to the death of… that guy. Sephek. Whatever his name was. The undead one who’d shanked Jeoff near to death in the tavern in Dougan’s Hole.
But of course, yet again Testikles had a surprise for them. As soon as they got into the Northlook, he trotted across the room, climbed up the wall, and stuck a muscular arm into the mouth of the singing fish on the wall. The fish flapped and made glumph glumph noises, and Scramasax the Innkeeper bellowed: “Hey! Get off my magic fish!”
“There is a ring in here,” said Testikles, weirdly enough. “I saw it last time. I looked for how the fish could sing, and there was a ring.”
“You wot?” said Scramasax. “A fucking ring?”
“Yes,” said Testikles, withdrawing his arm from the fish’s gullet. The fish snapped at him, but Testikles had the ridiculous reflexes that seemed to go with his barbarian warrior schtick, and the fish got a mouthful of air. Maybe by way of revenge, it started its stupid song again. Testikles grunted, and dropped to the floor. He opened his hand, and showed a large, golden signet ring. “You see?”
“Give me that,” snapped Milo, reaching for the ring but he had no more luck than the fish. Testikles fingers curled over the ring, and Milo snatched at the empty air instead.
“I give the ring to its owner,” said Testikles. “Here,” he said, tossing the ring to Scramasax, who caught it neatly, and looked it over.
The innkeeper’s rough face softened into something like a smile. “Really?” he said. “Would you like a drink? On the house!”
Testikles frowned. “I would like a drink, yes. But I do not want to climb the house. Could I have my drink on the bar?”
“Uhhh,” said Scramasax, and Jeoff felt a wave of sympathy for the older man. “Yes. Yes of course. One drink. On top of the bar. For free.”
“Thank you,” said Testikles.
Of course then Milo had to have the ring, and there was yet another round of chiselling, bartering, and generally hectoring abuse while the halfling raged about the price he had to pay. Jeoff left him to it, and paid attention to Alea and Iledove, who were interrogating the old dwarven bounty hunter who’d set them on Sephek in the first place. Apparently they had some doubts as to Lihill Trollbane’s bona fides, but after some robust questioning, it seemed that Iledove’s Magic Paladin Senses decided that Lihill was a good guy after all. Truth be told, Jeoff really didn’t care. What was important was that she paid up.
There was a moment when that looked a little difficult. “So Sephek was undead?” she said. “I guess you didn’t really kill him after all, did you? So maybe I don’t need to pay?”
That didn’t go over at all well with Testikles, who pushed his way into the negotiation. “See my bald head?” he said. “Last we met, I had much hair. Now I have no hair. I wrestled your Sephek into a fireplace when I saw he did not like burning. The fireplace was very hot.” His voice dropped to a rumbling growl – most disconcerting from someone who stood about the height of a ten-year-old kid. “You should pay us what you promised,” Testikles said.
Maybe it was the flat, dead look in his eyes. Or maybe it was the way everyone else in the group stopped what they were doing and let their hands drop to their weapons. Whatever it was, it made an impression on the dwarven bounty-hunter. “Joke!” she said, throwing up her hands. “I made a joke! See! Undead? Not dead? Already dead!” Nobody’s expression changed. Lihill Trollbane fumbled at her belt and brought out a hefty leather sack that clinked nicely. “It’s there,” she said. “Count it if you want.”
Testikles turned away. But Milo counted it. All of it. Twice.
After that, the tavern turned to the business of celebrating their heroic return. There was money to be spent, booze to be drunk, songs to be roared out, and clumsy, drunken dances to be performed by half-tanked adventurer-types, in between bouts of puking into the snows outside. Testikles and Milo got into some sort of bizarro conversation with a drunken slob who wanted to leave Icewind forever, but wanted ‘one more drink’. Milo took all his coins and bought him a drink, whereupon the drunk launched into a complicated, unlikely story about the Arcane Brotherhood and human sacrifices and villainy of all sorts over at Easthaven.
Jeoff sighed. He knew what was coming next.
And so it was that late the next day, much chastened for drink, they rolled into Easthaven – a nasty-looking place on the side of yet another gods-forgotten frozen lake. A big lake. A lake big enough to have boats, and yes, that meant Testikles had to see the boats. He just had to. He loved boats. Didn’t Jeoff love boats? Everybody loved boats. They should go see the boats.
They went to the lakeshore. There was a sizable sort of ferryboat frozen in place by one of the docks. Drunken snores came from the front end – what boat people called “The Bow”.
Testikles didn’t care. He clapped his hands in glee, shouting, “Boat! Boat!”, and jumped aboard. Predictably, not too much later the little oaf was involved in conversation with a very confused Tiefling named Scython, who looked like he was simultaneously recovering from a hangover, and preparing for the next.
“But why are you on my boat?” said Scython. “This is… it’s like my house! I live here.”
“Boats are wonderful,” said Testikles. “A house that floats! It is good!”
“Would be if it wasn’t fuckin’ frozen,” said Scython. “Fuckin’ fat lot of good a frozen ferryboat does, eh?”
“But… you could break it from the ice,” said Testikles. “And you could put runners on it, like our wagon. And then you could sail on the ice!”
Scython blanched. Then he paused, and scratched at the base of one of his horns. “You know… actually… That could work. But how would I get the boat out?”
“You could pay us to do it,” said Milo, and that was when Jeoff knew they were fucked. He sighed.
“Is there a tavern?” said Jeoff. “If Milo is negotiating, I want to be somewhere with drink.”
The tavern was called The Wet Trout. The owner-operator was some sort of… dragonish person named Nymitra. She was big and muscular, and the pallor of her skin suggested her draconic ancestry was towards the cold-tolerant end of things. Jeoff was okay with that. What consenting adults got up to in the privacy of their own domiciles was none of his business. But of course, Testikles couldn’t leave well enough alone. He had to ask a bunch of stupid questions.
“How did you get born?” said the halfling. “Dragons are big and human people are not big. Did the dragon put its thing in your mum? How did that happen? Or maybe your mum was a dragon and your dad put his thing in her? Do you have scales all over? Were you born or did you come from an egg?”
The really annoying thing about Testikles and his questions, Jeoff felt, was that the halfling barbarian was so completely genuine and childlike about the whole process that people often forgot to get angry with him. Even now, scorched and fire-bald, he exuded such total earnestness that Nymitra blinked, thought for a moment – and then just answered.
“An egg,” she said. “There was an egg.”
Jeoff could have told her that wouldn’t help. “That is amazing,” said Testikles. “Did you keep the shell? I would have kept my shell if I’d come from an egg. I would keep it, and I would show it to people and say ‘This is my eggshell’ and I would let them look at it. Can I look at your eggshell?”
“I don’t… I mean…” Nymitra floundered. Fortunately, Testikles had the attention span of a mayfly hatched in a cup of very, very strong coffee.
“Can my pig come in?” he said. “It is very cold outside. He is a good pig and he never does bad things when he comes inside.”
“He won’t shit on the floor?” said Nymitra. Testikles shook his head emphatically. “All right then,” she said. “I don’t see why not.”
Milo groaned loudly. “That fuckin’ pig!” he said. “One of these days…” A crafty look came over his face as Skrote the Pig trotted into the bar – to the general disinterest of the locals who were mostly concerned with getting outside as much booze as they could afford. Milo slipped off to one side, and crouched down, fiddling with his pants. Jeoff groaned. The little idiot was going to take a dump and try to blame it on the pig!
Luckily, Nymitra was an observant sort of innkeeper. She pointed at Milo, and then jerked her thumb back over her shoulder. “Jakes is out back,” she said. “Don’t be shitting on my floor like a fool.”
Milo grumbled, but once again, Testikles took up the slack. “Doesn’t the poo freeze out there?” he said. “It won’t seep into the ground or rot or anything in this cold, will it? So you dig a big hole, but then it fills up with a poo-berg?”
Nymitra grimaced. You could see she wanted to be almost anywhere else at that moment. But Testikles was relentless. “I guess somebody comes and takes the poo-berg away when its too big. That must be really difficult.” He looked at Jeoff. “Do you think you could levitate a whole poo-berg?”
“No,” said Jeoff. “Never.” He noticed there was a table with some gambling going on, and grabbed Milo by the ear. “Look,” he said. “Money.”
Milo’s eyes got really big, and he started drooling. Jeoff dragged him off to the gambling tables while Alea and Nymitra and Testikles got stuck into a very serious conversation about the freezing point of poo, and what happened if there was too much corn…
One very serious sum of money later, Milo was simmering with barely-suppressed rage. “Some fuckin’ gambler you are,” he snapped at Jeoff. “That was a lot of money!”
“I can afford it,” said Jeoff.
“I can’t,” said Milo – who, famously, would pinch a copper penny until the King’s image screamed in pain. “I needed that money.”
“Shouldn’t have gambled it, then,” said Jeoff.
“Get fucked,” said Milo. “I’m gonna sneak back here at night and…” he broke off, realizing that quite a number of people were watching him closely. “…and get more drinks,” he finished. “Yeah. That’s what I’m gonna do.”
“Well, we’re going with Scython,” said Alea. “There are no rooms here, but there’s a place called The White Lady that takes boarders.”
“Are there drinks?” said Milo sourly. “There better be drinks.”
There were drinks, but they were shitty. The White Lady fancied itself an upper-crust sort of place. They had bottles of annoying sweet wine like sherry and port, but they didn’t have ale or mead or even brutal dwarven spirits. You could get a room there, but if you had a meal you had to eat with the right cutlery and stick your pinky finger out when you drank filthy dishwater tea. Testikles took one look and decided to take a meal out to Skrote the Pig. Milo was so shitted off with the whole thing that he grabbed his fishing gear and disappeared out onto the ice of the lake.
Which meant he missed the séance, of course.
“The White Lady is named for a ghost who haunts this town,” said Rinaldo. He was a skinny little halfling with a dangerously elegant moustache who dressed in colourful silks and satins. He claimed to be a bard, though Jeoff didn’t see or hear him sing anything. “There was a husband who drowned, and a treasure chest,” Rinaldo said. “If we can summon her spirit, we can ask about the treasure.”
“You do this a lot?” said Iledove, her face hard. “Summoning spirits of the dead?”
“Eh?” Rinaldo didn’t seem too upset. “Sure? Why not? There’s little enough else to do around here, what with this accursed cold. Summon up the White Lady. Ask a few questions. Have a bit of fun. What’s to lose?”
“Ooh! Summon the dead! Summon the dead!” Testikles – somehow he’d come back in – bounced up and down, clapping with delight.
And so they did it. The whole thing. Sitting around the table, holding hands, that fool Rinaldo intoning a summons. It was actually pretty embarrassing. Jeoff was a sorceror – a genuine professional when it came to magic – and whatever random shit Rinaldo was doing with all the table-knocking and candle-lighting, it didn’t look like real magic at all.
Oddly, though, weird shit happened. First all the candles went out, and Jeoff didn’t notice anybody conjuring any zephyrs or wind gusts. Then it got super-cold in the room, and the windows fogged over.
“Look,” said Testikles. “There is writing stuff on the windows!” Jeoff didn’t look, though, because Testikles said the same thing about the slug trails left on Milo’s face when he got drunk and fell asleep in the gutter. Testikles not only couldn’t read, but he thought writing was pretty much the same as magic. Writing stuff on the windows undoubtedly meant the complex patterns made by frost on glass. Or maybe just dead bugs.
And then Alea spoke up. “Invisible dwarves?” she said. “Really?”
All right. Jeoff looked. And yes, there it was, on the window. Spidery words scrawled in the condensation, dark as the outside against the sickly grey-white of the damp glass. INVISIBLE DWARVES.
It was all he could do to hang onto the hands on either side of him. What he really wanted to do was facepalm so hard that he knocked himself out of all this bullshit. What the actual fuck? What kind of self-respecting ghost hung around second-rate boarding houses, waiting for drunk halflings to start a séance so they could scrawl idiocy on the windows in capital letters? Not even any punctuation? How difficult was it to use real sentences, anyhow?
“Look,” said Testikles. “There’s more!”
And there was. In answer to a string of dingbat questions, the scrawl on the window let on that there were DEVIL CULT WORSHIPPERS IN THE CASTLE AT CAER DINEVAL. It also insisted that GREY-SKINNED DWARVES WALK THE STREETS INVISIBLY WITH EVIL INTENT, and claimed that THEY HIDE IN THE FROZEN FERRY.
Also, it broke a windowpane.
Early the next morning, they approached the frozen ferry with a certain degree of disbelief. Well. Except for Testikles, of course. For Testikles, the frosty-window testimony of a completely invisible and probably deranged ghost was the very font of truth itself. Even as Jeoff and the others were formulating a plan of action based on the faint possibility that there really were evil invisible grey-skinned dwarves in the boat, Testikles just marched right on up the dock, and onto the ferry. He walked straight past Scython, passed out drunk on the deck, and he shouted “I can see you, invisible dwarves!” and threw open the door to the cabin.
There was nothing inside. And that really should have been that, except there was this creaking, clunking noise. And then Milo charged up carrying a really big fucking fish he’d caught in an all-night vigil on the ice, and before things could go really pear-shaped Jeoff tossed a handful of super-fine bone dust into the still air of the empty cabin on the ferry…
… and fuck. It wasn’t empty. The fucking bone dust settled on something that looked very much like a fucking invisible dwarf. Milo slipped past Jeoff and smacked fuck out of the thing with his fish, whereupon it turned visible and yes, it had blue-grey skin. It grabbed a map off the little table and tried to run, but Testikles walloped it with his axe. It paused, staggered, and in the blink of an eye, it vanished.
Only it didn’t really vanish. Probably that would have been a better idea. In actual fact, it must have used some sort of really stupid magic spell to shrink itself down to roughly the size of a small kitten, and it was standing on the little table next to a wine goblet. Maybe it figured on trying to escape through a crack, or something – but it had reckoned without Testikles ridiculous barbarian reflexes. The brutally over-muscled halfing shot out a hand, scooped the miniaturized dwarf off the table, and then just… just fucking grabbed its head with his other hand and twisted it clean off in one swift move.
There was a surprising amount of blood. A few minutes later, when the miniaturizing spell wore off, there was even more blood. But for some reason, the spell never wore off the thing’s head. Testikles was pleased by that. “I am going to put a chain through it,” he said, holding up the ghastly little thing. You could still see the expression of utter terror on its itty-bitty little dwarven face. “I will wear it as a necklace,” Testikles announced. “Everyone will be amazed!”
Luckily, the spell did wear off of the map the little bastard had grabbed up. Jeoff looked it over. It showed the entire Icewind region, and marked on the map in dwarvish were –
“Duergar outposts,” said Jeoff, pointing to the map. “Explains a lot. They’re nasty little inbred dwarven fucks who mostly stay deep underground. And here’s a reference to one called Sunblight. That’s a bit of a giveaway, seeing as how they’ve got this ridiculous permanent cold curse thing going on. I think we’re going to have to look in on these fuckers. Seems to me they might even be interested in the magic dwarf belt we came here to recover.”
“What belt?” said Milo. He held up his fish. “Did you see my fish?”
“The belt we were paid to recover,” said Alea patiently. “Remember? The dwarf foreman? Back in Phandalin?”
“Nup,” said Milo. “Remembering shit is your job.”
“Hey, everybody,” said Testikles from somewhere nearby. “Look what I found in the snow, leading away from the ferry!” He pointed, and everybody looked. “Footprints,” announced the little oaf. “Dwarf footprints.”
“Cool,” said Milo. “Let’s find them and fuck them up!”