CAUTION: CONTAINS GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF A SOCIOPATHIC HALFLING POWER-SHITTING ALL OVER A SHOP BECAUSE HE DOESN’T LIKE THE OWNER VERY MUCH.

(Yes. It’s another recap of a gaming session. I’m in formal isolation with Covid-19, and we had another gaming get-together courtesy of the Internet, and dear God one of the other players is absolutely the WORST…)

For a complete idiot, Testikles had a distressing habit of being extremely difficult to manipulate at times. If only someone else had picked up that fucking cauldron! Alea slurped the last of the magic stew from her mug and looked at the huge copper pot, still seething with delicious, chunky goodness that had mere minutes ago been nothing but melted snow. Water! And it didn’t even need a fire! Put the water in, a few minutes later, you’re scooping out damn’ fine hot stew. And wasn’t that an excellent thing in a place so cold that they had no choice but to let the sewage pile up in shitbergs and then carry it away to build shitmountains out of it?

“This stew is awesome,” she said to Testikles, giving the horrible little chunk of gristle some heavy-duty side-eye. “So good! We could just keep the cauldron in our caravan and we’d never have to worry about food again!”

“We don’t have to worry about food now,” said Testikles. “Milo catches so many of those big fish that he just lets them freeze so he can smash people with them. And I am Testikles Hag-Slayer of the Boar Tribe. I am skilled at finding food in hard places. We have no fear of starving here. But there are ten towns of hungry people here, and when they find out about our cauldron, they will want it. I do not think I can fight ten whole towns.” He finished up a bowl of stew, and scooped a generous bucketful for Skrote, his war-pig steed.

“But they won’t find out if we keep it hidden,” said Alea, more from habit than actual hope.

“It is a very big cauldron,” said Testikles. “It is hard to carry. There are only six of us,” he said after counting on his stubby fingers, including the pig as he always did. “And there are … uhhh… many of them. If only one of us is careless with the secret, there will be lots of trouble.” He glanced meaningfully towards little blond Milo Tealeaf, who appeared to be rubbing warm stew on his crotch and armpits. Alea blanched and looked away. She’d long since given up trying to understand what Milo did, or why. She cleared her throat.

“Well,” she said, “The party hasn’t agreed to sell the cauldron yet.”

“I did that already,” said Testikles. He pointed to a skinny, mangy looking man in daggy furs, slurping enthusiastically at a big platter of stew. “That’s Speaker Danneth. He will give us… many gems for the cauldron.”

“What’s he going to do with it?” shrilled Alea. “How d’you know he’s not just going to… going to set up a hot stew shop and make a ton of money by exploiting the starving masses?” That had been her exact plan, of course. Maybe not exploit exactly, or entirely, but… profit wasn’t evil, right?

“I tested him,” said Iledove shyly, holding up her mailed hand. “The Light revealed to me that his intentions are good. He will feed the poor and the wretched. It is good that the cauldron goes to him.” She had that look on her face, like she was half-asleep and someone was tickling her feet. Were all paladins so… annoyingly gooey about doing good deeds and shit? And seeing that Iledove really was so fucking gooey… what if she took it into her head that it would be an even better good deed to just give the cauldron away?

That was not a good thought. Alea coughed. “Oh,” she said. “Good intentions. Feeding the poor. Oh, well. That’s good then, isn’t it. Umm…” She hit Testikles with another dose of high-intensity side-eye but he kept on guzzling stew with his pig, tooth-grindingly oblivious to her ill-will. “How many gems is many?

“Many,” grunted Testikles. Which meant different things, depending on how much concentration he had to spare for calculations. Alea groaned.

“Seven gems, each of five hundred golden sovereigns value,” said Iledove. “It is a goodly sum.”

“Quite,” said Speaker Danneth of Easthaven town. His face looked as if he was sucking on a seriously nasty lemon. “So goodly it will take me two days to can cover it.” He tossed his now-empty platter to a mousy sort of woman who hovered at his side, and stood up. “The cauldron will have to remain here in the town hall, attended by our guards. I will deliver the gems as soon as I have called in certain debts which are owed to me, as Speaker.”

There was a half-moment of silence, and then the big room echoed to thunderous guffaws of laughter from Testikles. Alea opened her mouth to speak, but there really wasn’t room for a word to fit in edgewise.

Danneth glared at the muscular halfling. “What amuses you so?”

“You haven’t paid for our cauldron, but you think you will keep it,” Testikles chuckled. He looked at the two underfed guards by the door, uncomfortable in their badly-fitted armour. “I am Testikles Hag-Slayer. It will amuse me if you dare try this!”

The Easthaven Speaker’s lemon-sucking face twisted with some kind of mixture of surprise, outrage and irritation. Secretly, Alea kind of sympathised. Talking to Testikles did that to her, too. “But… you might flee with the cauldron!” he said. “Easthaven needs… This is… don’t you see? This is the miracle for which we have prayed.”

“And we’re going to sell it to you,” said Alea. “As soon as you meet the agreed price. But you’re not going to guard it. We are,” she said, with a quick glance at the others.

“But we have guards,” said Danneth. “And a stout cellar and a jail below this very hall.”

Milo farted noisily. “That for your guards,” he said, and dipped another mug of stew. “I’m gonna have to do the most colossal shit after this,” he muttered. Was he speaking to himself? Alea hoped he was.

“We’ll use your cellar or whatever,” Alea said. “You can put all the guards you like around the place, but our people are staying by the cauldron until the gems are in our hands.” She’d seen the local guards. Push came to shove, they weren’t going to put up much of a fight, regardless.

“This is most irregular,” huffed Danneth. “Most irregular!”

Most irregular,” said his mousy little shadow. She almost seemed to be taking it personally. “What about Captain Arlagath?” she said. “Have you consulted with her? How does she feel about these… outsiders doing the work of good Easthaven guards?”

“Captain Arlagath is the one who set these outsiders to find our missing fisherfolk in the first place,” said the guard captain as she swaggered up behind Danneth and the mousy woman. As the two turned, she continued. “Captain Arlagath knows they’re a shifty bunch,” she said, with a hard glare at Jeoff who ignored her in favour of another bowl of stew. “But they’re effective. And they got paid in advance for the missing fishermen. They didn’t have to come back. In fact, they didn’t even have to fulfil the contract. But they did it, and it sounds like there was a bucket o’ trouble in the doing.” Her eyes fell on little Testikles, and she nodded slowly as if acknowledging something. “So if these outsiders want to relieve good Easthaven guards of the task of watching over something so precious as this cauldron – why, Captain Arlagath here is all in favour.” She narrowed her ice-blue eyes and pinned the mousy woman with a glare.

Danneth shuffled his feet. “Well. I mean… if that’s your opinion?” He looked to Arlagath, but the crop-haired woman simply smiled, and dipped herself another share of hot stew. Danneth threw back his shoulders and lifted his chin, patchy beard and all. “Fine,” he said. “Prudence?”

The mousy woman nodded quickly.

“See that the rest of this stew gets distributed to those in need. We – that is, these good folk will take the cauldron below and maintain a watch until we can free up the funds to pay for this wonder.” He looked at the cauldron and shook his head in amazement. “To think: all this time it was only miles from here, in the caverns on the lakeshore. And the Hag… I wonder how many she claimed over the years?”

“She made stew with them,” said Milo. “It needed more salt.” Alea stomped on his foot, and he looked around. “What?” he said. “It’s true, isn’t it?” All at once, he seemed to notice the horrified expression on the faces of the locals looking on. “Well, I didn’t know they were in the stew when I tried it, did I?”

Alea ground her heel into Milo’s instep, but he slipped his foot from under hers with devilish strength. They should never have given him those infernal gauntlets! “Didn’t you have some shopping to do?” she said. “You and Iledove?” She shot the paladin a desperate glance over Milo’s head.

Iledove frowned, then nodded. “Ooh, yes,” she said. “I need to buy some things. Don’t you want to help, Milo?”

“No,” grunted the halfling. “I hate this fuckin’ place.”

“But don’t you want to annoy the shopkeepers, Milo?” cooed Alea. “What about that Farroukh?”

Milo’s eyebrows came together in a frown. “I don’t know any fuckin’ Farroukh.”

“At the Emporium,” said Iledove. “Remember? You kicked down his door.”

“Oh,” said Milo, comprehension dawning. “You mean that Poo-mab bastard!” He grinned. “Yeah, fuck. Let’s go mess with his head!”

***

Iledove and Milo took off. Jeoff and Testikles went below carrying the precious cauldron. There was a guardroom down there, near the cells – the sort of place where bored guardsmen played cards and told crude jokes while waiting for their shift to end. Alea did a quick check and found there were only two prisoners: an old fart in for drunkenness and public urination, and a moustachioed wanker awaiting judgement for tax evasion, of all things. He couldn’t be much good at it, she figured, or he’d be able to bribe his way out. But it didn’t matter. The point was, there was only the one stair leading down into the prison area, and nobody dangerous in the place. She was just about to go and investigate the rest of the town hall when Testikles called her back.

Alea stuck her head cautiously around the doorframe. “What?”

Jeoff was resting quietly in a corner, reading one of his books but Testikles was sitting on the upended cauldron, axe in hand. Skrote the Pig lay nearby. Alea felt a pang of pity for anybody stupid enough to act like a thief. “Send word to Nymitra of the Wet Trout,” Testikles said in that unnervingly growly voice. It just wasn’t right, coming from someone who looked like a singed, overmuscled child. “We will hire her biggest bronze cookpot for two days,” he continued.

Alea frowned. “Why would we want to do that? We’ve already got a cauldron.”

“Everyone knows that,” said Testikles placidly. “So when the thieves come, they will see Nymitra’s cookpot here, properly guarded. They will not look for another cauldron. Jeoff and I will hide the real one.” He glanced past Alea’s shoulder. “Hello, Iledove,” he said. “What are you carrying?”

The paladin, freshly returned from her shopping expedition, tossed a white bundle into the room. “Cloth,” she said. “I need little bits for a spell.”

“Can I put it over the cauldron?” said Testikles. “I will put it in the corner and use it as a seat. The thieves will never suspect.”

“Suit yourself,” said Iledove. “Just… don’t get blood on it. I need it to be white.”

Testikles nodded, and dragged the huge cauldron to the corner. Alea took one last look as he draped the cloth over it, and settled himself on top. He was right. Upside down, covered in cloth, it looked like a simple stool. Anyone coming to steal the cauldron would see the decoy…

Fuck. She hated it when Testikles was right.

***

Night fell. The decoy cauldron arrived. Various official guards took up positions on the ground floor, but down below it was all about Alea’s team. If… if that was the right descriptor. Anyway, there were enough of them. And Milo kept farting. Alea decided to investigate the rest of the town hall: scout the terrain, just to be sure.

And also to get away from Milo’s bowels.

There were four floors to the town hall. The ground floor had all the meeting space, and an atrium to the floor above. There was a remarkably ugly statue in the middle of the atrium.

“It’s a figurehead,” said Danneth. “From a boat.”

“I know what a figurehead is,” said Alea, staring in fascination at the thing. It was hideous.

“Only they say it’s haunted,” said Danneth, wringing his hands. “Demonic. I don’t know what to do with the damned thing!”

“Not my problem,” said Alea with a shudder. “What else is… wait. What’s that?” A flicker of motion caught her eye. Something seemed to flitter near the ceiling, amongst the shadows. It darted towards the door as she watched, and she gave chase – but it was too swift. Outside it took to the skies, disappearing to the north-east over the rooftops, leaving only a vague impression of a slender body and long wings. She returned to Danneth in the town hall. “Did you see that thing?”

“What thing?” He looked genuinely puzzled.

“That thing! Flapping around by the ceiling. It looked like… like some kind of dragonfly thing, only bigger.”

Danneth shook his head. “I saw nothing.” He looked at her like maybe she was crazy. She wanted to clout him, but restrained herself. After all, they didn’t have the gems yet. Instead she stomped off downstairs to consult with Jeoff.

Naturally, in her absence things had turned weird. As she came down the stairs, she heard Milo’s voice from somewhere. “Tighter,” said the little halfling. “Oooh. Yeah. Like that!”

Alea hesitated. She wanted to ask Jeoff about the big dragonfly thing. What if it was some sort of… some sort of magic carrier pigeon, delivering information about the cauldron? To… evil thieves somewhere?

No. Wait. That was Testikles-level thinking. “It was probably just a bat,” she said. “Flying around. In… daylight.” Hmm. Jeoff? Or Milo’s weird bondage noises?

She ducked down and consulted Jeoff. It seemed the safest thing to do. The Elven sorceror listened to her description, then stared thoughtfully at the ceiling for a while. “Might be a flying snake,” he said. “Some folk train them to carry messages. They’re fast, and hard to stop.”

“So there could be a spy?” That wasn’t something Alea liked to think about.

Jeoff nodded. “Testikles is right. This place… they’re starving. That cauldron is going to cause trouble.”

Testikles is right. Alea really hated those words. She was about to say something acerbic, but another voice caught her attention.

“I don’t like this, Milo,” came Iledove’s voice, echoing down the stone corridors. “Are you sure it’s okay to do this?”

“Sure, baby,” said Milo. “I love it!”

Alea and Jeoff looked at each other. “Let’s put a pin in this talk,” she said. “I mean…”

“I understand,” Jeoff said. “When you find out what the fuck they’re doing, I’d like to know too.”

Alea darted out of the guardroom.

At the far end of the prison section, there was a drab, ugly stone-walled room with a single wooden chair, a bucket, and some nasty-looking stains. Milo sat in the chair, tied hand and foot, as Iledove hovered anxiously nearby. The paladin looked up as Alea came in. “Oh,” she said, registering embarrassment and confusion. “Alea!”

Alea looked at Milo, who squirmed lewdly on the hard, wooden chair. “Mmm,” he said. “Baby.”

“Stop that,” hissed Iledove.

“Mmmmake me,” moaned Milo. “Go on!”

Alea felt a headache assembling itself somewhere behind her eyebrows. “What the actual fuck?” she said. “Did you… did he… what?”

“He wanted to be tied to the chair,” Iledove said. “He got really loud. And I thought, well, I thought…”

“Oooh,” said Milo. “Wait a sec…” He squirmed again, and his eyes narrowed. “Uh-oh.”

“You thought what?” snapped Alea. “You’re a paladin of Helm! Where does weird, kinky bondage shit figure in your vows?”

“No, it’s not like that,” pleaded Iledove. “I just thought that if he was tied here, to the chair, he couldn’t be making trouble somewhere else!”

Alea paused. Actually… “There’s sense to that,” she admitted. “But I think he… uhhh… I mean… look at him!”

They both looked at Milo again, and he squirmed vigorously against his bonds. “Lemme loose!” cried the halfling. “I gotta go!”

“No,” said Alea. “This is what you wanted. Now you’ve got it.”

“I gotta take a shit!” snapped Milo. “It’s a big one. A really big one! I can feel it!”

“Oh fuck!” Alea muttered. “Get him out of here!”

As soon as his bonds were loosed, the little thief sprang to his feet and clutched at his arse. “Baby!” he said. “This one’s out of control. Look out, Poo-mab! I got a present for you!” As he darted nimbly from the room, Alea and Iledove looked at one another in horror.

“Go after him!” hissed Alea, but Iledove was already on the move…

***

“Gotta go gotta go gotta go gottago,” muttered Milo, darting through the darkened streets. “Where’s the fuckin’ place? Where is it? Oh! Yeah!” He spotted the Emporium, its still-empty doorway yawning blackly. A hop, skip and jump up the step, a quick dash to the absolute middle of the room, and down with the pants. “Fuck these furs,” Milo muttered, fumbling with the array of belts and knots and drawstrings. “Fuckin’… get down!” His trousers slid towards his feet. Somewhere in the distance, he heard Iledove calling his name. “Fuck,” he said. “Gotta hurry.”

He crouched, and concentrated. Deep in his gut, something moved. He felt his sphincter bulge, then flutter as a huge, hot, unruly fart burst loose with a degenerate, flapping, vibrating rumble. “Good one,” he said, and squirmed a little. “I’ll show that fucker…”

The footfalls on the stairs took him completely by surprise. Iledove couldn’t have caught up yet, could she? But no… it was someone coming down from above. From above?

“Oh, fuck,” muttered Milo as it dawned on him for the very first time that the shopkeeper he hated actually lived directly above the shop itself – the shop where Milo was even now crouched, trying to give birth to an eldritch horror.

“Who’s down there?” came a familiar, quavering voice. Lantern-light threw stark shadows from above. “I warn you… I’m armed!”

“Fuck!” grunted Milo. He couldn’t leave now! “Come on! Come onnnnn!” He strained for all he was worth, but nervousness got the better of him, and all he could manage was three insignificant little turdlets that bounced and rolled across the floor below his arse. Fuck! What a time for his bunghole to freeze up!

A small lantern came into view at the bottom of the stairs, with a shadowy figure behind it. Time seemed to slow. Sweat burst out on Milo’s forehead as he clenched his guts with every iota of magically-enhanced strength. He crushed his fists tight in the magic gauntlets, chanting encouragement under his breath as he felt the terrible thing approach…

“You!” cried the shopkeeper as the light fell upon Milo’s purpled, straining face. “But… what…” He straightened up with a disgusted expression. “Did you do that? You did! You’ve shit on my floor!” Swelling with indignation, he drew a breath and bellowed. “Guards! Guards! I’m sick of this guy! Come get him!”

Too late!

“Gyaaaaahhhhhaaa!!!” roared Milo as something huge and hot and utterly horrible detonated from the deepest, dankest part of his gut. This was no sad little gathering of turdlets. This was the fucking mother lode, and it blasted forth like the vengeance of Hell itself, riding triumphantly out on an explosion of fetid gasses so colossal, so arrestingly rank that Milo’s eyes crossed and he almost passed out.

Driven by the pent-up gasses, greasy, stinking shit sprayed most of the room in a tremendous burst that drove Milo forward onto his face, still blurting from the arse as if all the demons of the nether realms infested his… well, nether realms. Even above the roar of his monstrously belching ringpiece he heard the spatter and splat of the grotesque stuff as it hit the floor, the walls, and then yes, even the low ceiling, his turgidly overloaded bowels relieving themselves in a terrifying orgy of septic scattershot. The pain was searing, unbelievable – and yet at the same time, deeply cathartic, and as the last, flabby echoes died away, Milo felt a deep satisfaction rising within his very soul.

Vengeance.

He dragged himself upright and yanked up his trousers, heedless of tagnuts, hangers-on, left luggage and potential skidmarks. Framed in the stairwell, the shopkeeper’s face was a mask of devastated horror. Milo pumped his fist. “Suck it!” he shouted.

A fountain of vomit burst from the shopkeeper’s mouth, splattering across the floor to join forces with Milo’s unearthly efforts. Time to leave well enough alone, Milo concluded. He darted out through the door and charged into the night, pushing past Iledove who recoiled in soul-deep disgust at the unfathomable scene in front of her. The last he heard was the clink of coin as the horrified paladin tossed a golden ransom into the hideous storm of shit and puke with a feeble cry of “Oh, by the Light! Sorry! Sorry! Oh!”

Milo grinned.

Life was good.

***

“Farroukh saw the villain,” said Captain Arlagath. She stood in the doorway of the guard-room where the cauldron was protected, flanked by a pair of Easthaven’s finest. “It was a Halfling!”

“Could have been anyone,” said Milo. “Not me, though. I was snoozing.”

Iledove put her hands behind her back and looked at the ceiling, trying not to meet Arlagath’s gaze. If nobody asked her anything, she wouldn’t have to worry about lying…

“Oh come on,” said Arlagath. “How many Halflings would shit all over the floor of the Emporium? And the walls? And — Gods help us all — and the fucking ceiling?

“Not me,” said Testikles, though nobody had addressed him. He still sat atop the cloth-covered cauldron. “I have been here. Guarding. But if you need it,” he said after a moment, “I will give you a sample of my shit. That way you will know it is not the same shit that was shat in the shop.” He slid down off the cauldron and crouched a little, seemingly concentrating.

“What?” said Arlagath. She blinked.

Iledove could see the effort it was costing her to make sense of Testikles words, and she felt a pang of sympathy. The overmuscled halfling was a deranged mix of barbaric berserker and cheerful, friendly, curious, small child. It was almost impossible to tell what he was going to do in any given situation – except where enemies were involved. Then it was all squealing and axes and blood and nakedness… and dick. Ugh. So much gods-damned dick!

“Don’t be foolish,” snapped Arlagath. She turned her attention to Milo. “Just go and get in one of the cells. You’ve been helpful. All of you. I’ll smooth this over, but for now that one has to be arrested.” She pointed unwaveringly at Milo.

“What for?” yelped Milo. “I didn’t do nothin’!”

“You’re covered in shit,” said Arlagath. “The whole room smells. And though I hate to say it, I recognise the stink from Pomab’s Emporium. What was done there…” She peered at Milo. “You’re so small. How did you do it? Was it magic?”

“I didn’t do nothin’,” Milo whined. “You tell them, Iledove!”

“We paid for the damages,” Iledove said.

“Ten golden sovereigns,” agreed Arlagath. “And the stuff will freeze, it’s true. But Farroukh will be chiseling it off his walls and ceiling for weeks!”

“Serves the bastard right,” snickered Milo, and farted wetly. Everyone growled and moved away from him.

“Arrest him,” said Arlagath to the guards. Milo looked as if he might put up a fight, but everyone else in the room stared at him sternly. Everyone, Iledove noticed, except Testikles. For some reason, Testikles had a sausage on a tin plate. He offered it to the bemused Arlagath.

“Here,” he said. “For you.” The guard captain took the plate with an expression of confusion on her face. “For your investigation,” Testikles added. “To prove I didn’t poo all over the shop.”

“Oh Gods,” said Arlagath, her lip curling in disgust. “Oh. Oh. Oh.”

It wasn’t a sausage on the plate after all.

***

Some time later, Milo – rightfully identified as the Fiendish Shitter – was locked up in the cell next to Alfred the Tax Evader. Jeoff was asleep in the corner. Iledove was trying – for what seemed the fortieth time – to explain to Testikles why Arlagath didn’t want his ‘help’ with the investigation into the Great Poo Apocalypse, as the Easthaven guards had begun referring to it. Alea was sitting quietly, trying to remember exactly what life decisions had led her to this point when a cry came from somewhere upstairs. She looked across at Iledove, who raised an eyebrow.

“You heard that too?” said the paladin.

Alea nodded. “Sounded like a struggle.” A thought struck her, and she winced. “Oh fuck,” she said. “What if Testikles was right again? What if someone really has come to steal the fucking cauldron?”

“I guess we’d better go find out,” said Iledove.

“I’ll go,” said Alea. “You get Milo out. He’s been in there long enough to make the locals happy, and we might need him. Testikles?”

The scarred, largely hairless lump of fur-clad muscle lounging comfortably atop the disguised cauldron opened an eye.

“You and Skrote stay here with Jeoff. Guard the cauldron,” she said.

Testikles nodded, and closed his eye again.

For a moment, Alea debated trying to make sure he understood the order. But it was simple enough, and even if he was an idiot, he wasn’t Milo. He might look half-asleep there in the corner, but the undeniable truth was that the only way anyone was going to take the cauldron from under him would be if both he and his massive, brutal war-pig were somehow dead… and Alea wasn’t entirely sure what that would take.

Upstairs, Alea’s fears deepened. There were bloodstains on the floor, and bloody footprints led away, into the next room with the ugly statue, where she found a guard collapsed in a bleeding heap. A quick check revealed he was still alive, but he was out for the count. “Iledove?” she called. “We’ve got problems.

“Yeah, fuckin’… what’s new?” came Milo’s voice as he and the paladin entered. “Oh. Is that a guard? Is it one of the fuckers who arrested me? Is he dead? I hope he’s dead. Let me check his pockets…”

“Shut up,” said Alea. She nodded to the far door. “You hear?”

The three of them paused. Faint cries… a scuffle… Iledove nodded, and brought out her sword.

“Cool,” said Milo, unlimbering his crossbow. At the silent count of three, they burst through the door into the room beyond…

…and stopped.

“Don’t let them kill me!” wailed Danneth. The pallid Speaker was held from behind by a burly, leather-clad man who pressed a wicked-looking knife to his throat. Two other similarly clad men, crossbow-armed, held positions nearby.

“Shut up,” growled the knife-wielder. Danneth fell silent, and the knife-man smiled nastily. “Smart,” he said to Alea and the others. “We got him. You can see that. You do what we want, or we fuckin’ kill him, aye.”

“There’s no need for anyone to die,” said Alea automatically. Milo looked disappointed. “What is it you want?” Please don’t be the cauldron, she thought. Please don’t let Testikles be right…

“You know what we want, bitch,” said the man “Bring us the fuckin’ cauldron, or this prick gets it!”

Fuck!

“We shall not,” said Iledove. “That cauldron will save the poor and the destitute of this city. What good is it to you?”

“Nunnaya,” said the man. “Just fetch it. Now.” He poked Danneth, and the Speaker bleated.

Iledove looked confused. Nunnaya bizness, mouthed Alea, and the paladin’s face cleared.

“Never,” cried Iledove. “Vile miscreant!”

“I’ll kill the fucker!” said the knife man.

“Steady on,” said Alea. “Obviously, the cauldron’s not here…”

“We fuckin’ know where it is,” said the knife-man. Clearly he was the leader. “Go and fuckin’ fetch it.”

“All right,” said Alea, putting up her bow. “All right!” Iledove and Milo stared at her in confusion. “I’ll go and get the cauldron right now. The big cauldron. The big, bronze cauldron,” she said. Would the others understand?

Iledove’s eyes widened. “Oh,” she said. “The cauldron!

“Yes, yes!” said Danneth. “Get the cauldron! I don’t want to die!”

“Shut up,” said Knife-Guy, poking Danneth again. The Speaker subsided, quivering. “Yeah,” said Knife-man. “Get a move on!”

“We’ll watch these swine, Alea,” said Iledove. “You go fetch the cauldron.” She winked grotesquely in Alea’s direction, and Alea winced inside.

Fucking paladins and their obsessions with honour and truth…

Downstairs, the guard-room door was… not just closed, no. It had been spiked. Alea saw no less than twelve wooden rods driven around the doorframe from the inside. Clearly, the boys were taking the threat seriously. She knocked.

“Who is it?”

It was Testikles voice. That was bad.

“It’s me. Alea. Let me in. I need the decoy cauldron!” It was galling to say it, since it was his plan in the first place – but it was a genuinely good idea, gods curse it.

“Decoy cauldron?” Testikles voice was muffled by the heavy, iron-shod oaken door. “What decoy cauldron? I know of no decoy cauldron!”

“Testikles!” she snapped. “This is serious! Open the fucking door.”

“Open it yourself, evil shapeshifting demon thing!”

Alea’s head dropped. She felt as if something heavy had clutched her belly. Fuck! The little fucking imbecile! Fuck! How the hell… wait! Wait! “Okay! Okay. Wake up Jeoff! Tell him I’m out here!” That would do the trick. Alea pressed her ear to the door.

“Jeoff?”

“Fmm.”

“You should wake up now. Evil shapeshifters are trying to come through the door and steal our cauldron.”

“Fuckin’ what? Oh! Fuck!”

Alea grimaced. “It’s me, Jeoff,” she said. “Let me the fuck in!”

“How do I know you’re not an evil shapeshifter?”

The weight in Alea’s belly got heavier. Of course. Jeoff was… Jeoff. He was an elf. For all his smarts, what he knew about human stuff was… Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. “I can prove it,” she said. “Umm. Tell me what I can do! What will convince you?”

There was indistinct muttering behind the door, and then a chuckle. Testikles spoke up. “You must give Milo a big kiss,” he said. “Alea would do that.”

Her gorge rose. She bit her lip. “No I wouldn’t. And you know that, so you’re trying a trick and now you know that it’s really me because I would never give Milo a kiss. Not. Ever!”

“By Thrund!” came Testikles oath. “This fiend is really cunning!

Something inside Alea snapped. Fuck it. In fact… fuck everything. “Yeah, whatever,” she said. “Just… stay the fuck there. I’ll be back. Later.” Fuuuuuck!

She really needed some better swear-words.

Alea stomped back up the stairs to the room where Knife-Guy still held the quivering Speaker of Easthaven hostage. The fury in her belly…

“Where’s the fuckin’ cauldron, slut?” demanded Knife-Guy.

“Under guard by a fucking insane halfling barbarian of the Boar Tribe, and a deranged Elven sorceror who think we’ve been taken over by shapeshifting evil demons,” snapped Alea. “It’s really just not your fucking lucky day.” She nodded to Iledove and Milo. “End these dickheads.”

Danneth screamed, loud and shrill, but before the knife-man could move, Iledove raised an imperious hand, pointed, and bellowed: “Vomit!” she commanded, and before Alea could figure out what that was all about, Knife-Guy roared out a hideous column of greasy carrots and half-used mead. The spasms wrenched him, and he staggered, still power-puking like some kind of gut-geyser. Danneth screamed again, and ran like hell.

It was over in seconds. Knife-guy managed to whoop in a breath. He pointed at Iledove and screamed, “Kill the witch!” – but the thugs were just a couple guys wearing simple leather gear and carrying light weapons. Lately, Alea and the others had gotten used to fighting mammoths, dire wolves, cannibal hags, giant skeletons and weird undead guys. This bunch of sad little bunnies barely rated a yawn.

For a change, Alea found the range quickly and her man went down with an arrow in either eye. Iledove caught a crossbow bolt, but with the chainmail and the padding she wore, it didn’t make a lot of difference. One of the thugs tried to intimidate Milo. “Whaddya want, ya little fuck?” he sneered.

“I’m three feet tall!” screamed Milo, and shot him with a crossbow bolt. The thug yelped and leapt for the window to escape, but bounced off and landed on his butt. Milo stood over him. “Who’s small now, cunt?” he shouted, kicking the thug into unconsciousness.

The last thug whipped out a mace, but Iledove made short work of him. In the end, they had two prisoners, plus the dead guy with arrows in his eyes. Danneth was unharmed – and surprisingly, none of the fallen guards were dead either.

That was interesting. Alea confronted the Speaker. “That dragonfly thing,” she said. “Turns out it was what Jeoff calls a Flying Snake. Often used to send messages. Now… you’re not hurt. The guards aren’t dead, even though it would have been easier for these bastards. And they knew about the cauldron, including where it was being guarded. That tells us something. Who else knew about the cauldron, Danneth? Someone who cares enough about you and the guards to keep you all alive?”

Danneth frowned. “Well, there’s Captain Arlagath. But she could have just ordered the guards… Hmm. No. No. It couldn’t be. She wouldn’t… She’s been here for years! But…” He looked helplessly at Alea. “Not… Prudence?

“Prudence? Mousy little bitch that follows you around, wipes your arse?” She didn’t seem the spy type… but what did Alea know from spies anyhow? “Where’s she live? We’ll fetch her in. We need to know who’s behind this.”

Prudence was asleep in a little house not far from the town hall. She came quickly, without question when Iledove and Alea told her of the raid and said Speaker Danneth needed her help. Of course, they didn’t mention things like ‘spies’ and ‘prisoners’ and ‘interrogation’.

When they first tied her to the chair in the questioning room, she blustered and bluffed. But Milo clipped her around the earhole, knocking down her and the chair both. She didn’t have much left after that: she was a Zhentarim spy working for Naerth, the Speaker of Targos. She had nothing else that she was prepared to give up – but that was enough. Alea called Captain Arlagath into the room. “This one’s a dangerous spy,” she said, pointing at Prudence. “Put her away. Out of earshot. We’ve got things to talk about. And you, Milo,” she said. “It’s time we talked with Jeoff, if not Testikles. Go get them to open that room?”

“Why me?” whine Milo. “How am I gonna convince them I’m not an evil shapeshifter?”

“Evil shapeshifters don’t smell as bad as you,” said Alea.

***

A Bad Smell came to the door outside, and Skrote didn’t like it either. “I smell poo,” said Testikles.

“It could be Milo,” said Jeoff. “Or it could be an evil shapeshifter. We need a plan.” Jeoff was very clever.

“I have a good plan,” Testikles said, and he did. He pulled all the stakes out of the doorframe, then he hid behind the door with the Decoy Cauldron in his hands, and he said “Come in!” because that was the plan.

It worked really good. The door opened and something that looked and smelled like Milo came in but it might have been an evil shapeshifter so Testikles stuck the Decoy Cauldron on its head and bonged it lots like a big bronze bell and he shouted to Jeoff and Jeoff used his spider slimey web stuff and the thing that looked like Milo was all stuck, and it screamed a lot.

“It sounds like Milo,” said Testikles. He took the Decoy Cauldron off its head, and the thing that looked and smelled like Milo shouted many bad words.

Jeoff nodded. “It does sound like Milo,” he said. Then Jeoff did a magic, and he said it really was Milo and Milo said a whole bunch more Bad Words and Jeoff got the spider stuff off him. Then Milo told them all about the Bad Men, and Prudence, and Naerth. Jeoff frowned. “This is the same Naerth who was scheming with the Speaker of Goodmead,” he said. “Something’s going on there. We should look into it.”

“First we’ve got to get paid for this cauldron,” said Alea. She put her head around the door. “And Milo needs to clean himself.”

She was right. Milo smelled like a big poo.

Jeoff made a magic that hid him and the Cauldron. He put a rope in the air and it hung and he climbed it and then Testikles gave him the Cauldron when he was at the top of the rope and he vanished. And then he pulled up the rope and it was gone. It was a very clever magic. Testikles couldn’t see Jeoff anywhere at all.

Captain Arglebreath came and she was angry that Milo wasn’t in jail any more, but Testikles said, “Yes he is in jail just not the bit you left him in,” and it was true. So Captain Arglebreath and some guards made Milo have a bath to get all the poo off him, and that was good because Milo was stinky.

After that they had to wait for Speaker Danneth to find the money for the cauldron. Danneth was sad about Prudence. Testikles didn’t know what they did with Prudence because she was a Bad Spy person, working for the Zhentarim and Naerth, the Speaker of Targos. Testikles didn’t know who the Zhentarim were, but he knew they were Bad because many people said so. He didn’t know about Naerth or Targos either, but he thought pretty soon they’d have to go beat him up because he was being Bad.

There was nothing to do in the day they waited for Danneth to get money. Mostly they argued. Testikles didn’t understand what they were arguing about. Were goblins an anti-semitic stereotype? Or had they been chosen to portray bankers because goblins were greedy, nasty little bad people?

It didn’t really make sense. Everybody knew goblins were greedy, nasty little bad people. Also, bankers weren’t very nice either..

When Danneth came with the gems, Testikles called Jeoff down from the Extra Demon Channel Space where he was hiding with the cauldron. Jeoff gave Danneth the cauldron and Danneth gave gems to everybody. There was one for Jeoff and one for Alea and one for Iledove and one for Milo and one for Testikles and even one for Skrote and one more to share, and that was good because now they had a big angry bird with a beak like an axe that the Bad Men had brought to steal away the Cauldron, and the bird needed food and the polar bears needed food too. So it was good there was an extra gem. Alea said she wanted the big angry bird and she named it Beak Axe which was funny because its beak looked like a big axe.

With their new money safely put away, they all wondered where they would go next because even though lots of people in Easthaven liked them for bringing the Cauldron, the shopkeeper hated Milo and Captain Arglebreath didn’t like Milo and that wasn’t very much of a surprise because even Milo didn’t really like Milo. But they couldn’t stay without having something to do or Milo would sneak around and shit on people’s floors until everyone was angry and they had to go. So they got out the map from the invisible dwarf who tried to shrink, and they looked and they looked and Jeoff said there was an outpost of Evil Duergar Dwarfs near a place called Caer Konig, by a mountain called Kelvin’s Cairn.

And Testikles knew a Cairn was a thing you built to mark a place, or maybe a grave, and he wondered who was big enough to build a mountain for a cairn and did it mean Kelvin was buried underneath it? That was scary. Maybe they built the mountain over Kelvin to make sure he didn’t come back. Testikles didn’t tell the others about what he was thinking because he didn’t want them to be frightened.

It took them two days driving in the snow to come to Caer Konig. They went around another town without stopping because everyone was afraid Milo would shit on the floor of the tavern and people would be angry. Sometimes Testikles wondered why everybody agreed to travel with Milo. But Testikles knew he wasn’t very clever, so he just kept quiet. There must be a good reason. But Testikles knew that if Milo came to visit the Boar Tribe and he shit on the floors there, the Elders would beat him until he stopped and if he didn’t stop they’d use him to train the Battle Pigs. It was probably good for Milo that Hidden Valley was so well hidden.

But it still made Testikles sad because he did not know how to go home, and now he had a proper name and everything. One day, maybe he and Skrote would find Hidden Valley again. Then Testikles would tell everyone his name was Testikles Hag-Slayer, and he would show them all his moneys, and he would beat up the Ozonka brothers who tricked him and put him in a slave caravan and then everything would be good.

Caer Konig was small and cold. Once there had been a wooden wall around it, but someone had burned it down. Also, once there had been a stone castle thing, but someone had smashed that and burned it down too. Maybe they did it because they were bored, because Caer Konig was small and not very interesting.

There was a tavern called the Hook, Line and Sinker. There, the innkeeper gave them all a Free Ale, even Skrote. The innkeeper was saggy like he used to be fat but had gone thin now, but he smiled and he laughed and he said the Free Ale was The Hook, and the Line was Would You Like Another, but he didn’t say what The Sinker was. Then the innkeeper asked why they had come to Caer Konig and everyone looked at each other so Testikles said: “We have a map and there is a Secret Outpost of Invisible Dwarves on the map and it is nearby!”

“Let me see that map,” said the Innkeeper and Jeoff showed him the map, but he didn’t know anything about the Invisible Dwarves. But then they met a dragon-born man named Trovus who was the Speaker of Caer Konig and Trovus liked to drink ale.

Trovus’ father was a dragon he said, and Testikles said “Did your dad put his thing in your mum? Because dragons are very big and they have great big dicks and–” but then Alea and Iledove and Milo and Jeoff all talked at once so Testikles never heard the answer. And Milo told Trovus about Nymitra the dragon-born woman who owned a tavern and said they should be together because Trovus was a dragon-born man and Nymitra was a dragon-born woman and Trovus liked to drink ale and Nymitra owned a Tavern but Alea got upset and said something about an addict and an enabler and she said Milo was bad, which was probably right.

Trovus had lots of heroic stories to tell, but that was good because Testikles was now Testikles Hag-Slayer and he had heroic stories too. They told stories and drank ale, and then Milo complained that Testikles and Jeoff had hit him on the head too hard when they put the cauldron on his head because he might have been an Evil Shapeshifter and Milo said: “My brain doesn’t work right any more.”

But Testikles knew what to do. In the stories, the people who got hit in the head and lost their memories always got their memories back when they were hit in the head again. So Testikles smacked Milo in the back of the head and Milo tumbled across the room and fell asleep. After that, everyone else wanted to sleep too, so Testikles put a blanket over Milo and everybody went to bed.

In the morning, Trovus said the Invisible Dwarves were probably the same Invisible Thieves who stole the magic lamp from outside the Northern Light Inn. And Milo said, “What did the magic lamp do?”

And Trovus said, “It changed colour,” and Testikles said that didn’t sound very interesting but everyone told him to shush. So Trovus said, “You should find those invisible dwarfs.”

“Pay us moneys,” Milo said and everyone agreed even though they were already going to find the Invisible Dwarfs.

“I can’t give youse moneys because Caer Konig is a shithole and there is no money,” said Trovus.

“But you have beer,” said Milo. “Everybody else just has mead.”

Trovus and the innkeeper agreed that was true.

“Give us six barrels of beer and we will go find the Invisible Dwarfs and make them give you back your magic colour-changing lamp,” said Milo and everyone agreed and then Trovus shook hands with Jeoff, and off they went.

Trovus took everyone to Frozenfar Expeditions, a shop where a Ranger with sore knees said a dwarf woman called Jathara would show everyone how to get to the bit of Kelvin’s Cairn where the Invisible Dwarf Outpost was hiding. Milo liked Jathara and he gave her his big fish, but it was old and sort of beat up from all the people Milo had hit with it, so Jathara threw everyone outside but she said she would take everybody to the place the next day, and they went back to The Northern Lights to have more drinks and wait…

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