(Contains adult language. Yeah, so what’s fucking new there?)
Speaker Crannock was a bit of a cunt in Milo’s opinion. He couldn’t even give them the promised golden chamberpot because it was still full of shit. He’d promised to clean it, but according to him, it couldn’t happen without his servants. And where were the servants?
“Oh, they were taken prisoner, the lazy swine,” said Crannock. “Can you believe it? I don’t believe anyone even tried to put up an effective resistance. I have no idea what became of the real so-called guards that I had. Useless dolts!”
“So where are the imprisoned servants?” asked Jeoff.
Crannock, who was a skinny old fart with eyebrows like two half-blown dandelions, gave Jeoff a look – like he’d said something stupid. “Down in the cistern cells, of course,” he said. “That is where prisoners are usually held, obviously.”
“Obviously,” said Jeoff.
There was a long, uncomfortable pause. Crannock seemed to be completely oblivious, though. He poured himself a glass of something red out of a decanter, and settled back into what looked like quite a comfy chair.
“Were you going to go let the prisoners out?” said Milo. “We’re waiting for our golden shitter.”
“What? Me? Oh, heavens no,” said Crannock. He fumbled in his pockets until he found the key-ring they’d taken from the Tiefling, Kadroth, and threw it at Jeoff who caught it automatically. “Dear me, no,” he continued. “It’s quite cold and terribly nasty down there. No, you’ll have to do it, I’m afraid.” He paused. “Now, the hospitality of the keep is open to you. Would you care to stay for a fine meal? My cook knows fifty different ways of preparing Knucklehead Trout. Of course, without the butler and the others, I don’t suppose she’ll manage a meal of sufficient size for all of us…” His voice trailed off meaningfully.
Milo waited for Jeoff to give the old cunt a proper going over. Maybe that Ray of Sickness thing he did? Or maybe a small fire spell: burn the fucker’s shoes off. Yeah, that’d be cool.
“Where’s the cistern?” said Jeoff.
Milo spat into a corner.
Unsurprisingly, the cistern was under the keep. There was a ladder under a hatch at the ground floor level of one of the towers. There were still dead cult-guard dudes lying around the place.
“We really do need to get these prisoners,” said Alea. “I’m not cleaning up all the blood and corpses lying around this place.”
Jeoff grunted, and dropped down into the darkness below. Testikles followed close behind. Milo looked at Alea and Iledove. They both shrugged, so he followed the other two. At the bottom of the wooden ladder was a stone-walled chamber, with a little room off one side. Milo lit up one of the torches hanging on the walls. The place was cold as fuck, but that wasn’t unexpected. However, it was also damp. It smelled of water. Milo looked around.
“Down here,” called Jeoff. “Here’s the cistern.”
Milo and Testikles crowded close around Jeoff, and looked into the darkness. A huge reservoir of dark water stretched off into the black, unknowable distance. Milo glanced down. There were corpses in the water.
A noise from the ladder drew his attention. Speaker Crannock stood nearby, dusting himself down with an air of disgust. “The others said I should give you directions,” he said, and pointed at the bleak, ice-rimmed reservoir. “The cells are at the far end.”
“Mmm,” said Jeoff. “I can hear people calling.”
They all paused. Sure enough, in the silence Milo made out voices – weak, pitiful cries for help, echoing in the dark.
Speaker Crannock peered into the water. “Oh dear,” he said. “Corpses. That will never do. That was our drinking water! We will have to drain the entire cistern. What a bother!”
“How do we get the prisoners?” said Milo.
Crannock sniffed, and pointed to a dark corner of the reservoir. Milo and the others saw a small rowboat tied up there. “It only holds two, I fear,” he said.
“You’re rowing,” Jeoff grunted.
“Me?” Crannock’s eyes widened and his dandelion eyebrows did a spastic, shuffling dance on his forehead. “Oh dear me, no. I’m in no condition for such physical effort. I’ve been a prisoner for… well, long enough. My strength has quite deserted me. But fear not! Just row to the far end. Easy as that!”
“By Thrund,” rumbled Testikles. “You are a cold-blooded one. Well enough. I will row, Jeoff.”
By way of answer, Jeoff conjured a small light, and stepped into the rowboat. Milo watched as Testikles took the oars, and the little vessel slid across the black, icy water towards the darkness.
Testikles leaned into the oars, and the little boat shot swiftly over the smooth waters. The sad calls of the prisoners grew louder as they drew farther away from the dock and the single torch that lit it.
Jeoff put a hand on Testikles shoulder. “Slower,” he said, and Testikles lifted the oars from the water, letting the boat drift. “Look,” said the mage, pointing to a dark opening in the side wall of the reservoir.
“And there,” said Testikles, pointing to another opening, farther down on the opposite side. “What should we do?”
“I like the look of that one you pointed at,” said Jeoff. “The prisoners can wait. Let’s see what’s down here.”
Testikles steered the boat to a landing by the passage, and made the painter fast about a handy iron bollard while Jeoff went ahead. He caught up with the mage a moment later, standing in the entrance of a small, square chamber with two small passages coming off to the left and the right. In the centre of the chamber was a pillar of ice. Jeoff’s magelight threw eerie reflections from the smooth surface. Testikles squinted. Was there something in the ice?
“There’s something…” said Jeoff. He shuffled forward, raising his hand higher. “Look!”
Frozen into the pillar was something that looked like a man in a horned helmet. Disturbingly, the ice pillar itself was wrapped in iron chains, as though imprisoning the figure within. Testikles moved back warily.
“I like this not,” he said. “Frozen and chained? What is it? Why did they fear it so?”
“Not sure,” said Jeoff. “We’ll have to come back here for a better look. After we get these prisoners out.” He turned, and strode back down the passageway.
Testikles backed slowly after him, keeping an eye on that enigmatic, frozen figure until Jeoff’s light was too far away to show it any more…
Farther down the reservoir, a heavy iron portcullis cut the chamber in half. Somewhere in the darkness on the far side, pathetic voices cried for help. Testikles fumbled with the keyring Crannock had given them, but Jeoff tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at a large lever set in the wall next to the portcullis. Testikles hauled on the lever which moved with well-oiled smoothness, and the portcullis lifted into a slot in the ceiling.
Testikles watched it. Where did it actually go? The cistern wasn’t very deep below the keep itself, and the portcullis disappeared entirely into the vaulted stone ceiling. So… why didn’t it stick up into the keep itself? Perhaps it fit inside a specially constructed wall?
“Eyes forward,” muttered Jeoff. “An opening. Up there on the left. I think that’s where the sounds are coming from.”
Testikles rowed the boat gently to the landing, where still another passage branched off the cistern. Who built a thing like this? Once it was full of water, the only way to reach these passages and rooms was a boat, for swimming in the icy water would be certain death.
“Help us!” came a weak voice from the dark within the passage. “Aid!”
“Hold on,” said Jeoff. “The boat carries only two, and –”
A wild cry split the dark, and a scrawny shadow rushed out of the reeking gloom toward Jeoff and Testikles, who stood on the landing. “I’m getting out of here!” it screamed, racing towards Testikles with its arms outstretched, clawlike.
Testikles sidestepped. The skinny man lurched, slipped on something nasty, and scuttled back towards the dark. “You’ll never take me!” he screamed.
Jeoff muttered a few words, and the man fell rigid to the floor. A querulous voice came from the dark. “Lanthus? Are you all right?”
“He’s just frozen,” said Jeoff.
“You killed Lanthus!” said the voice, and someone within began to cry.
“Oh, fuck this,” muttered the mage. “Come on, Testikles. Get back in the boat.”
“How do we rescue these fools?” said Testikles.
“Watch and learn,” said Jeoff.
Testikles climbed back into the punt, and let it drift as Jeoff pushed away from the shore. A scant half-dozen or so figures emerged from the darkness to stand haplessly on the landing next to their frozen companion.
“Pick him up and follow us,” said Jeoff.
“You killed him!” whined one of them.
“Hardly,” said Jeoff. “Thaw him out. He’ll be fine. Now, shut up while I freeze the water so you can walk on it.”
Testikles stared in fascination as Jeoff gestured, and thick ice formed a broad path across the water. Such power! He remembered his desire to learn magic spells. Would Jeoff teach him such mysteries?
“Move the boat, Testikles,” Jeoff said. “I need to make more ice.”
Slowly, Testikles rowed the punt back to the landing where Milo and the others waited with the flickering torch. Jeoff knelt at the other end of the boat, freezing the water of cistern so the ragged, stinking prisoners could stagger to freedom, dragging the mostly-frozen form of Lanthus with them.
“Oh no,” cried Crannock as the prisoners hauled themselves onto the landing. “Lanthus! My scribe! What have you done to him?”
“He tried to attack us,” said Jeoff. “He’ll get better.” The mage turned to Testikles. “Come on. That ice will last for ages down here in this cold. I want another look at that frozen pillar.”
Of course, they couldn’t just go straight there. First there was another passage and a little room to explore. This one was full of grain stores. A sad little rat lurked in the corner, nibbling corn. Jeoff detonated the rat with a blast of fire, igniting the grain stores as well. Such power!
The others caught up with them at the room of the Ice Pillar. They edged close and peered into the ice.
“Hey,” said Alea. “That’s not a person. That’s a wooden mannequin, all done up.”
“Ugh.” Iledove shuddered. “Creepy much?”
“It was some kind of an altar to Lefistus,” said Jeoff. “That much I understand. I’m actually more interested in the big patch of brown mould growing behind the pillar.”
“What’s interesting about mould?” said Iledove.
“I tried melting the pillar earlier,” said Jeoff, peering at the ugly mould that covered a decent chunk of the wall. “The pillar didn’t change at all, but the mould seemed to… seemed to grow.”
“Huh,” said Iledove. “Weird.”
“Not as weird as the room down the passage on the right,” said Milo. “I think someone’s been living down here. There’s a little bedroom sort of office sort of thing. It’s empty now, but it’s still warm in there. They can’t have been gone long.”
“How did they get past us?” said Alea. “There’s only one way out of here.”
Just then, Testikles returned from the other little chamber. His arms were full. “Here,” he said to Alea, and dumped a couple of what looked like rubies into her hand. Then he unloaded quite an ugly painting, apparently of some kind of devil. “This be the kind of shit they kept in their treasure room,” said Testikles. “Maybe worth some money for the frame? Also this,” he said, handing over a small, rag-wrapped thing. “Probably accursed,” he said as Alea tried to unwrap it. “A golden idol, badly made, like the devil of the painting. Golden idols always are accursed.”
“I’m going to get a sample of this mould,” said Jeoff. “Let me get close.”
“Sure,” said Iledove. “Just wait until I’m back out on the ice. That ugly mould gives me the creeps.”
Testikles followed the others back out onto the ice. The stood in a little group, wary of the strength of the ice underfoot, watching Jeoff down the end of the little passageway as he fiddled with the wall behind the ice-pillar.
“What are you doing?” called Alea.
By way of answer, there was a kind of popping noise, and then Jeoff gave a ragged terrible scream and his light went out. Milo held up the torch. Iledove lit a lantern.
The passageway before them swirled with a brown, nasty cloud of… something. Somewhere within, Jeoff moaned weakly.
“Fuck,” said Milo. “Did the mould do that?”
“Spores,” said Alea. “I guess. Ick. Jeoff’s probably dead.”
“No,” grunted Testikles. “I can hear him. But soon enough, if nobody helps. Wait here.”
“What?” said Iledove. “You can’t go in there!”
The little barbarian shrugged. “Who else? The rest of you are weak. I will hold my breath.”
“Wait!” said Iledove, but it was too late. He was gone.
The brown fog burned Testikles skin and eyes, worse than the fire he’d leapt into only a week or so ago. The pain was powerful, and he staggered, but pressed on. There was hardly any light inside the cloud. He fell to his hands and knees and crawled ahead, holding his breath. There – the ice pillar ahead, under his fingertips. Crawl around that… The iron chains, yes. And… there! A boot. Another boot.
Seizing Jeoff by the ankles, Testikles turned on the spot and staggered back up the passageway to the icy reservoir where the others waited anxiously. He dropped Jeoff onto the ice, and heaved a ragged breath. “Water,” he called. “My eyes.”
Someone poured water over his head. Testikles turned his face this way and that, letting the water trickle over his eyes, into his nostrils, over his lips. His face burned. His skin burned. His eyes burned. He coughed.
“Steady,” someone said. It was Alea. “You don’t look good.”
“I will live,” said Testikles, though he wasn’t sure. “Jeoff?”
“Iledove has roused him, but the harm done by the mould is beyond her power,” Alea said.
“By Thrund,” growled Testikles. “That is unwelcome news.”
“There’s worse,” said Alea. “Jeoff’s delirious. He’s insisting he has to go back in there to study the mould.”
“Thrund’s ass-crack!” snarled Testikles. “I did not drag him free so he could crawl back in and die.” He looked around. Despite his blurred vision, he made out Jeoff sitting on the ice nearby. “Jeoff,” he called. “What are you doing?”
“It must be studied!” raved the mage. “We could learn so much!”
“Later,” said Testikles, and with great care and precision, he punched the elf-mage on the point of his chin, knocking him unconscious. “Heal first,” he told the fallen Jeoff.
Alea touched his shoulder, and savage pain ripped through his body. Testikles grunted, and pulled away. Alea frowned. “Are you all right?”
“No,” Testikles grunted. “But this is what I am given. I do not complain.” He lay flat on the ice, stretching out so the chill entered his skin. It felt good after the burning of the mould spores.
Iledove came marching down from the landing. She had Speaker Crannock by the arm. “There,” she said, pointing into the passageway that still seethed with spores. “That! Tell me you knew nothing of this vileness!”
“Fine,” said Crannock. “I knew nothing of this vileness.” He peered into the chamber with its ice pillar. “What is it?”
“What is it?” Iledove’s voice rose to a screech. “It’s… it’s Hellmould! It’s… it’s evil!”
“I don’t think mould can be aligned with good or evil,” said Alea faintly.
“Paladin!” shrieked Iledove. “I know evil when I smell it! Evil! Evil! Evil!”
Testikles closed his eyes. If only there was some kind of ice that could fill his ears…
The promised meal was – well, it was knucklehead trout, certainly, but it had to be admitted that the cook really did know many ways of preparing it. Of course it probably would have been better fresh, but Jeoff was happy enough to be eating it for breakfast – although his jaw was still sore.
“You say Testikles punched me?” Jeoff said to Alea.
“And this was after he went into the poison spore-fog and dragged me out by the heels?”
She nodded again.
“That makes no sense,” he said. “You know that.”
“Neither did you,” she said. “He dragged you out, and you were pretty much dead but Iledove did that thing with the praying and the hands and all, and you started breathing and stuff. But then you sat up and said ‘It must be studied!’ and you kept trying to go back into the poison cloud.”
“I remember nothing,” said Jeoff, although he had to allow it did sound rather like him. He definitely wanted to study the mould further, in any case.
“Well, I think Testikles thought he’d rather knock you out than go back down into the fog and drag you out again,” Alea said. “At least, I expect that was his reasoning.”
“But… I understood the danger by then,” Jeoff said. “Surely he didn’t think I would simply charge straight back into the poison. That would be stupid.”
“Hello?” said Alea. “Testikles? Remember? Poster-boy for stupid?”
“Yes, but… You could have restrained him, couldn’t you? Told him I wasn’t going to walk back into the cloud?”
Alea looked away, and scuffed a boot against the floor. Her face took on what Jeoff felt was a pained expression. Surely she… Oh.
“You also thought I would walk into the poison fog, didn’t you?” Jeoff said.
Alea winced. “It’s not that crazy. You’d just been poisoned nearly to death. Your brain might have been affected!”
Jeoff was prepared to discuss the matter, but in the distance something made a violent crash, followed by a squeal of fear. Alea and Jeoff both paused, but nothing more was heard. Jeoff drew breath, ready to return to the discourse, but Testikles appeared in the doorway, axe in hand. He pointed dramatically across the room at the stable boy – slave, really – who had helped them by scouting the interior of the keep, finding Crannock, and locating the guards.
“You,” said Testikles.
The boy tried not to cringe.
“You are free now,” said the little barbarian. “Speaker Crannock has ended your sentence.”
“Free?” said the boy.
“I can just… go?” The lad’s face blossomed with hope.
Testikles nodded again.
There was a whooshing sound, and all the drapes and rugs in the room swung briefly towards the exit. The boy had a remarkable turn of speed, Jeoff noted.
Alea frowned at Testikles. “Did Speaker Crannock really end his sentence?”
Testikles nodded, his face stony.
“All by himself? Out of the goodness of his heart?”
Testikles paused. He looked around, as if thinking. “I asked him,” he said at last.
“And he just agreed? Released a slave, ended his sentence, let him go just because you asked?” Iledove said as she entered the room. She must have been listening outside, Jeoff thought.
“I negotiated,” said Testikles. His voice dropped a half-octave to dangerous depths.
“He cut Crannock’s desk in half,” put in Milo cheerfully from the next room. “The Speaker’s a bit pissed off.”
“Testikles!” snapped Alea, shaking her finger at him. “We use our words, remember?”
Jeoff had heard enough. He slipped away while Iledove and Alea lectured Testikles, and Milo giggled. They would talk and talk, and Testikles would listen gravely and forget every word. Then they would confront Speaker Crannock and ask for payment, but Testikles would remind them the gold chamberpot (which was actually gilt porcelain, Jeoff had determined) was the agreed payment, and then Iledove would tell Crannock Alea was an alcoholic and she forgot everything, and Milo would try to take a shit on something important, and then they’d argue all the way to Easthaven.
All that nonsense could wait. There was mould to be be investigated!