The decision to accompany Milo to Poumad’s Emporium proved to be… interesting. Jeoff watched attentively as Farroukh – the long-suffering shopkeeper that Milo insisted on calling “Poo-mad” – caught sight of the little halfling, and blanched.
“You!” said the swarthy storekeeper, scowling through his bushy beard. “What are you doing in my shop? Are you here to shit on the floor again?”
“You wound me, Poo-mad,” said Milo, putting his hand over his heart and offering his silkiest tones. “I’ve come with my good friend Jeoff to peruse your fine wares. If you have any fine wares, of course.”
“All my wares are fine,” said Farroukh. “But there’s nothing here for you. Nothing! Floor-shitter!” He turned on his heel, straightened his apron, and addressed Jeoff. “For you, sir… I am at your service.”
“Hey!” said Milo, but the shopkeeper ignored him.
“Grenadoes,” said Jeoff. “Surely such a fine store would carry vital supplies like that.”
Farroukh’s eyes widened, and he glanced about. “Such dangerous items… there might well be repercussions for a storekeeper who dared carry such things.”
Jeoff glanced towards the newly-replaced door, snugged firmly into place against the bitter Icewind chill. “I suppose I might simply have to seek a more courageous storekeeper,” he said. “Farewell, for now.”
“Wait!” Farroukh put a hand on Jeoff’s arm, but hastily removed it when Jeoff favoured him with an icy stare. “It comes back to me now. A box? Somewhere on the shelves back there?” He pointed. “I would help you look, but I must remain here in case this floor-shitter forgets his toilet training once again.” He glared at Milo.
Following the shopkeeper’s directions, Jeoff moved amongst the jumble of shelves and cabinets, stands and trunks and obscurities of all kind. Even though the place had clearly been cleaned since Milo power-shat over most of the main room only a week ago, there was still dust and cobwebs in the corners. What kind of spiders thrived in Icewind Dale? And… how big did they get? Were there gigantic Frost Spiders out there somewhere in the tundra? That was an interesting idea.
It took some time to locate the box. It was a small, lightweight, wooden affair, plainly made with a simple lid. A single phrase of Common was burned into the top: Caution. May Explode if Mishandled. Typically enough, nothing on the box explained what ‘mishandling’ might look like. Jeoff picked it up carefully, and returned to Farroukh.
The shopkeeper was still watching Milo, who was blathering on as usual. Jeoff really didn’t want to know what the creepy little halfling was trying this time, so he just talked right over the top of him. “Here,” he said, thrusting the box into Farroukh’s hands. “I think this is it.”
Farroukh held up the box and shook it, so that it rattled. Despite himself, Jeoff winced and cringed away – but evidently simple shaking didn’t count as ‘mishandling’, and they did not die in a burst of fire and horror. The shopkeeper slid the lid open. Inside lay a single, dark spherical object. Farroukh’s eyebrows lifted. “Only one,” he said. “No price on the box?”
“I’m sure I saw two copper pennies marked on it,” Jeoff said smoothly. “The tag must have come loose.”
“That doesn’t sound right at all,” said Farrukh. “Hmm. Shall we say… twelve silver shillings?”
Jeoff had been quite ready to say a great deal more, but if Farrukh didn’t know the value of his merchandise, that was hardly Jeoff’s problem. Ignoring Milo’s cries of five coppers and not a penny more, he found a dozen shillings in his purse and passed them across.
Farroukh shook his hand. “It is most excellent doing business with a civilised man,” he said.
“Elf,” corrected Farroukh, bobbing his head ingratiatingly. “So sorry!”
“You should be,” said Milo grandly. “No doubt you will, if someone mentions this little transaction to the guards. Dangerous goods!”
Farroukh looked at him in alarm, then turned back to Jeoff. “He will say nothing? You would be troubled as well, good sir.”
Before Jeoff could speak, Milo pushed between them. “Oh, I won’t say anything,” he said. “If you show me what magical items you have for sale!”
“Magic items?” Farroukh frowned. “I don’t…”
“Is that a guard passing outside?” said Milo, his hand cupped to his ear. “I’d know those boots anywhere!”
A crafty look came over Farroukh’s face. “Magic items! Oh, yes! Of course, sir. If you’ll wait here, I’ll bring out something special, just for you.” He bustled away, then glanced back at Jeoff. “Please do not let him shit on my floor while I am gone, sir.”
Milo frowned. “You shit on one floor,” he muttered.
“It’s hardly the only floor, is it Milo?” said Jeoff. “You do have a history.”
“It’s the only floor he knows about!” Milo put his hands on his hips and glared at Jeoff.
Jeoff looked past him. “He’s coming back,” he observed. “And he’s carrying something.”
The object Farroukh held appeared to be a scroll case. It was made of wood, but someone had gilded it rather badly, and added a random spray of cheap, faceted cut-glass ‘gems’. Milo’s eyes widened, but then he frowned. No doubt he’d realized the scroll case was a shoddy piece of fakery.
There ensued a long and complicated – but most interesting – set of negotiations. Milo demanded to know what was in the case. Farroukh coyly announced it was a powerful magic scroll. Milo insisted on reading it. Farroukh grandly refused, and quoted an outrageous price. Milo turned purple and threatened to walk out. Farroukh laughed. Milo offered to pay to read the scroll. Farrukh insisted on his ludicrous price. Milo fumed and stomped, but to Jeoff’s amusement, Farroukh had read the little halfling’s greed and curiosity accurately.
Eventually, Milo agreed to buy the scroll at a stupid price – but only if he could read it first. On Milo’s promise of payment, Farroukh let him see the scroll…
…and it was a scroll of bonfires. Good for nothing except… starting fires.
Milo’s face was a picture of alarm and disappointment. As Farroukh ratcheted up his demands for the promised money, Jeoff folded his arms and watched with great interest. At last, with a shifty-eyed expression of trapped-rat panic, Milo shouted, “Look out behind you,” dropped the scroll, and scampered out the door into the icy street and away.
Farroukh laughed long, and heartily. In fact, he laughed so hard he came close to vomiting, and Jeoff had to wallop him between the shoulder blades to make sure he didn’t choke.
“Thank you, sir,” said Farroukh at last, tears still streaming down his face.
“You knew he wouldn’t pay, didn’t you?” said Jeoff.
Farroukh nodded. “I have had that old scroll lying around for ages. Who wants to pay for a scroll when you can get the same results more cheaply with flint, steel, and a flask of oil?”
“So you decided to torment Milo?”
Farroukh nodded again. “It seemed fair. Also, now when he comes back to my shop I will call the guards and demand they enforce the transaction to which he agreed. Unless he runs away, I will get a ridiculous sum for my little scroll. But honestly, I don’t mind if he chooses to run away. Anything that keeps him from shitting all over my beautiful shop is good.”
“True,” said Jeoff. “I’d best be after him. Thank you for your service.”
“Thank you for your custom, sir,” said Farroukh. “Return at your whim. Without the floor-shitter, of course.”
“Of course,” said Jeoff, and he left the warmth of Poumad’s Emporium for the bitter chill of the dim Easthaven morning.
Naturally, matters did not proceed as planned. At the Wet Trout, they met up with Alea and Iledove as planned – but even though Skrote the War Pig was stabled outside (and that was odd, wasn’t it? Skrote was never stabled. He slept indoors with everyone else – or at least, with his master) there was no sign of Testikles Hag-Slayer, Warrior of the Boar Clan… or whatever he happened to be calling himself this week. Stranger still, an older man with an eyepatch, a drum, and a brisk manner addressed himself to Jeoff in the bar-room.
“Would you be him as lifts the moon?” said the odd man. “You have the look of him, anyway. Do you have the tattoo?”
“You know about the tattoo?” asked Jeoff.
“Oh, yes. I’m Jack Rabbitt, I am,” he said. “And if you’re that Moonlifter fellow, why, I’m your new bard!” He banged his drum a couple times, rather inexpertly Jeoff judged, and made a flourishing bow. “Your fellow Testikles – a fine chap he is! – hired me for a very decent sum, and now I’m ready to make your days a delight with my songs and stories and my phat beats.” (Ba-dum! Ba-dum!)
“Oh, fuck me,” said Milo. “Where is the little cunt? And don’t beat that fuckin’ drum!”
Ba-dum! Ba-dum! Milo’s face transformed to a mask of rage, but Jack Rabbitt skipped nimbly away with a speed that belied his long, grey hair. “It’s my job, don’t you see?” he called cheerfully. “I’m a bard! I play the drum!”
“That’s the worst kind of bard,” moaned Alea. “Where is Testikles? What’s going on?”
Jack Rabbitt stopped, though he kept watching Milo from the corner of his eye. “Funny story. You know, he’s a heavy chap even though he’s small. Solidly built. I’m afraid he was just a little too much for me to carry, so I had to leave him face-down in a snowdrift.”
“You what?” said Iledove. “Is he all right?”
“Well, mostly,” Jack Rabbitt said. (Ba-dum! Ba-dum!) “But it was quite a night. Oh, yes, quite a night indeed!”
“What does that mean?” said Jeoff. An uneasy feeling crept up on him. Quite a night… wasn’t that the sort of thing those dwarfs had said when Testikles had disguised himself as a dwarf hero named Axebeard by standing on Milo’s shoulders? And then that one female dwarf tried to hit on him… or them… or whatever. And there had been so much drinking and singing, and then later the ballads of Axebeard’s heroism, and the statue they put up in the Dwarf quarter… Quite a night could mean almost anything when it came to Testikles.
“It means I think you strong people should go and pick up your friends before the guards find him,” said Rabbitt. He pounded his drum a couple more times for emphasis.
Milo groaned. “Can’t we just fuckin’ leave him there?”
It transpired they could not, according to Alea and Iledove. Privately, Jeoff was pleased. Testikles might be an imbecile, but his capacity to dive into the thick of melee and draw fire that might otherwise damage more valuable personnel – particularly Jeoff himself – was extremely useful. Jeoff was quite fond of not being slaughtered, and he was prepared to put up with a degree of imbecility for that privilege.
Unfortunately, retrieving Testikles was easier said than done. Jack Rabbitt led them through the swirling snow, down into the seedier section of Easthaven, and finally into a snow-filled alley. Which was empty of anything except snow, ice, and bits of trash.
“He was here,” said Rabbitt. The older man pointed to a snowdrift which had a characteristically Testikles-shaped dent in it.
“Let’s just fuckin’ go,” moaned Milo. “He’s probably gone back to the Wet Trout. He’ll be sucking down hot spiced mead and laughing at us, out here in the cold.”
“Tracks,” said Alea, pointing at indentations in the snow. “Big, booted tracks. Heavy. Like they’re carrying something.”
Iledove sighed. “Let’s just cut to the chase and head to the holding cells. I mean – we know that’s where he’s going to wind up, right?”
“He’ll be safe there,” said Milo. “Why do we want to bother them?”
“We have to leave for the Cackling Chasm soon,” said Jeoff. “He’s more use to us there than he is in the holding cells.”
“Is he ever useful?” Milo whined. When Alea glared at him, he turned his palms up. “What? We’re all thinking it, right?”
Unsurprisingly, the booted tracks led pretty much directly from the alleyway to the town hall, where the holding cells were. Alea buttonholed one of the guards at the door. Jeoff vaguely remembered him from the fuss over the Cauldron of Endless Stew.
“Tony, right?” said Alea. “I was just wondering–”
“It’s Tollander,” said the guard sourly. There was ice in his eyebrows. Jeoff wondered how long he’d been on duty this morning. “And yes, he’s down in the cells, and you can have him back if you stump up two hundred gold sovereigns, all right?”
“Two hundred…!” Milo choked, and turned purple. Iledove smacked him between the shoulder blades, and he staggered and coughed. “Fuck that! We can buy three more of him for that price! I’m leaving!”
“Shut up,” said Iledove. “We’re not leaving anybody.”
“What did he do to warrant a fine like that?” asked Alea.
Tollander reached into his furry overcoat and brought out a sheet of parchment which he unfolded with much ceremony. Evidently he’d been expecting them. “Public drunkenness. Public nudity. Gratuitous indecency. Brawling. Resisting arrest. Resisting arrest again. Theft of a great deal of mead. Flouting public morals. Disturbing the peace. Public urination. Gargling with Intent…” He folded the paper away. “There’s more. You can take it up with the Speaker if you want a full list.”
Milo frowned. “I don’t get it,” he said. “What did he actually do that was wrong?”
Iledove put a gloved hand across Milo’s mouth before he could say anything even more stupid.
“What happens if we don’t collect him?” said Jeoff.
Tollander shrugged. “Normally he’d pay the fine himself. But to be honest, that second – or third – charge of resisting arrest involved quite a few of the lads, and the concensus is that we’re gonna put him on the roster and have him taken out as a sacrifice to Auril.”
“What?” said Iledove. “That seems a bit…”
“Interesting,” put in Jeoff. “I’ve never seen one of these sacrifices. How do they work?”
“Eh?” Tollander scratched under his cap, and the scarf across his nose slipped. Jeoff noticed that the nose in question appeared to have been broken – quite recently, judging from the crusted blood around Tollander’s nostrils. “Well, we strip ‘em down, take ‘em out on the tundra, tie ‘em to a tree and leave ‘em there. That usually does the trick.”
“That’s awful!” said Iledove. Jeoff latched onto her arm, and pulled her to one side.
“We could just go out and collect him ourselves,” Jeoff said quietly. “It would save coin. And if they thought he was dead…”
Iledove looked doubtful.
“When’s the next sacrifice?” said Jeoff.
“Not for several weeks,” said Tollander. “You’ve got time to make up your mind.”
“Let’s just fuckin’ leave him,” snarled Milo. “He’s not worth this trouble.”
Tollander glanced around, then lowered his voice. “Look – if you just slipped us fifty sovereigns, I could organize to take him out the east gate into the tundra right away. I’d even see that you got all his gear. It’d be worth it. He’s stinking up our cells.”
“Fifty, you say?” Jeoff rubbed his chin. He winked at Iledove and Alea. “It’s a deal, then!”
Once the money changed hands, Jeoff turned to the others. “Stay here,” he said. “I’m going to follow the guards invisibly to make sure nothing goes wrong. If it works out, I’ll gather him up just outside the east gate.”
“Fuck,” said Milo.
Jeoff knew the way to the holding cells quite well. Invisible, he had no trouble slipping through the downstairs doors just by following Tollander and another guard who appeared to be in on the deal. The guards went past the usual holding cells – which were oddly crowded, Jeoff noticed – and made their way to the secure interrogation room at the end of the hall. Arming themselves with spears, they pushed their way into the room, with Jeoff invisibly on their heels.
In the dimness of the interrogation room, the reek of mead, vomit, sweat, and other, more earthy smells was nearly overpowering.
“Phew,” said the second guard. “He doesn’t half stink!”
“Bessie said he went through three of her girls. Rogered them bow-legged. She had to send for Hettie,” Tollander said.
“That half-orc streetwalker? The one with the…” The guard made the universal sign for ‘huge boobs’.
Tollander nodded. ‘That’s the one. Between that and the mead and the vomit and the fighting – well, you’d smell too.” He prodded with the butt of his spear at a shapeless lump on the floor. The lump grunted, and sat up.
“Get up,” snarled Tollander.
“About time,” said the lump. It was Testikles. He looked unwashed and unclean, but any damage that Jeoff could see was mostly cosmetic. “Where’s my gear?”
“We’re keeping it,” said the second guard. “Strip down. You’re going for a nice, long walk in the snow, halfling.”
Testikles’ eyes narrowed. “You’re going to make me do this?”
The guard laughed. “Yep. And then you’re going to die.”
Jeoff backed away to a far corner of the room.
Testikles rubbed his chin. The grating sound of the boar-like bristles on his chin was clear in the quiet room. “One problem with that,” he said.
“I don’t see a problem,” said the guard. He brandished his spear. “Let’s get moving.”
“Problem is, you didn’t bring enough guards,” growled Testikles.
And then he moved.
It was actually quite interesting to watch. Normally, when Testikles was fighting Jeoff was fighting as well: dodging arrows, calling up sorcerous energies, manipulating wands and the like. It was hard to pay much attention to the others during the hurly-burly. Seeing Testikles doing his thing… to be honest, it was really rather disturbing.
For one thing, he was fast. He exploded off the floor in a rush, slapped aside the second guard’s spear and grabbed him around the legs before the guard could even draw breath to shout. He was also brutally strong – though clearly not too smart. It would probably have been a decent idea to take the guard’s spear, but instead Testikles basically just heaved the man over his head and… well… used him like a weapon to club Tollander. Not what you expected from someone who looked like an unusually scarred, hairy, muscular twelve-year-old.
The grabbed guard gave a high-pitched shriek of terror as he swung through the air. Jeoff ducked back instinctively, and Tollander managed to duck too, but that didn’t help the hapless guard who smacked headfirst into a wall. Immediately, Testikles reversed the swing, veins standing out on his arms as he slung his makeshift club at Tollander again. This time the impact was true. The guard screamed again, and blood flew from a broken nose.
Tollander grunted, and lashed out with his leaf-bladed spear. His aim was good, and he opened a long gash across Testikles hairy chest.
The halfling grinned.
“Not good enough,” he snarled, and then he did that horrible pig-squealing thing that passed for a battle cry. It echoed painfully in stone chamber, and even as Tollander slashed at Testikles leg, the mad little halfling smashed at him with the other guard, and then again.
The squealing and grunting was horrific. At last Jeoff understood the purpose of the noise. It was remarkably unnerving, especially coming from the mouth of a small, harmless-looking person. It made you want to back off – even flee. You could see it in Tollander’s face: a mixture of confusion and horror as he backed away, feinting and jabbing with his spear while his still-screaming colleague bounced off walls, floor and ceiling in Testikles iron grip.
Jeoff prepared himself to intervene, but in that moment Alea, Iledove, and Milo burst onto the scene, no doubt summoned by the appalling noise. Iledove’s face turned pale as she took in the tableaux: blood on the floors, walls, and ceiling; Testikles squealing and roaring as he swung an increasingly limp guard by his legs; blood pouring from Testikles wounds; blood all over both guards… Elsewhere in the holding cells, prisoners were shouting, roaring, banging tin cups against the bars. Pandemonium.
Alea screamed over the top of the noise. “Testikles! Put the guard down! Stop killing him!”
At first it didn’t seem as if the barbarian had heard. Who could tell? Perhaps he didn’t. Yet one way or the other, he growled, lifted his guard/weapon above his head, and flung him at Tollander, bearing both guards to the floor. Before Testikles could spring upon the downed men, Iledove pointed at him and shouted in a voice that rolled and thundered and echoed with power: “Flail!”
Much to Jeoff’s surprise – and no doubt Testikles’ too – the barbarian began flapping his arms about wildly. Evidently Iledove had called upon her holy powers. Interesting.
“Now!” shouted Iledove. “While he’s busy! Stacks on!” She ran into the interrogation room and leapt on Testikles. Hot on her heels came Alea, and last of all Milo who screamed dogpile! as he sprang on top of the struggling mass.
Evidently Testikles wasn’t willing to battle his friends. He lay on the floor patiently, waiting while they sorted themselves out. The friends were less well organized. Alea sat on his chest and screamed at him: “What are you doing? Why would you do something like that?”
“They wanted to kill me,” rumbled Testikles. “There was nobody else to save my life. Thrund accepts no warrior who comes to him without a struggle. What would you have me do?”
“Kill you?” said Iledove. She was sitting on his legs. “We were going to wait in the tundra to collect you!”
“A plan works best if everyone in it is told,” Testikles said. “Perhaps you might have told me?”
“What were you thinking?” snapped Alea. “You should have just gone with the guards. You had no idea where they were taking you!”
A weak voice came from the far corner of the room. “Ow,” said Tollander. He sat up, pushing the second guard off his legs. “We… he did, in fact, tell your friend that we were going to walk him into the tundra. To die.” He pointed at the other guard, bleeding and weeping on the floor. “So that might have been our mistake. Yes.”
“Enough of this foolishness,” said Jeoff, cancelling his invisibility. “We must leave. At once.”
“My gear,” grated Testikles, staring dead-eyed at Jeoff. “Else these men are thieves, and I must punish them.”
“We’ve already got your gear, Testikles,” said Alea. “Jeoff’s right. We need to go.”
Alea and Iledove flanked the bloodied but unbowed barbarian, guiding him out into the corridor. Milo remained, putting an uncharacteristically comforting and solicitious hand on Tollander. “You okay?” said the little halfling. “I’d hate to have you judge us all by his behaviour.”
“Just get out,” said Tollander. “You’ve worn out your welcome in Easthaven.”
Milo shrugged. “Suit y’self,” he said, and turned. Likely it was that only Jeoff noticed the deft flicker of the little halfling’s hand as it lifted Tollander’s purse, which no doubt still held the fifty crowns they’d paid to bribe the guards…
As they passed the holding cells, a voice called. “Oi! You little bastard! You ain’t getting away that easy! We got a fight to finish!”
Testikles stopped, dragging Alea and Iledove to a halt on either side of him. He confronted a tough-looking but rather battered man who clung to the bars of a crowded cell. “Were you speaking to me?” Testikles asked.
“Oo’ else?” snapped the tough. “Just let me get me hands on you, ya little prick!”
“You have a name?” said Testikles.
“I’m not giving you me name!” snarled the man. “Come back here and fight!”
“I would,” said Testikles, “But I cannot remember if we fought at all, let alone any reasons. That’s not important. I’ll happily come back and fight you when I have time, but since I don’t remember you, I’ll need a name to work with.”
“Oh no,” said the other. He sneered, and shook a scarred fist in Testikles direction. “You’re getting nuffink out of me ‘cept a good kicking!”
Testikles shrugged. “Another time, then,” he said, and let Alea and Iledove pull him away.
The caravan clunked and rumbled over the tundra, hauled by the tireless polar bears. Within, the passengers talked, or yawned and tried to doze.
“So you’re a bard? You do spells and stuff?”
“Oh, my! Perhaps one day, when I have learned my craft to its fullest.”
“To it’s… wait. Are you a bard?”
“Oh of course. Duly authorised!”
“Authorised? Who authorises bards?”
“Just last night, the courageous Testikles placed this Drum of Destiny in my hands and summoned me to the struggle. How could I refuse? The remuneration is simply too good!”
“He’s paying you?”
“But of course! I sing and play the drum, and announce his presence, and spread word of his mighty deeds. I am a bard!”
“But… you only got the drum last night? From Testikles? What about training?”
“I’m learning on the job, dear boy. It’s so exciting.”
“So you’re not an actual bard at all? Fuck me!”
“Not even with Testikles dick, dear boy.” (Ba-dum! Ba-dum!)
“AND STOP BANGING THAT FUCKIN’ DRUM!”
“Fuck’s sake, Milo. Keep it down! Some of us are trying to get a bit of kip!”
Milo’s head throbbed. Or… no. No, it was that fucking drum. That Rabbit cunt was at it again, up on top of the caravan, wailing away on his stupid fucking drum singing happy fucking songs like some kind of… some kind of happy cunt. And Testikles was joining in the chorus! Fuck!
“You hear that?” said Jeoff. The elf cocked his head, tilting his big-ass pointy fucking ears this way and that.
“Course I fucking do,” said Milo. “I expect all of fucking Icewind Dale hears it. Sixty-five bottles of mead on the wall, sixty-five bottles of mead… Take one down, pass it around, SIXTY-FUCKING-FOUR MORE FUCKING BOTTLES TO GO!” A gob of spit flew from his mouth and whizzed past Iledove’s face. She frowned at him.
“Language!” she said.
“My language?” said Milo. “What about that cunt with the drum? What about the hairy turd that hired him!”
“They’re singing,” said Iledove. “It’s rather nice.”
“Be silent,” said Jeoff. “I’m listening.” He thumped the side of the caravan twice. The agreed signal brought the vehicle to a halt. Alea opened the roof hatch and looked in.
“What is it?” she said.
“I hear something,” said Jeoff.
“Yeah, it’s Testikles and that… that bard of his. It was cute at first, but…” She blew out her breath in a cloud of vapour, shaking her head.
“Not that,” said Jeoff. “You can’t hear the other thing?”
Everyone paused. Everyone except Testikles and Jack Rabbitt, of course. But then Alea did something, and Jack stopped thumping at his drum and even Testikles stopped singing, and then Milo heard it too. In the distance. Demented, deranged cackling.
“The Cackling Chasm,” said Jeoff.
“Still a fucking stupid name,” Milo said.
They debarked the caravan, and surveyed yet another endless vista of ice and snow.
“You stay with the caravan,” said Testikles to Jack Rabbitt. The older man nodded agreement.
“No way!” said Milo. “He should go first. So he can see all the action. And write songs.”
“You want him to be killed,” said Testikles. “You hate music.”
“I don’t hate music,” said Milo. “I just hate that cunt and his fucking drum!”
Despite Milo’s protests, the bard and his drum stayed with the caravan. “We will return,” said Testikles. “If we do not, you must take the caravan back to Easthaven and sing of our deaths.”
“Fuck that shit,” grunted Milo.
The actual chasm wasn’t far away at all. It was easy to find it, what with the idiot laughter echoing from the low hillsides all around. Milo shuffled up to the edge, and peered in. The chasm itself was a long, narrow, very deep sort of oval slit in the icy earth. The shape of the thing was somehow familiar. It reminded Milo of –
“Look,” said Testikles. “It is a gigantic Ice Vagina!”
“Aww, no!” said Alea.
Iledove grimaced. “Did you have to, Testikles?”
“Fuck off,” said Milo, but the truth was he was pissed off. Testikles was completely right, and it was really annoying that he’d said it first. Bastard. Just one more reason to shank that fucking bard of his…
Crude steps had been hacked into the ice at one side of the chasm. They led down into some kind of tunnel arrangement. There were skulls piled on either side of the steps – wolf skulls, goblin skulls, deer skulls, human skulls. Crude symbols had been painted on the skulls in what was probably blood. Jeoff bent and peered at them.
“These are dedicated to Yeenoghu, the Demon Lord of Gnolls,” said the elf, straightening. “We are on the right track.”
“Oh, ya think?” Milo cocked his head, gesturing in the direction of the demented hyena-cackling. “I thought that was the local bingo club!” He waited, but nobody acknowledged his barb.
A crackling, crunching noise drew everyone’s attention to the chasm, and the eerily echoing laughter paused. Testikles grabbed up another pile of skulls and hurled them over the edge after the first bunch. Still more crunching and crackling echoed through the chasm.
“What are you doing?” said Alea.
“Not gonna take ‘em by surprise now, are we?” said Milo.
Testikles shrugged. “There is just this one entrance. We have already stood on the ledge and looked over. They know we are here. Now they know we do not fear them. Now they can begin to fear us.”
Everyone looked at each other. Jeoff shrugged. Alea nodded.
“Yeah, that makes some kind of sense,” said Iledove.
“Well he can go first, then,” said Milo.
“No,” said Jeoff. “That’s your job. You’re the sneaky one.”
“But…” Milo pointed helplessly at Testikles, who was hurling still more skulls over the edge. “But he…”
Oh, fuck it.
There was nobody in the little chamber at the bottom of the stairs, but there were more bones and scraps and shit scattered everywhere, and an absolutely feral stink to the place. Milo motioned to the others to join him, just as a few tall, jackal-headed creatures emerged from a gap in the far side of the chamber. The Gnolls stared at Milo and his bunch for a moment, cackling uneasily amongst themselves. They fingered their weapons, but showed no hostility. Alea looked at Iledove. Jeoff scratched his head. Milo put his hands on his hips.
“Well,” said Testikles. “Someone has to start.” With a vengeful squeal he yanked out his axe and charged across the room, Skrote the War Boar hot on his heels – and the killing began.
To be fair, it wasn’t entirely one-sided. This bunch of gnolls seemed a lot tougher than the skinny, mangy crew that Iledove had slaughtered on the roads that day not so long ago. There were only four of them, but by the time they were all dead Testikles was badly bitten and stabbed. Not badly enough for Milo, mind you.
The chamber from which they had emerged held nothing of interest. Just another godsforsaken frozen hole in the ground. Icewind Dale had a fucking glut of frozen holes in the ground, really. Iledove had a quick poke around amongst the bones and shit in the main chamber, but there wasn’t a lot to be found. They turned their attention to the stairs that led deeper into the chasm itself.
And that wasn’t so good at all.
“Fuck me,” said Milo, peering over the edge of the ledge that the stairs led onto. “That’s a long way down.” There were spikes and jagged stones and corpses down there too, faintly visible in the grey light that filtered down from above. The narrow ledge ran all the way around the chasm. Deeper still, there was another ledge all the way around, and then a straight drop to the bottom. “Mind your footing here,” said Milo. “It’s a long fucking fall if you slip on the ice!”
“Uh-oh,” said Jeoff. “Here they come!”
Across the narrow chasm, a fuck-ton of gnolls poured out of a gap in the wall, onto the ledge. They spread out, and Milo’s belly flip-flopped as he noticed what they carried. “Longbows!” he said, whipping out his own crossbow. “Keep your head down!”
Iledove did something with Testikles, and the little bastard perked up with a roar. He got out his own shortbow and started pinging arrows across the chasm. Iledove blew on her fingers, and smirked.
“Power of Helm, baby,” she said. “Take that, evil!”
The air filled with zipping, whining death. A burst of flame raged from Jeoff’s fingers, and three gnolls were consumed in fire. Except for their heads, Milo noticed. Nice work on Jeoff’s part. They’d need those heads to get their money.
A huge, black arrow tagged Jeoff, and he staggered back. “I’m hit,” Jeoff croaked. “Ow! Fuck!” He retreated back up the stairs to the first chamber.
Milo looked across the chasm. There were still… fuck, it was hard to see in this light, but there were still a bunch of gnolls over there. The only way to reach them was to follow the narrow ledge around, and they’d be targets for the gnolls’ brutal longbows the whole way. Fuck!
“What do you think?” he said to Alea. An arrow clicked off the icy stone near his head, and he ducked instinctively. “We should pull back,” he suggested. “Maybe get an angle on them from above?”
But just at that moment, the squealing started.
Testikles hadn’t done his rage-boner thing with the first set of gnolls, but evidently he’d decided that was a mistake to learn from. Now he was nude, purple-pink and hairy, steaming with rage, and making that fuck-awful pig noise again. As Milo watched, dumbfounded, Testikles charged out along a narrow promontory of stone that hung over the chasm and with a spring of his powerful legs, he leapt the gap and landed amidst the gnolls on the far side. Screaming and squealing, he was among them before they could understand what had happened.
A gnoll went over the edge, impelled by a brutal, hairy, naked foot. A second gnoll tried to escape, but there was no room on the crowded ledge. Testikles feinted with his axe, then crotch-kicked the gnoll so hard everyone in the entire chasm winced. The gnoll gave a faint whimper, and fell to its knees. Testikles reached out and grabbed at something hanging from its chin. As the gnoll fell face-forward and died, Testikles hurled the something at Milo.
“Catch!” he cried.
Milo grabbed at it instinctively, and got a handful of something warm and moist. Looking down, he realised that Testikles had kicked the gnoll in the balls so hard they’d come out its mouth.
Now the gnolls were in trouble. No more standing back and sniping with their great big bows. Alea nailed one with her bow. Jeoff peeked around from the top chamber and scorched another. Milo dropped a third, and then it was all over.
At least, it should have been all over. But fucking Testikles was still squealing and roaring, and he whipped open a door in the wall of the chasm and there was the biggest gods-fucked gnoll yet.
“A Gnollfang of Yeenoghu!” cried Jeoff.
“The fuck is that?” said Milo.
Jeoff shrugged. “Let’s kill it anyway.”
They got to the thing just about the time it tried to shove Testikles over the edge. Milo could have told the poor fuckin’ thing not to waste its time. Testikles crouched low and braced himself, and even though the Gnollfang was easily twice his size, the little bastard just wasn’t moving. Then it was close quarters stuff. The thing had claws and fangs, and it was really pissed off, cackling up a storm as it slashed and bit – but then Testikles grabbed it around the legs and heaved, and the Gnollfang went out, over the edge, all the way past the second ledge, down to the bottom where it landed with a wet thud and the cackling faded to silence.
Testikles took a breather – well deserved, even Milo had to admit – but the others pushed on. There was a big wooden and iron cage at one end of the chasm, on the top ledge. Inside was a weird, hairy guy with a javelin made out of some… some crystalline shit. Black.
“Is that obsidian?” said Milo.
Jeoff shook his head. “I think it’s that chardalyn stuff. We should be careful with this one.”
“We should let him out!” said Iledove. “He’s obviously a prisoner.”
“Yes!” said the man. “Me out! Now!”
“Why don’t you just let go of the javelin first,” said Milo. “Just want to be careful.”
“No!” growled the man, clutching the javelin to his chest. “You no take! Me free!”
“Suure, suure,” said Alea. “You just relax. We’ll help you. We’re your friends!” She stepped up to unbolt the cage, and the man inside jabbed at her with a roar.
“No friends!” he shouted. “You die! All you die!”
It was a fucked-up sort of fight. The guy in the cage kept trying to ram his javelin into everybody. Testikles arrived in the middle of it, hunkered down, grabbed the edge of the cage and just about shit himself trying to heave it over the edge, but it was a big, heavy piece of work and not even the little barbarian could shift it.
Meanwhile, Alea and Iledove kept trying to reason with the idiot in the cage, even as he was trying to make a kebab out of Milo.
“Calm down!” said Iledove. “We’re trying to help you!”
“Friends!” said Alea, but then Milo stabbed the fucker, so maybe that wasn’t working out so well.
“Screw this,” said Jeoff. He raised his hands in a familiar gesture, and everyone pulled away from the cage.
“You’re going to kill him?” said Alea in horror. “He’s a prisoner.”
“He’s a fucking loonie,” said Jeoff, and fire rained down on the man in the cage.
“That’s so sad,” said Iledove. “We could have helped him!”
What was really sad, Milo thought, was the way the burning man in the cage smelled like barbecuing pork. He swallowed a mouthful of spit, and glanced around. There didn’t seem to be any other threats in the cavern. “So,” said Milo, still watching the man turn crispy. “Anybody got a sandwich, maybe?”