In Which Certain Truths Are Revealed, And A Fiendish Plot Unfolds.

After a particularly pleasing night and day of singing, drinking and laughing with the bards and performers of Easthaven, Testikles realised there was a reason for his good mood. Bidding farewell to his musical friends, he went to the room of Jeoff Moonlifter, the wise Elven sorceror. Jeoff sat in the middle of the rented room on the floor, his legs crossed. He stared vacantly into the distance.

Testikles knew this meant Jeoff was meditating. That was Jeoff’s special fancy word that meant ‘staring vacantly into the distance’. Testikles did a lot of that himself, but according to Jeoff it wasn’t meditation when Testikles did it. That was not easy to understand, but then, there were many things that were difficult to understand in Testikles’ world.

‘Where is Milo?’ said Testikles.

‘Not here,’ said Jeoff.

‘I know he is not here. That is the reason I have had such a good day,’ said Testikles. ‘But the day and the night are done, and Milo is not here, and I am concerned. What if he is shitting on Poomab’s floor again?’

‘I’m meditating,’ said Jeoff. ‘I don’t want to think about Milo shitting. Besides, he’s with Alea and Iledove. They’d never let him shit on Poomab’s floor. They’re doing something. I think it involved killing Prudence.’

Testikles concentrated. ‘Prudence… they spy? Isn’t she in the jail place?’

‘No. They let her out.’

‘That’s right, bitches,’ came a familiar voice. ‘Only it didn’t help. Prudence isn’t just toast. She’s fucking charcoal!’ Milo danced into the room, gloating happily.

‘Oh,’ said Testikles. ‘You’re back.’ He could feel his good mood disappearing. ‘I need to have another drink.’

‘Me too!’ said Milo. ‘Let’s hit the bar!’

Down in the bar of the Wet Trout, everyone bought drinks. Well, almost everyone. Milo argued with Nymetra over the price of a two-penny ale. When she refused to budge, he told her she was a barren whore who would never lay an egg, then stumbled off to a corner and sat crying. Occasionally he shot dirty looks Nymetra’s way, but the Dragonborn barkeep ignored him heroically.

‘Where have you been?’ Testikles asked Alea. ‘Milo wasn’t here and it was good.’

‘Well,’ said Iledove, ‘There was this guy, see? And we had to — ’

‘No time!’ snapped Alea. Her grey eyes gleamed with a weird, fanatical light. ‘Xardorok Sunblight is building a chardalyn dragon! He’s going to destroy all of Icewind Dale! We must stop him!’

‘Must we?’ said Jeoff. ‘I mean… do we really care about Icewind Dale?’

‘I don’t,’ said Testikles. ‘Neither does Skrote. Icewind Dale is a shit-hole.’

‘No! Threat to the world! Evil! Horror! We must destroy him!’ Alea downed her mead in a gulp and banged the mug on the table. ‘Danger!’

‘Evil!’ said someone.

‘Exactly!’ said Alea. ‘We must thwart it!’

‘No,’ said the voice. ‘I smell evil here.

Everyone turned to look. A nondescript, sad little man in a stained and frayed yellow robe stared over his big, beaky nose at the group.

‘It is Milo,’ said Testikles at last. ‘He often smells evil. We try to make him bathe, but he does not like the cold.’

‘No!’ said Yellow Robe. He sniffed carefully, and pointed at Jeoff’s pack. ‘There! There is evil in there! I smell it!’

There was a certain amount of confusion then as Jeoff clutched his pack protectively while Alea and Iledove explained that yes, Milo really did smell evil and it was an easy mistake to make. But Yellow Robe countered by declaring he came from the temple of Tempus, and he could take the evil, accursed object back to the temple to be cleansed.

Testikles was excited then. A whole temple of people might even be able to wash Milo, and that would be good. Not many people smelled so bad that a pig insisted on walking upwind of them – but Skrote had told Testikles in no uncertain terms that he wouldn’t get close to Milo until he had a wash.

Sadly, it turned out that Jeoff really did have a cursed item in his pack. It was a kind of wand. He held it out to Yellow Robe who took it carefully, and gave it a big sniff. ‘Yes!’ he said, bouncing up and down with glee. ‘This is it! Very evil! I will take it to the temple. You can find me there in an hour.’

And nobody so much as blinked.

Testikles was amazed and delighted. ‘That is clever!’ he said. ‘I want a yellow robe too! I will go around sniffing evil, and when I find it, I will promise to cleanse it somewhere else, in an hour.’

‘But…’ said Alea, pursing her lips, ‘But you’re not a priest. You can’t smell evil!’

‘No!’ said Testikles. ‘That’s the clever part. I will lie! I will take their things and I will go away!’

Alea frowned. ‘That… that would be stealing,’ she said. ‘They’d come after you.’

‘Yes,’ said Testikles. ‘But I will have a whole hour’s head start, and they will never catch me!’ He turned to Yellow Robe. ‘You are amazing! I want to come with you and learn your ways!’

‘Errr…’ said Yellow Robe. He glanced around nervously, and perhaps he noticed that the others were watching him much more carefully now. ‘Yes. Yes of course! You can come to the temple. Tempus welcomes all!’

***

It really was annoying when Testikles was right. Alea couldn’t believe they’d just… taken Yellow Robes at his word, and handed over a valuable – if ever so slightly accursed – magic artifact. Clearly, she wasn’t thinking straight after the business with Prudence, and the unveiling of Sunblight’s evil plot.

The Temple of Tempus turned out to be a steep sort of ziggurat thing with blue stripes up the sides. Very impressive architecture in the middle of a place where pretty much everything was built of bricks of frozen shit. It was nice and warm inside, though. Yellow-robed people bowed and prayed a lot, and from somewhere, harp music played.

‘Mystical,’ said Alea.

‘Holy,’ said their yellow robed guide. For some reason, they’d never gotten his name. ‘The temple is built upon the grave of the great hero Jarrod. It is a holy site. We have many holy relics on display. You may admire then while I take this wand and cleanse it.’

Alea shot Testikles a look, but the little lump of gristle was already on the job. He followed the yellow-robed guy to a back room, and stood in the doorway, looking in. ‘He’s waving his hands and chanting,’ he called after a moment.

‘I’m not a thief!’ came a plaintive voice from within the room.

‘He’s not a thief,’ said Testikles, returning to the group.

‘You know that for sure?’ said Iledove.

Testikles nodded. ‘He told me so.’

Alea gritted her teeth. ‘Well. He’s not going anywhere, is he? And we’re in an actual temple. It’s probably safe enough.’ She frowned, and pushed her way past some yellow-robed head-bobbers. Against the wall, protected by cases of heavy glass, were a number of warlike items. ‘Bloody Ashrem’s Axe’, she read aloud. The axe in the case was a fearsome thing, the blackwood handle carved with scores of little notches. It looked like an axe that had seen serious use, and was ready to see a lot more. ‘What is this?’ she asked one of the yellow robed bunch.

‘It is a mighty weapon,’ her victim replied. ‘It belonged to the warlord Bloody Ashrem. He used it to execute enemies.’

Alea looked at the other cases. A nasty-looking lance. A really seriously big war-hammer. A couple of nifty shields. A helmet with hydra heads depicted on it. ‘All these,’ she said, gesturing at the gear. ‘They’re all mighty? They have special properties?’

‘They are powerful,’ said the yellow-robed guy.

‘Hmm.’ Alea thought about it for a moment. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘We are adventurers and we have been protecting Icewind Dale and the Ten Towns for some time. But a terrible threat has risen, and we’re going to need all the help we can get. Does your temple… would you ever consider loaning out any of these artifacts for a good cause?’

The yellow-robed man’s facee turned a shade of magenta that clashed horribly with his outfit. ‘Do you do this a lot?’ he said, steaming slightly. ‘Just… just walk into places and demand the use of their holy artifacts?’

‘Well… I… I mean… that is…’ Alea stuttered.

‘Yes,’ said Jeoff. ‘She does. All the time!’

‘An evil magic chardalyn dragon is going to destroy everything and we need weapons to protect you people,’ gabbled Alea.

The magenta-faced man paused. His face gradually faded to a less apoplectic shade. ‘Dragon?’

Alea nodded.

He sighed. ‘That’s very scary.’ He pointed to an innocuous door on the far side of the room. ‘The head priest is in there.’

The back room was surprisingly humble, as though the temple’s money was spent on more important things. The only sign that the half-elf in the room was someone important lay in the scarlet trim that edged his yellow robes. ‘Welcome, brethren,’ he said as Alea and the others entered. ‘I am Alcedes.’

‘Nuts,’ said Jeoff automatically. Testikles guffawed.

‘Hello, Alcedes,’ said Alea.

‘Nuts,’ said Jeoff again. Alea kicked him. Testikles howled with laughter.

Alcedes frowned. ‘What is the meaning of this?’

‘There is an existential threat to the Ten Towns,’ Alea began, but she was interrupted. The door through which they had entered was kicked down, and Milo stood in the entrance.

‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘I’m here now.’

‘Who the blazes are you? And why did you kick down my door?’ Alcedes rose from behind the simple wooden desk, his face dark with anger.

Alea quailed. It was all going wrong! Why was it always like this?

‘Who are we?’ said Testikles, his voice booming. ‘Who are we?’ He seemed to swell, inflating his lungs with air. Alea winced pre-emptively, but the little barbarian merely threw his arms wide and began to chant in a heavy, rhythmic voice.

I am he that slew the sea-hag

Carried cauldron, copper-clad

Across the snows to cold Easthaven

Here we helped the many, hungry

Hearty food we found for folk

Long starved by Auril’s animus

Heroes we, who slew the speaking

Beasts that battered Dougan’s Hole

Freed the folk of Caer Dineval

Dealt death to duergar haunting

Caer Koenig. Slew we Sephek,

Auril-serving, murdering monster

Broke berserkers charged with chardalyn

Crushed their cavern, killed the wyrmlings

Stole Auril’s flame and spoke her death!

He paused for breath. Alcedes held up his hand. ‘You had me at cauldron,’ he said. ‘I know of you good folk. The Ten Towns are deeply indebted. What can Tempus do for you?’

Not much later, they left the temple. Testikles swung his new axe experimentally. ‘Nice balance,’ he grunted, and clashed it against a spiked shield called something like the Shield of Maegirt. It made a brutal sound.

‘Remember,’ said Alea, ‘These are only on loan. We get our money back when we return them.’ She adjusted the hydra-head Helm of Gardum Greenaxe.

‘They should have accepted Jack Rabbitt as collateral,’ snarled Milo. The massive war-hammer Bone-Cracker was strapped to his back, and he was examining a wicked, tooth-shaped dagger that was supposedly some sort of venomous weapon from Alcedes (nuts) private collection.

‘No no no!’ yelped Jack Rabbitt. ‘I can’t be staying in one place so long. Gotta move along, yes! That’s right! Keep moving. (Ka-thump!) Find adventure! Ka-thump!

‘Fuck that,’ said Milo. ‘I had to put up an extra hundred gold! How is that fair?’

‘Serves you right for being a completely untrustworthy little swine,’ said Iledove. She carried a fine shield, emblazoned with a white sword – the Shield of Aihonen.

‘I didn’t get anything,’ said Jeoff. ‘How is that fair?’

‘They cleansed your wand,’ said Alea. Milo sniggered, and she glared at him. ‘They cleansed that chardalyn javelin of yours too. Normally they charge a fee for that.’

‘I didn’t ask them to do all that cleansing,’ Jeoff said. ‘I was trying to study those cursed things!’

‘At least he had some healing potions,’ said Iledove. ‘I have a feeling we’ll be needing those.’

‘And more,’ said Testikles. He held up a nasty, shrivelled little object for Alea to see. ‘Can you put this on a neckchain for me? You have skill at jewelry?’

Alea grimaced. ‘Is that… that’s a tiny head, isn’t it? Where did you get that? What are you doing with something that gross?’

‘This is the head of Durth Sunblight,’ Testikles said, holding it close to his chest with a hurt expression. ‘You were there when I pulled from his neck after he shrank down in the ferryboat. Did you forget?’

‘I had, yes,’ she said. ‘And no thanks for the reminder.’ Eeeyew! So much blood! ‘Why do you want it on a neckchain.’

Testikles paused. He looked at the others, and his face turned grim. ‘I am the strongest here,’ he said. ‘It was I that slew Durth Sunblight. It was Skrote and I who butchered Xardorok Sunblight’s other son Nildar, in the mountain fastness at Caer Koenig where I let Skrote feast upon his entrails. If I wear Durth’s head about my neck as a trophy, surely his father’s wrath will fall upon me. While I stand, you others can attack him freely. It may be that my strength will fail – but I will survive as long as I can. I ask only that you strike true.’

Alea bit her lip. Dammit. The little bastard was right again. Of all of them, he could best withstand Sunblight’s fury. She took the shrunken head from his grasp and looked at it carefully. ‘I could braid the hair into the chain,’ she offered.

Testikles shook his head. ‘It’s getting kind of manky,’ he said. ‘I do not trust the hair to hold to the scalp, nor scalp to skull. Thread the chain through one eye, then out the other.’

‘I’ll need tools,’ said Alea. ‘I wonder if Pomab might have them…’

A venomous gleam came into Milo’s eyes.

***

Alea’s rehearsed speech tumbled from her lips as she entered Pomab’s emporium. ‘Farroukh!’ she said. ‘I come alone. I bear you no ill-will. I have never shat upon your floor. I want only to purchase simple tools for jewelry-work. I will pay your fair price, and be gone.’

Farroukh looked at her carefully. The merchant had lost weight since last she saw him, and there was a haunted, hunted look in his dark eyes. ‘You,’ he said. ‘You’re one of… his friends.’

‘Well, companion,’ said Alea. ‘Friend is carrying it a bit far. I mean – ’

‘Yes, yes, whatever,’ he snapped. ‘Silence! Grog! The door! Close it now! Bolt it! Lock it!’

Alea glanced around. Standing next to the shop’s door was the biggest, baldest half-orc she’d ever seen. ‘What the fuck?’ she said.

Grog closed the door, and slid the bolt across. Farroukh cackled with delight, and rubbed his hands together. ‘At last! The trap is set! Now the floor-shitter will discover his doom!’ He glared at Alea. ‘Make no attempt to leave. Grog has orders. You will remain here until he comes for you, as he surely will.’

‘Huh,’ said Alea. ‘Oooo-kay.’ The light of madness gleamed in the trader’s eyes. Alea essayed a smile. ‘Uhhh… look. I know you’ve got a thing going with Milo, but – ’

The floor-shitter!’ hissed Farroukh. ‘The thief!

‘Look, I just want a tool kit,’ said Alea. ‘Whatever you’ve got planned, it has nothing to do with me.’

‘Grog is going to beat all the shit out of the floor-shitter,’ snarled Farroukh. ‘He will beg for mercy, but there will be none.’

‘Yes,’ said Alea. ‘I understand.’

All the shit,’ said Farroukh. ‘There will be none left!’

‘Fine, fine,’ said Alea. ‘But can I buy those tools?’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Farroukh, his tone suddenly normal. ‘Two hundred gold sovereigns. They are fine tools, well made and very delicate. Dwarf-work, I should say.’

‘Done,’ said Alea, who had made up her mind not to quibble with the trader. It sounded like the right sort of price anyway. And everything they’d bought from him in the past had been good, so why not?’

‘Excellent,’ said Farroukh. He disappeared into the back of the shop, and returned with a well-made wooden case. The tools within were indeed of high quality. Alea paid up without hesitation, and Farroukh wrote out a receipt, adding a florid signature at the end. ‘Wouldn’t want someone to imagine you were also a thief,’ he said. ‘Like the floor-shitter.’

Alea glanced at Grog. He was big. He was powerfully built. He was bald and scarred. On the other hand, Milo had his fucking gloves, didn’t he? ‘So… I just wait here until Milo arrives?’

‘Yes,’ said Farroukh. Then he blinked. ‘Oh! Oh! Where are my manners? Would you care for a libation? Refreshment? Perhaps a taste of wine?’

‘Wine?’ said Alea. This was unexpected. ‘Well. Don’t mind if I do!’

‘Oh, heavens,’ said Farroukh. ‘It’s the least I can do, in return for your help in baiting my trap.’ He brought out a dusty bottle from somewhere, and glugged a generous serving into a goblet.

Alea tasted it, and nodded appreciatively. ‘Good stuff,’ she said.

‘Neverwinter Estates,’ said Farroukh. ‘I can let you have a case for no more than two hundred gold crowns.’

‘Another time,’ Alea said. ‘That’s a lot to carry just now.’

‘Boss!’ Grog had a voice like a rainbarrel full of gravel rolling down a hill. ‘He’s outside! Just like you said! I can see him!’ The big half-orc was peeping through what must have been a specially purposed spy-hole in the door.

‘Excellent,’ purred Farroukh. ‘Do let him in. And then…’ He chuckled.

Grog chortled.

Farroukh giggled.

Grog snickered.

Alea sighed. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘You know I can’t just sit by while you fuck up my… uhh… my friend.’

‘It’s just a beating,’ said Farroukh. ‘Nothing, really. Not compared with the indignities he has visited upon me.’ He saw Alea’s glass was empty. ‘More wine?’

‘Yes please,’ said Alea. She waited until Farroukh finished pouring, and went on. ‘Really, though. I can’t just do nothing while Grog there beats up Milo.’

‘Fine, fine,’ said Farroukh. ‘I’m sure Grog can deal with you both. Right Grog?’

The half-orc looked Alea up and down. He cracked his knuckles loudly, and guffawed.

Well. So be it.

‘The door!’ said Farroukh.

Grog slid back the bolt and opened the door. Milo stepped through, followed by Jeoff, and Iledove. Thankfully, Testikles stayed outside with Jack Rabbitt, Skrote, Beaky and Mister Bear. And how had they come to have such a damn fool menagerie anyhow? Throw in the four elk that pulled the big caravan-sled, and you might as well open a zoo.

Milo strode in with a big smile. ‘Hello, Poo-mad,’ he said, opening his arms. ‘What have you got for sale?’

Farroukh practically lost his shit in an ecstasy of villainous giggling. ‘Now, Grog! Spring the trap!’

The big half-orc closed the door, and slid the bolt. He ignored Jeoff and Iledove, concentrating entirely on Milo. ‘The boss said I should smash you up. Ha! I’d cut you in half, but then you’d be… even shorter!

Alea winced in embarrassment, but Farroukh waited, eyes wide and eager, to see the effect of the brutal insult on his enemy. Grog rubbed his hands together in anticipation.

‘So. Show me your wares?’ said Milo, ignoring Grog completely.

‘My… my wares?’ Farroukh glared. ‘I have nothing for you! Nothing except the most brutal beating for the filthy floor-shitter who did a shit on my bedroom floor last night! And stole my crystal!’

‘What?’ cried Milo. ‘I never took a shit through your skylight!’

Alea put her hand over her eyes and sighed. ‘If you didn’t, you probably shouldn’t have mentioned the skylight,’ she said. ‘Nobody else mentioned the skylight.’

‘They didn’t?’ said Milo. ‘Oh. Oh. But… I definitely didn’t take his crystal.’

‘Was that the crystal you had down at the Temple of Tempus?’ said Iledove. ‘When they were cleansing our cursed stuff?’

Thief!’ screeched Farroukh. ‘Floor-shitting thief!’

Milo held up his hands. ‘Come on, Poo-mad. You wouldn’t punch a retarded guy, right? Because that’s me. Yeah. I’m retarded.’

‘I’m not going to punch you,’ hissed Farroukh. ‘Grog is going to punch you!’

‘Yeah,’ Grog said. He tittered. It was disconcerting, coming from a huge, bald, paunchy half-orc. ‘Gonna punch you! A lot!’

Milo brought out a bag of cash and held it up. ‘But I’m trying to go shopping. I want to buy goods!’

Farroukh took a swipe at the bag from across the counter, but Milo twitched it back out of reach. ‘I’ll take that money,’ said Farroukh. ‘And everything else you have, once Grog has finished with you.’

‘Oh,’ said Milo, a grin creeping across his face. ‘So… it’s robbery, is it? Oooh. I don’t like the sound of that. I guess I’d have to defend myself if someone was trying to beat me and rob me. Yep.’

Grog lumbered forward. He drew back a greenish fist roughly the size of a watermelon.

Milo slid forward and jammed a knife into the back of Grog’s knee.

‘Fuuuck!’ screamed the half-orc, staggering back. ‘Him got a knife!’

‘Attack, Grog!’ shouted Farroukh. ‘Destroy him! Wait! I shall…’ The shopkeeper rummaged about under the counter and found a short, spiked club.

‘Yeah, nah,’ said Jeoff quietly, and made a gesture.

‘Oof,’ said Farroukh. He turned a nasty shade of green, and clutched his belly.

Alea deftly collected the remains of the Neverwinter Estates. It was too good to let it go to waste. Besides, she’d seen Jeoff do the Ray of Sickness thing before. She was going to need more wine.

Farroukh’s eyes widened. His stomach gurgled. ‘I’m not… feeling well,’ he said, and farted, long and bubbly. ‘Oh dear.’

‘Can we wrap this up, Milo?’ said Jeoff. ‘We’ve got business elsewhere.’

‘Sure,’ said Milo. He pirouetted past another punch from Grog, sprang up, and neatly slit the half-orc’s throat. Blood fountained in a scarlet fan to spray the walls, the floor, the shelves, the counter – but not Alea, who’d been expecting some such shitfuckery and had darted towards the door with her bottle.

‘B…bbosss?’ said Grog, sinking to his knees. He put his hands across his throat, but only succeeded in deflecting the bloodspray to new regions of the shop.

‘Didn’t… plan… this… as well… as I should,’ gasped Farroukh between bouts of powerpuking.

Milo eyed the cashbox on the counter. Iledove shook her head sternly and let her hand drop to the hilt of her sword. The halfling shrugged, and dropped his trousers instead. As Alea darted outside, the last things she heard were Farroukh moaning and puking – and Milo grunting as he strained out yet another turd for Farroukh’s ever-expanding collection of souvenirs.

***

For a wonder they passed through Goodmead, and nobody paid them the slightest attention. Iledove was relieved. She was pretty sure she couldn’t have kept Milo and Jeoff from annihilating the entire village in “self-defense” if anyone had brought up the events of a few weeks back.

Destroying any of the Ten Towns was the last thing they wanted to do, she felt. After all, weren’t they finally on their way to the lair of Xardorok Sunblight to thwart his ridiculous dragon-building plans and bring safety and security to Icewind Dale? Wasn’t that why the priests of Tempus had loaned them all the nifty weaponry and stuff? You could hardly call yourself a ‘savior’ of anything if you went around randomly annihilating bits of it.

Dougan’s Hole passed by just as quietly. Iledove was secretly a little disappointed there. Sure, their reputation in Goodmead was a bit trash, but they’d saved Dougan’s Hole from talking wolves and a really bad-tempered talking mammoth, and they’d even brought back kidnapped children. Milo had supplied half the town with fish, and they’d killed Sephek the undead… guy… without doing much more than lightly scorching the tavern. Dougan’s Hole was probably their most successful venture yet – but did the locals take notice of their heroes return?

They did not.

Probably for the best, really.

Sometime late in the afternoon – as far as anyone could tell – a blizzard closed in. Testikles, leading their little caravan on his war-pig, came back and slapped the side of the wagon. ‘No farther,’ he said. ‘Can’t see. We’d get lost. We must wait for the snows to pass.’ He piled the skins and furs collected over weeks of pillaging and hunting atop Skrote the Pig, and made sure he was comfortable and warm before joining the others inside the wagon.

And then Jack Rabbitt awoke.

‘What time is it?’ he whined. ‘Where are we? It’s cold! I’m hungry!’

Cue Milo screaming and farting. ‘Fuck off! Shut up! Go outside and die!’

By this time nobody really cared about Milo’s lunacy any more. Maybe it was that he’d admitted under the Zone of Truth enchantment that he was “retarded”, which was a typically Milo figure of speech. But however gross his choice of words, it was hard to really waste time being angry with a foul-mouthed munchkin locked in a perpetual tantrum. The screaming was a bit irritating, though. Iledove stuck her hand over his mouth and looked to Jack Rabbitt. ‘It’s about time you earned your keep, “bard”. I want to hear a story,” she said.

Milo pulled her hand off his face. ‘No!’ he screamed. ‘No no no no no nooooo!’ His face turned a rich deep red, and he farted violently. A collective sigh arose from the group. The wagon had been built for warmth and security, not ventilation and fresh air.

‘Oooh,’ said Jack Rabbitt. ‘Err… a story?’

‘Yes!’ said Iledove. ‘Tell us why you were so eager to leave Easthaven?’

‘Oh, that’s nothing,’ said the older man. ‘Nothing at all, really. Not interesting. No story.’

‘You were pretty eager to get out of there,’ Jeoff said. ‘Something about not staying in one place too long. What happens if you stay in one place, Jack Rabbitt?’

‘Nothing! No! I get bored! Yes! No! Gotta move on! Gotta move on!’ He squished himself back into a corner of the wagon and thumped his drum a couple times.

To Iledove’s surprise, Alea’s sword came out with a hiss of steel on leather. The battlemaster leveled the tip at Jack Rabbitt’s throat, and glared. ‘I’ve had enough of the evasions. If you’re running from something, we need to know. Speak up, or I’ll run you through.’

The blood drained from Jack Rabbitt’s face. He shot a pleading look at Testikles. The little barbarian shrugged. ‘We are trapped by a blizzard and bored,’ said Testikles. ‘Your job is making music and telling stories. If you don’t tell stories, I don’t need you and you can go outside on your own.’

‘Oh,’ said Jack Rabbitt in a very small voice.

And then the story came out.

Warded by Iledove’s zone of truth, encouraged by occasional swordpoint prods, Jack Rabbitt finally admitted he was not, actually, a bard. Iledove put her hand over Milo’s mouth again to stifle the hysterical cries of triumph.

No, in fact Jack Rabbitt had been a prosperous innkeeper in the city of Waterdeep. And then one day he made an angry man very angry, and the angry man chased him, so he ran away.

Alea poked the ex-innkeeper again.

Fine, all right. Yes. The angry man had a very nice ruby, and Jack had stolen it. ‘It was an amazing stone! It spoke to me,’ he said. ‘I swear, I just… I just blacked out, and when I came to I was halfway down the street, clutching the ruby!’ He looked at the others and held up his hands. ‘I swear, I’ve never been a thief.’

‘Right,’ said Alea. ‘Sure.’

‘So where is this amazing gem now?’ asked Iledove. ‘You must still have it, or you wouldn’t be worried about the owner finding you.’

Jack Rabbitt squirmed in his corner. ‘I have it,’ he admitted. ‘Oh yes. I couldn’t part with it. I keep it close to me. It’s right in front of my eyes all the time, so I can watch over it.’

Alea and Iledove glanced at each other. Milo peered greedily at Jack Rabbitt’s face, and Jeoff looked over the frightened “bard” from top to toe – but it was Testikles who acted. He turned up the little oil lamp the provided light inside the wagon. Then in one smooth motion, he reached across and flicked up Jack Rabbitt’s big, lumpy eyepatch, and caught the ruby with the same hand as it fell.

‘He said it was in front of his eyes,’ said the barbarian. He held the ruby up to the light.

‘Give me that!’ snapped Milo and Jack Rabbitt simultaneously. Testikles ignored them both, turning the stone this way and that so the rich, scarlet depths caught the lamp-light and turned the little wagon a deep, morbid red.

‘I am no judge of stones,’ he said at last. ‘It does not seem special to me. Who was the owner?’

‘A powerful sorceror of Waterdeep,’ said Jack Rabbitt. ‘That’s why I fled.’

‘Let me see it,’ said Jeoff.

Testikles folded the stone into his hand, and glanced at Jack Rabbitt. The wannabe bard shook his head violently. ‘It’s mine!’

‘You’ll have it back,’ said Alea. ‘But we need to know the value of this stone to determine whether the owner is likely to pursue us. You understand?’

Jack Rabbitt nodded reluctantly. Testikles handed the stone across to Jeoff, neatly dodging Milo’s desperate snatches at the ruby on the way.

Jeoff frowned, and looked closely at the stone. He weighed it in the palm of his hand, then closed his eyes and pressed it to his forehead, his lips moving silently. At last he returned to the stone to Jack Rabbitt. ‘Be wary,’ said the elven mage. ‘That ruby is a powerful arcane focus. I would guess its worth at two thousand gold crowns, or better. The owner will most certainly go to great lengths to secure its return.’

‘Oh,’ said Jack Rabbitt meekly. ‘That’s… not good.’

‘Indeed it is not,’ said Alea. ‘And while we’re on the topic, the way you’re taking advantage of Testikles is not good either.’

‘It’s not?’ said Testikles.

‘No,’ said Alea. ‘Jack Rabbitt is no bard, but he’s taking your money. In the meantime, he’s getting our protection from this powerful sorceror enemy of his. I propose a new deal. You want our continued protection, Jack?’

Rabbitt nodded quickly.

‘Thought so,’ said Alea. ‘Fine. No more pay unless you earn it. You get fed. You get a place to hide out. But you contribute however you can. You were an innkeeper. I bet you can cook, and clean, and build fires and shit like that. That’s how you earn your keep now.’

‘But I want stories,’ said Testikles. ‘I like this one about the ruby. It’s really good. Here,’ he said, handing a gold coin to Rabbitt. ‘That is a tip for the fine storytelling.’

Jack Rabbitt’s eyes – for it transpired he did indeed have two of them – grew wide. ‘My… my first successful performance!’ he breathed. ‘Thank you! Thank you all!’

‘Gaaaahhhh!’ snarled Milo, and he farted again.

***

Sometime later, the wagon rocked as something knocked powerfully against the side. Once! Twice! Many times! Testikles pulled himself from a half-sleep, and cursed. Was nobody on watch? No, of course not. Who would try to attack them in a blizzard when nobody could see?

A booming voice called out over the wind. ‘Ho in the wagon! Do you need shelter?’

Testikles slid open a viewport. A lot of snow-crusted fur blocked his view.

‘Huh?’ Alea sat up, rubbing her eyes. ‘What’s going on?’

Testikles pointed at the fur. ‘Something wants to know if we want shelter.’

‘We’ve got shelter,’ said Alea reasonably. ‘Who wants to know?’

A very large, bearded face appeared at the viewport. ‘It is I,’ he said, beaming happily. ‘Look at your little wagon! So comfortable. I thought at first you must be goblins or the like, but I saw the Rheghed elks. But you have a big pig! And a bear! Who are you?’

‘Travellers,’ said Testikles.

‘I am Wine-dude,’ said the big face. ‘Your folk know me as a Goliath. I am with three friends. We have a shelter and a fire. I thought you might need help, but I see all is well with you.’ He paused. ‘Perhaps you would like to play a game? We often pass the time in games of strength and skill with travellers such as you. Sometimes,’ his voice lowered and his snowy, shaggy eyebrows lifted, ‘Sometimes there are even wagers.

‘Is that so?’ said Alea.

‘I’m not sure we should consider gambling,’ said Iledove.

‘No, no. I have an idea,’ Alea said. She squirmed across the wagon and opened another viewport. ‘Wow! You’re all sorts of big, aren’t you?’

‘It is said we are kin to the giant folk,’ said Wine-dude.

‘So I guess you’d be wanting to play games that suit you?’ Alea said. ‘Because you’re strong?’

Wine-dude’s yellow teeth showed in a grin. ‘We are strong! We can play tug-of-war, or Roll the Boulder. There are four of us, but we don’t mind if all of you make a team together. We’re very strong.’

‘Can you fight?’ said Alea?

Wine-dude took a step back and shook the long spear that he carried. ‘We fight!’

‘Uhhh… not against us,’ said Alea. ‘Here’s the deal. If we win your games, you help us in a fight coming up. We’re trying to save Icewind Dale and the Ten Towns from a terrible evil. The duergar called Xardorok Sunblight is trying to build a chardalyn dragon to destroy everything. You know chardalyn? The weapons those mad berserkers carry?’

‘Yes,’ said Wine-dude. ‘It is evil.’

‘Well, we want to get rid of the evil,’ Alea said. ‘And we could use the help of four big, powerful, skilled warriors.’

‘Hmm,’ said Wine-dude. ‘What do we get if we win?’

‘It’s pretty clear these games of yours are a bit of a scam,’ Alea said. ‘You guys being so big and strong. I bet you have trouble getting travellers to wager against you.’

Wine-dude nodded. ‘It is true. Smaller folk fear to lose their wealth to our strength and size.’

‘There you are, then,’ Alea said. ‘If we lose, we’ll help you. We’ll pretend to be your team – and when the travellers agree, you can bring out the others to win your games.’

The big man – he must have been near a fathom and a half in height – shrugged. ‘I like this,’ he said. ‘And we are not against helping you. We know the evil that is chardalyn, and the wind has whispered of this Sunblight. Even if we lose, it will be no bad thing to help destroy him.’

***

Of course, what Wine-dude and his three equally bulky buddies didn’t know was that Milo had the gauntlets that made him ridiculously strong. On top of that, Testikles was ludicrously strong even without magic gauntlets. It took a bit of cajoling and threatening to get Milo off the ground where he was throwing his latest tantrum, but in the end everyone got together to play what Jeoff viewed as an astonishingly stupid set of games. They weren’t allowed to include Skrote, Beaky or Mister Bear, though. Apparently the Goliaths thought of that as cheating.

The first game was Roll-The-Boulder, which pretty much described it. Two really big, round boulders. Two teams. Fifty feet of distance. There was plenty of grunting and heaving and straining, but Team Jeoff – as he thought of it – took an early lead and dusted the Goliaths handily.

Jeoff was wary. He felt it likely that the big, powerful Goliaths would be irked at their loss to a team full of women and halflings, but to his surprise they took it with good grace and moved straight to the second challenge.

The tug of war involved fifty feet of rope, one team on either end. Evidently the Goliaths were a bit tired, or maybe they weren’t bringing their A-game, because they got dragged across the line in pretty short order.

Wine-dude dusted himself down, and stuck out a hand. ‘Good game,’ he said.

Jeoff took the hand carefully, and tried not to wince at the power of the handshake. ‘Good game,’ he agreed. ‘Will you fulfill your bargain?’

Wine-dude looked hurt. ‘That you even ask is an affront, little elf. The honour of the games is sacred to us! Lead us to the enemy, and we will fight with all our strength!’ He frowned, and glanced across at Milo and Testikles, then at Iledove and Alea. ‘Although… perhaps that strength is less than we believed,’ he admitted. ‘Are the little ones truly halflings?’

Jeoff nodded.

Wine-dude shook his head in amazement. ‘Truly, the End of Days must be nigh.’

And so, the caravan that wound its way deep into the mountains of the Spine of the World grew the larger by four really big dudes. They were a cheerful bunch, singing songs as they marched, and they were delighted when Jack Rabbitt supplied a drumbeat for them.

The caravan continued, following the map and Testikles scouting ahead on Skrote, until at last they entered a small valley, and came to a halt. Everyone climbed out and stared.

‘Fuck me,’ said Milo. ‘I don’t like the look of that.’

A tall, imposing fortress had been carved from the stone of the cliff face. To one side, a narrow, open stair switched back and forth up the cliff. It was icy, and narrow, and the makers of the stone steps had not seen fit to include handrails – a clear breach of occupational health and safety rules, Jeoff felt. Worse, the stairs were overseen by a number of deep arrowslits cut into stone, with firelight showing behind them. At the very top, there was a battlement. The whole place was basically a gigantic fuck-you to anybody who wanted to assault it. A crippled kid with a peashooter could sit at the top and probably obliterate anybody who tried to climb those stairs.

‘Perhaps there’s a back way in?’ said Testikles. ‘We always use the back way.’

‘I can do the spider-climb thing on everyone,’ Jeoff said. ‘But… we’d still be in sight of those damned arrow-slits. This is going to take some thought.’

At that instant, a terrible grinding, crashing noise arose from the fortress itself, as if massive machinery was being brought to bear. The Goliaths retreated a few paces, clutching their spears. Jeoff watched carefully.

A huge sheet of ice fell away from the front of the fortress, revealing two enormous, metal doors set into the stone. As Jeoff watched, the door swung slowly outwards and red light poured from within.

‘I like this not,’ said Testikles. ‘It bodes ill!’

‘Cover, everyone,’ hissed Alea. ‘Find something to hide behind.’

Seemed a little late for that, Jeoff thought – but then a huge, black, serpentine head emerged from the fortress, driving all thoughts from his head. The head, eyes glowing evilly, was connected to a long, snaky neck, a huge, bat-winged body, and a wicked, spined tail. The enormous beast gathered itself on powerful haunches, and then with a spring and a clash of crystalline wings, it leapt into the air and sped away in the direction of the Ten Towns.

‘Oh, fuck,’ said Alea. ‘Sunblight finished building his dragon!’

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