A hurled tankard slammed Gax in the side of the head, splashing warm ale across the green skin of his face and wetting the thin strip of long, dark hair tied in a tight knot at the back of his head. A hush fell over the patrons of the Smashed Helm. Even Darsil’eit, his elf companion, stared at Gax with raised eyebrows and her mouth slightly agape. Gax licked the ale dripping down his wide, flat nose, then rose from the table. 

     Wood groaned and protested as he spun toward the whoreson responsible for his dripping face and the sharp pain about his eye. A drunk man stared dumbly at him, seeming quite sober though Gax knew he’d imbibed heavily, as was usual for Helric. 

     “Gax, gods above, man, I didn’t mean it,” he stammered, clasping his hands together. “Was but an accident, I tell ya. Nothing more, promise. Tell him, Doran. Tell him, dammit!” 

     Helric’s friends seemed to be hard of hearing. They also seemed to no longer fancy that exact spot. By the time Gax reached the trembling man, there wasn’t another person within three strides of the two. The smell of piss accosted Gax’s nostrils, though that could have just been the general smell of the tavern. 

     Gax reached out with one large hand and grabbed Helric under the arm. The formidable muscles of his arm bulged as Helric’s feet came off the floor. Gax used his other hand to dry his face with Helric’s shirt, then put the man down. 

     “Any man takes a full mug to the head deserves to beat the man who’d thrown it, I’d say,” called the man who had been arguing with Helric just moments ago. Helric looked to him wildly, his chin quivering beneath his spotty beard. “Aye that,” came a few replies. Hushed bets were made on whether Helric would faint or be knocked unconscious. 

     “A fair trade, I’d say,” growled Gax. Helric let out a squeak. “Though, I’m a bit tired from smashing up a den of basilisks earlier. Methinks three mugs of ale would be payment enough.” 

     “Cyrius, three mugs please!” Helric all but screamed, flailing one arm in the barkeep’s direction while he rummaged around his pants pockets with another hand until he found his coin purse. 

     “And one for him,” Gax added, nodding a head toward the man Helric had been arguing with. 

     “Aye, of course, Gax!” 

     Gax returned to his seat next to Dar with the three mugs of ale hugged to his chest, another orc and a human sitting across from him. He set them down and Urgric reached for one with a meaty, dark-skinned hand. Gax smacked the orc’s hand then shot Elbert, the human across the table, a wilting glare that stopped him cold even as his shoulder began to lift. 

     “I shared the loot from the basilisk den with the lot of you. Doesn’t mean you get to take my godsdamned ale.” He took a deep pull on one of them after casting glares around, then muttered, “Bastards.” 

     Dar jabbed Gax in the side with her fist then snatched one of the mugs as he batted her hand away. Gax looked at her, dumbfounded and insulted, as she raised one eyebrow and smiled playfully while drinking from the mug. Gax shrugged then turned back to his own mugs. Urgric and Elbert looked from Dar to Gax. “Still no,” he snapped. 

     A minute later, Gax turned and winked to the man Helric had been arguing with, raising one of the mugs in toast. Dar followed his gaze then snapped in Gax’s face. “You set that up?” 

     “Why do you think we moved tables?” he asked with a grin. “Helric’s prone to huffing and puffing over any small thing of late. Tell him to screw a goat and he’ll get good and mad. He’s had a bad habit of throwing tankards lately. Doran figured we could work out a scheme, though we were both supposed to get two mugs out of it.” 

     Elbert shook his head while Urgric laughed mightily and slapped Gax on the shoulder with a thunderous clap. Gax bellowed a laugh too then poured some of his ale in Urgric’s cup. Elbert held out his own cup and Gax’s smile quickly became a glare. “You’re amazing and I wish I was more like you?” Elbert muttered quizzically. 

     Gax nodded in appreciation and offered the man a splash of his ale. 

     An uproar near the entrance of the Smashed Helm turned Gax’s head quickly in its direction. Patrons were scrambling away from the door as though a wolf with fangs dripping blood had just leapt into the tavern. But a familiar name spat from a handful of men told Gax the newest patron was no beast. It was, undoubtedly, worse than a beast. It was a wizard. And one named Salaster. 

     A man dressed in a flowing, maroon robe with a scholar’s tunic and pants beneath barged into the tavern, hugging a large box of wood banded with iron. His twisted mop of grey hair bounced with each labored step he took, and his ruddy face dripped sweat. He ignored the hollering mass and shoved past them to slam his box down on a table. As the box landed, several men and women dove for cover and cried out, their pitch such that Gax would have been certain it had only been women who had screamed had he not seen the lot. 

     “Salaster, you crazy bat, get that godsdamned contraption out of my tavern!” barked Cyrius. 

     The disheveled wizard straightened his robes, or attempted to but failed, then pushed his wild hair down with his hands, though his angle changed with each swipe which only resulted in a mass of curling hair skewed to one side of his head. “Listen, one and all…” he began. 

     “I’ll have none of that!” Cyrius cut in. “I don’t care what it does or how difficult it was to make it. Get it and yourself out!” 

     “Gods, what’d he do?” Elbert asked. 

     Gax nodded when he remembered that Elbert had been hired out of Vahle to assist in the purge of the basilisk nest. He hadn’t heard of the infamous Salaster of Longor. 

     “Blew up half of the Smashed Helm some years ago is what,” Gax said. 

     “Then tried putting it back with another spell and Cyrius was just gone for a week,” Dar added. 

     “Gone where?” Elbert asked, one eyebrow raised. 

     “Not even he could say. One day he just appeared behind the bar. It was a good thing too. The city was getting ready to haul away the wreckage and take the spot for a trade communication building, or some crap.” 

     “It can’t explode, dammit!” Salaster hollered. Before Cyrius could bark another word, the wizard slapped a button on the side of the case and it opened with a loud series of clicks and thuds. With each sound, the patrons flinched, some of them pulling their mates in front of them to use as a shield. 

     Cyrius grabbed a truncheon from behind the bar and came flying around it in the wizard’s direction. Before he could reach Salaster, the man called, “It’s done! Give me a minute then I’ll leave if you want. And put that damn stick down before I blow up the other half of the tavern.” 

     Cyrius stared daggers at Salaster, his mustache twitching in anger. “Have a look,” Salaster continued, stepping back and sweeping his arm toward the open case that had unfolded into a geometric shape resembling a square. Most of the patrons leaned a hair closer, staring at the mechanism. Another click sounded and a final portion of the case snapped down, causing each man and woman to start backward. 

     “Well, now it’s done,” Salaster murmured. 

     “What in the hells am I looking at?” Cyrius asked. “A game?” 

     Gax stood and gazed over the heads of the patrons to behold what looked like a diminutive version of the interior of a castle. He believed it to be a map with added depth. 

     “A game, yes!” Salaster said, hopping from toe to toe. “One built on illusion and magic. You’ve heard of Gadreel’s Gauntlet? Of course, you have! Imagine the Gauntlet, but one that can be moved and attempted at will.” 

     “Haven’t hundreds of people died trying to best Gadreel’s Gauntlet?” Cyrius asked, skeptically. 

     “Oh, yes. But there’s none of that with this contraption. Maybe some cuts and bruises. A lost finger. Who knows? But death? Almost certainly not. Most definitely shouldn’t happen, I’d say. Well, then, who would like to try it?” 

     “Have you tried it?” asked one of the patrons, his voice small. 

     “Gods no!” Salaster snapped. His eyes roamed the crowd tentatively. “I mean, I have to refrain so that I can ensure the safety of whoever goes.” 

     Dar’s fingers suddenly clamped on Gax’s ear. He knew that painful tug was hers without even whirling around to see her irate face. “Don’t you do it, you dumb idiot.” 

     Urgric caught Gax’s eyes, looked to Dar, then hollered, “What’s the winner get?” 

     Salaster spun toward the dark-skinned orc with a wide smile on his face. “Twenty pieces of gold from me! And, knowing what I know about you people, a percentage of whatever the bets amount to for those that bet right, certainly. Maybe free ale for a week from Cyrius?” A scowl from the barkeep answered the wizard. “Perhaps for a day? No, nothing at all? You could employ this contraption in your tavern for great profit I’m sure, you know?” 

     “I’ll do it!” Gax bellowed as he slapped Dar’s hand away and wrenched himself free. Only, Dar was far quicker than he and smacked the back of his hand as it swung past her. “Ow! I’ll give you a few pieces!” 

     Urgric and Elbert turned eager smiles on Gax. “No.” 

     “A quarter of the whole thing,” Dar growled. 

     Before Gax could complain, though he knew it would be in vain, Salaster clapped his hands together and shouted a loud, “Huzzah! Come over, my large, green, formidable friend. Yes, oh, yes, you’ll do splendidly.” 

     Gax snatched his battleaxe from its place leaning against the side of his table. Patrons ducked aside as he hefted it onto his shoulder and strode over to the wizard and his magical contraption. “How do I get in there?” Gax asked. “And what’ll be waiting for me?” 

     “A dweomer built into the box will shrink you down to fit in the gauntlet. Now, don’t worry,” Salaster added when Gax’s eyebrows shot up. “When you finish, the dweomer will reverse and you’ll return to your formidable size. Similar to Gadreel’s Gauntlet, you’ll find obstacles to test your physical endurance, fighting prowess, and mental fortitude.” 

     “Mental what now?” said one of the patrons. A raucous laugh spread throughout the tavern and Gax stood there scratching his head for a moment before he was able to parse the words. 

     “Are you ready?” Salaster asked Gax. 

     “Aye,” Gax said, wringing the haft of his axe. 

     “Don’t die in there,” Dar said. “I could use that gold for a new pair of boots.” 

     Gax winked at Dar. Patrons barked bets at one another, a few of them scribbling notes down on pieces of parchment or on the tabletops. It seemed the general consensus was that Gax would indeed fail, and come out missing one or another limb. “I’m taking a tenth share from the winners after I best the gauntlet.” 

     The patrons jeered and laughed and drank as Gax followed Salaster’s direction to stand right before the contraption. A magical glyph had been inscribed on a square of rock at what seemed to be the entrance to the gauntlet. At Salaster’s insistence, Gax took a deep breath then put his hand over the small rune. 

     Arcane words spilled from Salaster’s lips in a jumble. A final word of power flew from him with a shout and an ethereal blue light exploded from under Gax’s palm, bathing the tiny dungeon in soft luminescence. A great force pulled at Gax. He felt himself being sucked toward a maelstrom. He screamed, though he heard nothing above the din of a whipping gale. His bowels turned to ice as he felt himself falling through eternity. 

     Gax pitched forward and caught himself on a hard stone floor. His battleaxe clattered next to him. He heard the final pitched note of his scream echoing off the stone walls. Then all was silent other than his harsh breathing. He shook the cold and terror from his bones, scooped up his axe, then stood on steady feet. 

     A familiar scene greeted him: that of weathered stone walls, crumbling statues of some god or a dead patron, archaic sigils carved into the floor at the threshold from one chamber to another, and the eerie promise of violence. Fond memories of pilfering an abandoned temple dedicated to a forgotten god and of robbing tombs beset with traps to guard a wealthy dead lord flooded Gax’s mind. A confident smile spread across his face, the thick, gold hoops pierced through his nostril and lip clinking together. 

     Gax found the ceiling to be comprised of the same stone material as the walls. “Hello?” he asked uncertainly. 

     A series of scrabbling and clicking sounds responded. Gax turned toward the sound and found a many-legged, slithering creature bearing down on him. It was a giant insect, with clacking mandibles with serrated edges, bulbous eyes of shimmering green, and whipping antenna bearing a striking resemblance to cave-dwelling critters Gax had smashed underfoot on many occasions. This one, however, would have been eight feet in height had it stood on its back set of pincer-like legs. 

     Gax set his feet as the thing came on, then hopped backward as it made its final lunge. He interposed the head of his axe where his legs had been just a moment ago and the creature’s jaws clamped shut on the sharp edges. Despite the gouges and the blood that leaked from the wounds, the creature held on tightly and began to yank its head back and forth. Its many legs gave it amazing leverage and Gax almost found himself either unarmed or on his back. 

     Gax rode the momentum of one substantial tug, however, and drove his axe in the same direction with as much force as he could muster. The creature resisted, but too late. It flipped over onto its back, though its rear legs still managed to keep themselves planted firmly on the ground. Gax slammed his boot into the creature’s underside but found an exoskeleton as strong as plate mail. 

     The axe that kept the creature’s formidable jaws busy was his only option. Gax stomped on one mandible to pin the creature, then worked his axe back and forth until it popped free. Immediately, he felt the creature righting itself. Gax high-stepped the gnashing jaws then put his foot down as his axe descended. 

     Jaws snapped around his leg, knife-stabs of pain going through his ankle, then the mandibles fell slack. A crunch sounded as the axe cleaved through the creature’s natural armor and split it completely through, just behind its bulging, glowing eyes. Death twitches wracked the thing, causing Gax to wince as the pointed edge of its jaws dug in deeper to his ankle. 

     “Hold that for me,” he growled as he left his axe embedded in the creature and bent down. He grabbed the jaws, one in each hand, and pried them apart just enough to slip his leg free, his calloused hands standing up to the job without taking a gash. 

     Moments later, Gax stood staring at the creature as it twitched and curled in on itself. “Hello?” he asked again, this time a bit quieter. 

     The stone of the ceiling parted as though it had become a patch of fog that the sun had suddenly burned away and a gargantuan nose poked down. He started and readied his axe before he recognized the overly large face of Salaster. “We can see you, Gax. Well done with the crawler, there!” 

     “So even if I can’t see through the ceiling, you all can see me?” 


     A grin split Gax’s face. “Then to anyone who wagered I’d fail this, go suck eggs!” A distant rumbling of laughter followed, sounding like the boom of thunder. Salaster chuckled, then disappeared, the swirling fog returning then solidifying into definite shape. 

     Arcane sigils awaited Gax at the only exit from this chamber. He stepped onto them and they flared red, then dimmed to a faint glow. He inspected the next room from the threshold to find an array of wooden towers and contraptions all draped in ropes tied to various places. The arcane brightness that lit the room glinted off metal edges, though Gax couldn’t make out exactly what they were, hidden inside the woodwork as they were. 

     Gax stepped from the rune on the floor and into the chamber and a swirl of motion erupted. Pulleys activated, guards clicked open, ropes pulled taut, a blast of fire shot up toward the ceiling. Gax crouched and swiveled back and forth just in time to see a wide machine rumbling toward him. It shook the ground as it closed on him, its large, steel face adorned with wicked spikes. At his back was a solid wall. If he didn’t move soon, he’d find himself riddled with holes. 

     He skipped from his spot and winced as the machine slammed into the stone wall, peppering him with bits of pulverized stone. A maelstrom of movement whirled about him and he found himself unable to focus on any one aspect. A chain suspended from a rod sticking out of the wall swung toward him, and at its end was a cannonball. 

     With so many other deadly pieces of machinery causing mayhem about him, Gax would have been too wary to jump out of the way, even if he had seen the pendulum earlier. He grabbed the chain as it came for him, but the cannonball continued right along. He was sure it had been made for a human contestant, one that would have taken the strike in the gut. He, being an orc and taller than the average human, was struck in the groin. 

     By the grace of the gods, the cannonball was a bit offline and hit his thigh before rebounding into his more sensitive parts. Still, he found himself holding onto the chain just to keep from spilling to the ground in a heap. Thunder boomed from far away. 

     The orc collected himself quickly, looking all about in case another cannonball was aimed at some other part of his body. He found himself tripping forward as the chain in his hand vanished. He sighted it at once, swinging down on its arc with the same terrible force to crush him again. He threw himself against the machine he’d avoided just as it flew past, cursing Salaster and his wizardry. 

     Breathing heavily and ignoring the urge to bend over and grab his groin lest something scramble his brains, Gax took a moment to collect himself. There were all manner of deadly traps activating throughout the room. Many of them involved sharp, steel edges while others dealt in arcane and elemental currency. Gax tried to determine a path through the madness but it was all too chaotic. 

     “Dar,” Gax croaked up at the ceiling. “If I die in here, I expect you to castrate that damned wizard!” 

     Gax sucked in a deep breath, gripped his battleaxe near its head in one hand, and sprang forward just as the cannonball swung by. A metal grate on the floor spat sounds of machinery clicking. Gax lifted the foot planted on the grate just as metal spikes shot up from it, the point of a few touching his boot. 

     The spikes receded and Gax leapt fully onto the grate to avoid a swinging cannonball. He sprawled to the floor immediately after as a wooden column next to him spun in place, wide, curved blades like that of a falchion extending from it. He rolled away as a blade positioned lower on the column streaked toward his face. 

     A click sounded and a sudden pain in his rear pulled a shout from Gax. He looked over his shoulder to see darts sticking out of his backside. Gax stood and found the exit. A stretch of floor adorned by magic sigils warned him from taking a direct route. Reluctantly, he spun away from the exit and worked his way in a loop that would avoid the rune-carved floor. 

     Swinging blades came within a hair of shedding the orc’s blood. Gouts of flame burned blisters into his scalp and neck but failed to immolate him. A steam-powered block of stone cleverly hidden in the wall slammed him in the hip with the force of a ram. An arcane sigil he leapt over while avoiding a fired javelin from a mechanism in the wall caused him to vomit uncontrollably. But, slipping on his vomit and clutching his rolling stomach, he dove out of the trap-ridden chamber. 

     Immediately, the sickness went away as a sigil below him glowed a soft white. Warmth flooded him, assuaging the pain from his battered and burned body. Gax pulled himself up to his feet, the darts in his rear plinking the floor as the wounds they had created closed and pushed them out. He licked his palm, wincing at the harsh taste, then plopped his meaty hand atop his head, extinguishing the fire smoldering in the loose portion of his hair. 

     Gax battled and worked his way through several more chambers. He cleaved a demonic aberration in two after suffering a broken arm that was magically mended once he crawled his way to the next trial. An hour passed as he figured out how to unlock a door in a room by moving patterned tiles around the floor until he’d created an unbroken line using each tile available in the room that one could follow from one threshold to the other. He’d heard many rumbles of thunder that seemed quite derogatory during that hour. 

     After proving his dexterity in a game of striking moving targets with handaxes that magically appeared on a table, he found himself standing before an impressive set of double-doors. He stepped on the magical sigil scribed onto the stone floor and the threshold behind him closed as a stone slab slid up from the floor, grinding and casting off dust. The doors before him reached all the way to the ceiling, some twenty feet up, though each was only a bit wider than Gax’s shoulders. With an earth-quaking rumble, they began to open. 

     Golden light spilled in through the small slit, its intensity strong enough to make Gax squint. The strength of the light lessened as the doors opened wider. A large chamber complete with wide pillars of stone and a circular set of stairs up to a raised dais in the middle slackened Gax’s jaw. He ambled forward and around a crumbled pillar to gape at the podium, nearly lost completely beneath a sea of glittering gold, precious gems, and wondrous items. 

     Gax, a wary adventurer even when drunk or under the influence of wanderer’s moss, nearly flung himself toward the immeasurable wealth. An instinct he had learned to trust over the many years screamed at him to hold his place, however. He inched behind the pillar closest to him, managing to tear his gaze from the treasure and scan the room. 

     Tattered banners hung from the walls, some of them nothing but burned strips of cloth, others gone completely and blackened wall left in their place. No exits presented themselves. Even the doors Gax had come through had swung close with a whisper. At the head of the room was a handful of overturned thrones, gleaming crowns cast about near them. 

     Gax listened intently, attempting to notice the steady rhythm of breathing. His caution proved warranted. Though he didn’t hear the inhalation and exhalation of breath, he was able to pick out a series of quiet but sharp creaks and cracks. He peered up toward the source of the noise and found a pillar obstructing his view. The tip of something at one time white but now yellowed with age caught his attention. It moved, ever so subtly, and reminded him of a wavering spear tip. 

     Eyes trained on that odd thing near the ceiling, Gax crept around the pillar. His feet barely made a sound as they glided over loose stones and rubble. His breath barely escaped his nostrils as he slipped forward to reveal more of what he gawked at. Before he saw the entirety of it, he knew he was staring at a collection of bones, arrayed in a distinct pattern. 

     Two eyes, glowing red and surrounded by nothingness, like the deepest pit in the lowest ring of the hells, glared at Gax. His own eyes widened and he nearly soiled himself and ran into the furthest corner of the chamber to cower. Perched atop a curved stone awning above the downed thrones, was a dragon made up of bones held together by demonic magic. Never had Gax seen a dragon, never mind a living one. To behold an undead creature so magnificent, terrible, and powerful only a bowshot away, with its many twisting horns and full maw of bristling fangs, each the size of a long sword, turned his bowels to ice. 

     “Godsdamned wizard,” he whispered, his voice quaking. 

     The dragon seemed to hear him, as it leaned closer, cocked its head to one side, then threw its head back and screeched. The sound seemed to tear at Gax’s soul. He wondered if his ears were bleeding, if he’d lose consciousness before even getting a chance to beg Salaster to get him out of this damned gauntlet. 

     Neither became a possibility, however, as the abomination stretched toward Gax and a conflagration swirled into existence in its empty ribcage. The flame traveled along its spine then shot from its mouth. Gax bellowed a cry of alarm. His instincts took hold and he was sprinting along the row of stone pillars away from the blast.  

     Extreme heat washed over him as a deafening boom erupted just a dozen steps behind him. A wave of force hit him like a battering ram and he was sent rolling across the ground and into the far wall. The roar of the fire ended and Gax was on his feet, knowing any time wasted would mean a swift and painful death. He scooped up his axe just as the dragon landed atop the dais covered in treasure. Those red eyes stared hatred at Gax.  

     “It’s undead,” Gax whispered. “How do I kill an undead thing this big?” Chopping it to pieces wasn’t likely to work. Hell, the thing would just pull its bones back together with the same magic that held them together currently.  

     The red orbs flashed a cobalt blue. Something in the pile of gold caught Gax’s eye for a moment. A gem secured in a decorative metal affair also flashed with blue light. A phylactery!  

     Before Gax could make a move toward the gem, he found himself paralyzed. A dull blue glow emanated from his body. The dragon’s spell had immobilized him. And what was worse, the undead creature took a long, slow step toward him. If bones could smile, Gax would say the abomination was grinning. 

     Gax raged against the hold of the spell. He threw up mental barricades and managed a meager growl. The lumbering dragon took another step toward him, its maw drifting open. Every muscle in Gax’s body twitched. He felt a tooth crack, but still he couldn’t break the spell’s hold in any substantial way. 

     The stink of rotting flesh accosted Gax as the dragon lumbered over him. He could have taken a swing at one massive forearm of decayed and yellowed bone, if he had the use of his body. Bones creaked as the dragon reared its head up, readying to come down and bite Gax in two. 

     A deep rumble escaped the beast as it struck, but Gax’s own cry drowned it out. His body was free suddenly, and he found himself diving and rolling away just as the dragon’s jaws slammed shut. Fetid air washed over him and the crack of fangs was like the crash of lightning. 

     Gax sprang to his feet and chopped with his axe, a weapon lacking any magical properties, thus useless in destroying a phylactery. The axe struck what looked like brittle bone, but Gax’s arms were numbed by a shock that he would have expected had he struck a mountain of steel. His grip faltered and he dropped his axe, not that he would have use of it anyway, then dashed past the dragon. 

     Bones creaked and clicked as the abomination spun to give chase. Gax bounded up the steps of the podium, managing to keep his feet beneath him even when he slipped on spilling piles of coins. He snatched the hilt of a longsword, raised it above his head, then brought it down on the intricate amulet that housed the soul of the draconic lich. Purple light flared, blinding Gax, but not before he saw the obliteration of the sword. It had been an exquisitely crafted, gem-crusted affair, but one that wasn’t magical, he now knew. 

     Gax broke into a run as gold shuddered from the thundering footsteps behind him. A fire roared to life at his back. He made a sharp turn at the edge of the dais then leapt off it just as a gout of flame shot past, scorching his exposed forearm and setting bits of his clothing aflame. His roll extinguished the flames, then he was up and making for the pillars on the far side of the room. Once behind one, he continued past several until he abruptly stopped, doing everything in his power to quite his laborious breathing. 

     The conflagration ended, then pounding footsteps that loosed dust from the ceiling followed. Gax waited and listened. An explosion startled him as the dragon decimated the first pillar he’d ducked behind with a swipe of its tail, but he kept his position. A large chunk of stone skittered to a stop at his feet. He crouched and snatched it up. The dragon lumbered closer, a deep growl escaping its cavernous chest. 

     Gax waited and counted to five. The beast was just a few steps away from his pillar. He quietly turned, then hurled the stone as far as he could. It sailed through the air then struck the back wall with a bang. The dragon screeched and its pace quickened. Gax waited until he was confident he could slip from cover without being seen, then poked his head around the pillar. 

     Pits of swirling hell fire greeted him. The dragon had discovered his ruse, it seemed, and had tricked Gax into thinking it had worked. Before Gax could even utter a single, stuttering curse, the beast’s head darted forward. Rows of teeth encircled the orc. Even with boots of flying he wouldn’t have been fast enough to dart aside as the great mouth closed on him. Pointed teeth dug into his sides, legs, and arms. He screamed as his insides turned to cold jelly. 

     “Nom, nom, nom, nom, nom.” Gax opened his eyes slowly at the odd sound, still expecting to see his body divided into multiple pieces. His jaw popped opened as a massive, wrinkled hand closed gently around his body and opened repeatedly. A chorus of far-away laughter tore his confused gaze upward where the ceiling had melted away. At the end of the arm of the hand that was still pretending to eat Gax, was the smiling face of Salaster, making ridiculous sounds. 

     Fury lent Gax the power to flush the paralyzing fear from his body and he grabbed onto one of the mad wizard’s fingers then took a bite of it. He tasted blood and Salaster tore his hand away, hissing in pain. Gax glared at the wizard, who glared right back after wiping his finger on his robes. Then the wizard’s smile returned and he clapped. “What a show, Gax! It all worked so well! So very well!” Salaster was bouncing on his toes now, as giddy as a child opening a present. 

     “You cheated!” Gax barked indignantly. 

     “Not at all. My sight was only that of the dragon’s while the illusion was in effect. Ask your friends here, they saw my eyes go white as a blind man’s.” 

     Gax snorted then stomped over to his axe and scooped it up. The glitter of gold caught his attention and he turned a curious eye on the hill of treasure. “It’s an illusion, goodsir,” Salaster said. “If you would now.” Gax followed his pointed finger, the one bearing a tiny set of red teeth marks, to a sigil etched into the floor atop the pedestal that held the overturned thrones. 

     The same sensation of being ripped through time and space accosted Gax as he left the gauntlet and returned to the Smashed Helm. Patrons jerked away from him as he appeared, his axe a finger’s width from poking out one man’s eye. 

     “Godsdamned good show!” bellowed Urgric. “A shame you didn’t best the dragon at the end there.” 

     “Bet I could,” snickered an arrogant adventurer somewhere in the crowd. 

     Salaster turned toward the man. “Do you now?” he asked with a pleased grin. 

     Gax slumped down in his seat next to Dar, and realized she was counting out a good chunk of silver coins. “How’d you get those?” he asked, frowning. 

     “I won the bet.” 

     “Which bet?” 

     “Whether or not you’d succeed in the gauntlet.” 

     “You bet that I would fail?” 

     “I did, and I bet correctly, did I not? Here, these are yours.” 

     “I didn’t claim I’d lose, like you did, you horse’s arse. I’m not entitled to any portion.” 

     “I’m just returning your silver. But I can keep it if you’d like.” 

     Gax felt around his trouser pockets for his coin pouch and found it was missing. Dar produced it and tossed it to him. 

     “You took my coin and bet it against me? Gods, Dar, that’s crossing a line!” 

     “Will you shut up if I give you two extra silver?” 

     Gax’s scowl flew from his face. “Make it three and we’re square.” 

     Dar pushed a handful of coins back to Gax. A quick count revealed that she’d returned what she’d taken and added just two extra silver. “You get two. Now, drink. That idiot Oberin is going to try the gauntlet and I wager he’ll only make it half way.” 

     “So, I did pretty well, then.” 

     Dar tilted her head to the side and pursed her lips. “Eh, I’d have finished it. I mean, who actually thinks throwing a rock is going to distract a dragon, even if it is just an illusory one?”