Once Fengarad was out of sight I felt a lot better. Whatever was going on back there, our non-participation filled me with a sense of accomplishment. In a game, beating the final boss is what most people think of as winning. When it’s for real, success is never even meeting the final boss.
It took us all day to reach the outskirts of the marshlands. There was still a way to go until we got to the lakes and ponds, but getting off the road and into the tall grass helped put my mind further at ease.
We made camp for the night and ate some food. Getting back into our old routine was surprisingly easy and I didn’t even have to organise the guard duty. Everyone knew what to do.
The next day was spent walking with no random encounters, no dangers needing to be avoided.
Everything was going smoothly. But I’d seen too many slasher movies where a bunch of kids go hiking in the woods only to find themselves hunted by a madman who can’t be killed. The happier and jollier my party became, the more edgy I got. I told them to keep it down and stay alert, but they treated me like I was being paranoid.
Of course, I wasn’t paranoid, I was right.
The first sign of trouble was the barking. Not like a dog, more like someone doing an impression of a dog. As we got closer, I realised it was laughter. But not human laughter.
We kept low in the grass as we approached the lake where we had met the frogmen. Through the stalks we could see the four of them—Nabbo, his son, his son’s wife and their kid—on their wooden platform, but they weren’t alone.
Five other creatures were also, there. Three on the platform and two in the water, pushing the floating platform towards the bank.
These creatures weren’t frogmen. They were bigger and beefier-looking, with narrower faces and stumpy tails. They also had swords and basic armour. I recognised them from the Book of Beasts; they were lizardmen.
The smallest of the three on the platform, the one who was making the barking laughter, had a sword pointed at Nabbo, who was curled into a ball on his wicker chair. The son was on the floor getting kicked by two lizardmen, while the female was huddled on the edge, her arms wrapped around her child.
“What should we do?” Claire whispered.
It was pretty obvious. “We should leave,” I said.
“You just want to leave them?” Claire was outraged.
“Yes. And keep your voice down.”
“Shouldn’t we try to help them?” said Maurice.
“No.” I felt I’d made my position clear, but apparently they needed clarification.
“We should do something,” said Flossie. “They’re going to hurt the babby.”
“Maybe if we distract them?” said Dudley. “We could make some noise and they could get away while the ones with swords investigate?”
“Are you guys even listening?” I hissed. “You want to die? Look at them. They’ll rip us to shreds. Our best bet is to crawl away sneaky peeky, and hope they’re too busy killing them to notice us.”
“What do you think they’ll do to the woman and child once they’ve killed the men?” demanded Claire.
“What do you think they’ll do to us once they’ve killed the woman and child?” I demanded back. “I’d love to play the hero and go in and save them, but suicide won’t help anybody.”
“We don’t have to be heroes,” insisted Claire, “we can fight them your way. If they were coming after you, you’d think of something. Just pretend it’s you out there and save yourself. That’s what you’re good at.”
You had to hand it to Claire, she may not have have been able do magic, but she could cast shame on you like a master-level sorcerer.
I had actually thought of a possible way to deal with the lizardmen, even before Evil Edna had tried to bewitch me with her Legendary Glare of Guilt. The Book of Beasts had quite a large section on lizardmen. They were pack animals, always travelling in groups of at least five or six, and only attacking if they outnumbered their opponent. They were basically cowards. Or sensible, if you asked me.
If they felt the situation wasn’t in their favour they would run away. I could relate.
“Fine. We’ll get involved, even though it’s a terrible idea, but just so you know, if things go tits up, I’m going to run. And trust me, I won’t be the one they capture, I’ve been working out.
“Wait,” said Flossie, “you been working out? Why d’you look exactly the same, then?”
“Maybe he’s not doing the right exercises,” suggested Maurice.
“Probably the diet,” said Dudley. “Are you eating enough protein?”
“I’ve seen him eat,” said Claire, “he should have put on at least a little muscle. If he really has been working out, I mean.”
Everyone’s a critic. “Alright, alright, enough with the in-depth analysis. I thought you wanted to save the frogs.”
I told them what I wanted them to do. They all nodded and gave me fierce looks of determination, which is what they always did, usually followed by royally fucking everything up. We put down our gear and spread out a little, each holding a bow, arrows lined up on the ground for easy reach.
I readied an arrow and then yelled as loud as I could, “First archers, ready! Fire!”
We all fired arrows, one after the other, sending them high into the air. The intention wasn’t to hit anyone, it was just to make it look like there were a lot of us.
The lizardmen froze when they heard my voice, then panicked as arrows filled the sky. They dived into the water and swam for it.
I stood up. “Beta team!” I shouted at no one. “Go around and intercept. Leave none alive. Delta squad! Take the other side in case they doubleback. Underwater unit… stay submerged! Alpha team, you’re with me. Charge!”
I dropped my bow, took out my sword and ran towards the platform. Maurice, Claire and Flossie did likewise, while Dudley continued to shoot arrows into the air. His bow had the longest range so would keep the fleeing lizardmen under fire.
As we ran out of the grass, screaming and yelling to try and make it sound like there were more than four of us, the frogmen huddled together on the platform. Their expressions changed as we closed in on them, from fear to confusion, to recognition, and then back to confusion.
As I reached the platform I lowered my voice. “Act scared and play along.” Then I went back to shouting. “These frog bastards don’t deserve to die by steel. Kill them with your bare hands!”
I dropped my sword and grabbed Nabbo, pinning him to his chair. “You must die!” I grabbed him around the throat and fake-strangled him. His eyes were already popping out of his head, so hopefully that added to the illusion.
Maurice had the other frogman by the arm while he slapped the air in front of his face. “Take that! And that!” The frogman looked baffled as he watched Maurice fan him. “Pretend I’m hitting you,” Maurice whispered at him.
The penny finally dropped and the frogman started to move his head from side to side in time with the slaps while making unconvincing noises. “Ooh. Ah. No. It stings.”
Claire had grabbed the female and was shaking her, while Flossie had the kid. The best way to kill a kid? Smother him in your breasts, obviously.
“It’s okay, it’s just a game, don’t be afraid,” she whispered as she squeezed his little face into her boobs. Judging by the way he squeezed her back, I’d say fear wasn’t the emotion he was experiencing.
I took out my dagger and stabbed the chair by the side of Nabbo’s head. “Die! Die! Die!”
“Easy on the chair, man,” said Nabbo, more concerned about his furniture than his method acting. “They’ve gone.”
We all stopped and listened. Other than the buzz of instincts and the breeze through the grass, there were no sounds. The arrows had stopped flying overhead and dozens lay on the water’s surface, aimlessly floating about. Nothing else moved.
“Are you sure?” I asked Nabbo. He nodded at his son who turned and leapt off the platform. He had a stubby body with gangly limbs, but he arced through the air with surprising grace and plopped into the water without making a splash. We waited quietly.
A few moments later, he returned, leaping out of the water like a salmon and landing on the platform. “No sign of them.”
We all let out sighs of relief.
“Thank you,” said the female, all tear-eyed with gratitude. “You saved us.”
“No problem,” I said. “Couldn’t leave you like that. Wouldn’t be right.” I purposefully avoided looking at Claire (didn’t have to, I could feel the death stare just fine) and turned towards the far shore. “Dudley! You can come out, now.”
Dudley’s head popped up. “I’m afraid I’ve run out of arrows.”
“That’s fine.” I waved for him to come over. “Hey kid,” I said to the child still attached to Flossie’s chest. “Help us collect all the arrows, will you?”
The arrows were spread out over the water and slowly drifting away, but they looked undamaged. The kid didn’t seem too keen to be parted from his two new best friends.
“Aw,” said Flossie, “ain’t he cute?”
That’s not how I saw it. I think Dad agreed with me. He grabbed the kid and yanked him off, tossing him away over his shoulder. The kid rotated through the air, straightened into a dive, and plopped into the water. He quickly gathered our arrows, probably so he could get back to nestling in Flossie’s cleavage.
“What did those guys want with you?” I asked Nabbo.
“Recruiters,” said Nabbo. “They’re gathering soldiers for the war. They’re supposed to find volunteers, but they can be quite persuasive if you refuse. Scum-suckers.” He bent down and picked up his pipe. It was broken in two. “Damn it. This one was my favourite.” He threw it into the water and then snapped off part of his chair, which somehow looked exactly like the old pipe. Within a few seconds, he had stuffed something that looked like moss into it (no idea where it came from, it just appeared in his hand) and lit it with his finger. “Ahh,” he sighed after the first puff, “niiice.” He melted into his chair.
“You don’t think they’ll come back, do you?” I scanned the shore for signs of movement. It pays to be paranoid, after all.
“Pfft,” said Nabbo. “Not without reinforcements, and with all the fighting at the border, there’s no one they can call. We’ll be safe for the time being. Man, I think you messed up my chair.” He rocked back and forth trying to get comfortable.”
Dudley came over, staggering and stumbling as he carried all the bags we had left behind. “Did we win?”
“Yes,” I said. “We won.” It only really registered once I said it out loud. We’d beaten the enemy and done it without injuries, to them or us. It was hard not to feel a little pleased with myself.
But overconfidence, as they say, is a slow and insidious killer. And sometimes it isn’t that slow.