There was a shimmering haze around my hands. It wasn’t like the light that accompanied my healing spell. That came from my palms and was like a heat glow. This was more like gloves, from my wrists, tracing the outline of my fingers and enclosing the backs and palms.
I held my hands up like a surgeon, palms facing me. I could still see my skin through the haze, just about, but there was no difference in sensation. My hands were still my hands.
“What does this mean?” I asked the Elder.
The frogmen were all staring at me without saying anything, which is never fun. Those people who desperately want attention and are willing to do stupid shit to get it, I have no idea why they think this is enjoyable. Creepy, more like it. Admittedly, dozens of frogmen turning their goggle eyes on you isn’t the kind of attention most people are looking for.
“Magic,” said the Elder in a voice full of ominous implications.
“Yes, I got that,” I said in a voice full of annoyed. “What does it do? Why is it making my hands glow? How do I turn it off?” I wanted specific answers so I was asking specific questions. Like that ever helped.
“You have released your source. It is pouring out of you and will probably leave you an empty husk if you don’t staunch the flow.”
Great, I was having a fantasy period. Did they make wizard tampons in my size? And where was I supposed to put them?
I turned around, my hands still held up. “Any ideas?” It was a long shot, I know, but perhaps the cause of my problem would come up with a solution.
My party looked blankly at me.
I had no idea why this had happened now. Nothing had changed. I didn’t feel any different. If the magic worked when you connected with your source, the thing you cared about most and which was powerful enough to feed that desire, did that mean I had finally learned to love myself and those closest to me?
Looking at the assembled cretins and dweebs, I’d have to go with no.
All I’d done was accept that they were what I was stuck with. Was that all it took? An acknowledgement that we were part of the same team? I was pretty sure I’d already become resigned to that reality, and it hadn’t felt very empowering at the time.
Now, however, it was the magic ticket, apparently. Did it have something to do with Joshaya? I’d have liked to have asked him, if he hadn’t disappeared in a puff of smoke.
“Maybe this is what Joshaya meant,” said Maurice, echoing my thoughts. “Maybe his plan was to help you reach the next level.”
“Or it could be a trick. For all we know, these aren’t even the real girls. They could be stand-ins.” I looked closely into Jenny’s face. She countered with a very Jenny-like gurn which suggested she thought I might be retarded. And what do you call a girl who sleeps with a retarded guy, huh?
“I have to say, I think I would know if this wasn’t Flossie,” said Dudley. He put his arm around the beaming redhead.
This is the problem with relationships. People always think their bond with their significant other is special in some way. Like love is a kind of magic power that brings soulmates together. And equally, when you lose that loving feeling, that’s a reasonable excuse for calling it quits and sleeping with her best friend. Or your best friend.
There’s nothing special about love. It isn’t magic, it’s biochemistry. There’s no soulmate waiting out there for each person, there’s just a lot of people who want to hook up, steadily lowering their standards until they get to you.
That doesn’t mean the connection you form with another person isn’t emotionally binding. It can be bloody suffocating. But you can make that bond with anyone. If they’re interested in you and you are in them, spend enough time together being nice to each other, and you too can fall in love. Same as billions of others.
“He’s a god,” I said. “If he wanted to fool us with fake girls who look and act like ours, he could probably do it.”
“But the castle illusion didn’t work,” pointed out Maurice.
“And we’ve yet to encounter magic that fooled us for very long,” said Dudley.
“But we’ve had mind control used on us quite effectively,” I said. “They might turn on us as soon as we let our guard down.”
“We’re standing right here, you know?” said Claire. “And we wouldn’t need to wait for you to let your guard down to take down you three dorks.”
I have to admit, it was unlikely anyone could make Claire any more antagonistic towards me than she already was. A bit of mind control might actually be an improvement.
“If he did this to make Colin more powerful, why would he want to help us?” asked Claire.
It didn’t go unnoticed by me that Joshaya giving me a leg up turned into ‘helping us’ in Claire’s mind. Not that I believed he had helped. If the glowing hands were due to him, it was probably some form of cancer.
I wiggled my fingers. Nothing untoward happened. You’d think if my life force was leaking out of me, it might allow me a lightning bolt or fireball before I kicked the bucket. All I had achieved was glow-in-the-dark hands. If this was a form of cancer, it was the gayest of all the cancers.
“You have to stop it,” said Jenny. “Before it kills you.”
“Oh, you mean after it kills me won’t do?”
“You also have to stop being sarcastic, before I kill you.” She kissed me, just to let me know her death threat didn’t come from a bad place.
I put my hand on her shoulder and eased her back. Not because I didn’t want the kiss, even though the whole public display of intimacy was disgustingly obnoxious (we weren’t French, for pity’s sake), I just wanted to talk to her, which was kind of hard with her face pressed against mine and an extra tongue in my mouth.
As soon as I touched her, I felt a strange sensation. Not just in my hands, all around me.
I squeezed her shoulder to stop her moving or saying anything. I narrowed my eyes to try to focus better. There was a line between us. A very thin thread from my chest to hers. I put my other hand out to touch it, but it passed right through. There was nothing there, not physically.
I looked around. My eyes smarted a little, like walking out of a dark house on a bright day. It wasn’t painful, but it was hard to see clearly.
There weren’t the weird tentacles and vines I’d seen before, but I had the sense that I was in that world again, or at least looking into it. The lines I could see crisscrossing around me were like afterimages. I was seeing them, but not in a tangible way.
I let go of Jenny and they all faded from my view. Not immediately, but like the afterimage you get when you look at a light bulb. A few blinks and my sight was back to normal.
“What?” said Jenny.
“Not sure. One minute.” I touched her again and saw the link between us, still there. I let go and touched Maurice. I couldn’t see anything at first. I looked up and down and from different angles. Then I saw a very small, extremely faint web-thin strand from the edge of my thumb to the shoulder it was resting on.
I decided to try my luck on the Elder next. He didn’t stop me or flinch away as I reached out to touch him. His bare shoulder felt exactly as unpleasant and slippery as I’d expected. There are some people who have no issue with touching lizards and rats and insects. They let spiders crawl over their hands like it’s some game where you keep turning your hand over to keep them going. I am not one of those people. Makes my skin crawl. But for science, I made the great sacrifice.
I didn’t find anything. No connection. I tried Nabbo and got the same result. I could understand my group was close to me (whether I liked it or not) but the frogmen weren’t exactly the enemy. If magic was based on the difference in sentiment, needing a broad disparity between your side and the others, then where did acquaintances fall?
It wasn’t like I didn’t care at all what would happen to the frogmen, my past actions had already shown that. Even now, their future in the forest was a problem I was aware of. I wasn’t going to do anything about it, but I was aware of it. I didn’t give absolutely no shits whatsoever.
At least, that’s how I saw it. Maybe I was kidding myself.
“You can see something?” asked Maurice.
“Yes, but it’s very vague. And I’m not sure what good it does me. I can’t interact with it.” If there was a point to this ability, I had no idea what it was. “I wish I knew how to turn it off, though.” I turned to the Elder. “You have no idea how I can stop it?”
“It’s not something I’ve seen before,” said the Elder. “It’s usually a great effort to even bring a tiny amount to the surface. You have it pouring out of you.”
To be honest, I wasn’t all that surprised my magic ability was developing in a way that was of little use and would probably end up getting me killed. Par for the course. Where was my sensei to teach me how to harness my great gift?
“Are you going to stay here?” I asked the Elder. Technically, they hadn’t been kicked out.
“We will return to the lake and wait. If he wishes us to leave, he will let us know.”
It took our procession an hour to get back to the pond where a few frogmen who had stayed behind swam around Pogo, sitting there as unperturbed as ever. There had been no sign of the forest, at least not like before. I’d kept looking around for a tree peeking a look but there was nothing. The dwarf, the forest, whatever had been in the vegetation, it had gone with Joshaya. Getting me to release the dwarf seemed to be the most likely explanation for what Joshaya had done, but I had no idea why.
Pogo came waddling out of the water, not even needing slugs and insects to tempt him. He was as keen to go home as the rest of them. On a whim, I placed a hand on his leathery hide. It was not as slimy as I’d expected, surprisingly.
There was a line from me to him. A faint one, but long, stretching from the back of my hand all the way up to his head. There was also a much less faint one from the frog’s chest to Dudley’s. I thought it best not to tell anyone about that.
Why me and the frog? Made no sense.
“There’s somewhere I want to go,” I said. “We’ll meet you back at the lake.”
The frogmen were fine with that. They were still shell-shocked by recent events and wanted to go swim in their lily pond, perhaps for the last time.
The others had no reason not to do as I said, they didn’t even ask any questions. The really great thing about being a leader is that people don’t waste time offering you alternatives. They don’t feel entitled to suggest the thing they’d prefer. Saves a lot of time and energy. Not that my way is better than anyone else’s, but having to argue the toss just makes whichever path you end up taking that little bit more of a pain to get to.
We set off and it took me a moment to notice we had an extra passenger. Nabbo had decided to tag along, although he may have been too stoned to realise his group had taken a different route.
I led them to the grotto. If the forest was anywhere, it would be there. The others were suitably impressed by the beachfront property inside a cave. Their concerns were soon forgotten when they realised they’d have their own private hot tub to mess around in.
The god who had tricked us, the glowing hands that were draining my life, the monster waiting to pounce on us around the next corner, all of that took a back seat to the jacuzzi. Priorities, that’s what defines the kind of person you are. And I think we all know what kind I was stuck with.
There was no sign of the forest here, either. I went to the spot where I had buried the dwarfstone and dug it up. It was still there, a dull, lifeless gem. Until I picked it out of the hole.
The light from my hands filled the gem so it glittered with a golden brilliance, lighting up the cave. My hands were no longer glowing.
I’d found the off switch, but what did it mean? Why was the gem glowing? Could I use it now? To do what? And how did I reignite my hands, assuming I might want to?
More and more questions, which made me realise I’d have to get answers from the man in Gorgoth. The sooner the better.
Easier said than done. The hot tub with en suite weed-supplying frog was not an easy thing to leave behind. They begged me to wait until morning. Then it was lunchtime. Then it was getting late and it’d be dark before you knew it…
Eventually, after much threatening and foretelling of impending doom, which wasn’t taken very seriously, I forced them out of the grotto. We dropped Nabbo off with his people and said our goodbyes. Considering how badly we’d fucked up their happy lives, they harboured very little resentment towards us. Frogs are good people.
We kept going until we reached the village we had decimated. There were no people there. Gone or never existed, who knows?
“What happened to the naked priestess and her dancing troupe?” I asked Jenny.
“Never saw them.”
“They were fairies who could take the shape of women, apparently,” I said. “You aren’t a fairy in disguise, are you?”
“Ah am,” said Flossie, jumping up and down with her hand raised.
We made it back to the dragons who were merrily snacking on the plants and flowers. If we’d had them with us, the forest would have never have had a chance. If the dwarf was still in control of the plant life back there, we had the perfect counter-weapon.
“So, we’re heading to Gorgoth, then?” said Maurice. His notebook was almost full, he’d been writing so many ideas and theories about what Joshaya might have done. We probably wouldn’t be able to work it out until he turned up at some point and told us; while laughing maniacally, no doubt.
We clambered aboard the dragons, once Flossie had spent the required amount of time hugging and petting them (that time being exactly too long).
As we reached a cruising altitude, we settled in for a long, hopefully boring, journey east.
There was a large explosion far behind us. Vikchutni veered around as a shock wave hit and all the dragons bunched closer together. Once Flossie had regained control, we stood up and looked back. There was an enormous plume of smoke rising into the air.
“Fengarad or Dargot, most likely,” said Maurice.
“Should we go investigate?” said Dudley. “They might need help.”
Before I could open my mouth to admonish him for his poorly thought out good intentions, Jenny spoke. “We’re going to Gorgoth.”
“We can’t save everyone,” said Claire.
I almost felt proud of them. It was only baby steps, but they were getting there. My hands started glowing again.