As fun as it was to mess about in the water, there were other matters to take care of. I had considered hanging out here for a few days, maybe pick up some intel on what the different groups were in the forest and how they related to the One True God.
We still had to get the girls, eventually, but it would be better to go in with some understanding of how things worked in this neck of the woods. That’s just common sense. The girls would understand, especially if we didn’t mention the impromptu water park. People tend to act pissed if you tell them you were late because of a water slide.
That had been the plan until we ended up killing the spider guardian. A decently set up guardian programme would have been competitive, all rivals for the One True’s affections. Killing one should have put us in the good graces of the others.
But nothing in this world went according to tradition (probably because they were our traditions and not theirs). Here, the monsters were all chums and looked out for each other. Probably swapped shifts if something came up. If they found out Daddy Long Dead was on indefinite leave, they would probably find a way to pin the blame on us. It seemed a much better idea to leave before that happened. It was just hard going off into the unknown when the known had food and weed.
Nabbo, of course, was happy to have us and offered us a prime spot in the bullrushes to hang out and a delightful hole in the ground to shit in. All mod cons.
Dudley and Maurice were a bit anxious about leaving the girls to their fate, even temporarily, and seemed eager to get going, too. You may consider their reasons more pure than mine, but I would suggest there’s nothing purer than not wanting to be speared to death by dozens of angry frogmen.
The problem was the obstacle in our path. A giant fucking frog.
“We have to get going,” I said to Nabbo. “Soon. Soonish.”
“You’ll have to wait for the Elder to come back.”
“When will that be?”
Nabbo smiled, his eyes moving independent of each other. “Soon,” he said with a sloppy smile. “Soonish."
I liked Nabbo, he was a decent person, but he wasn’t being of much help. Rescuing people who have gotten themselves kidnapped is really much harder than Liam Neeson would have you think. Especially when your special set of skills are mainly running away and hiding.
“The One True God, he isn’t going to hurt them, is he?” asked Maurice. Dudley leaned in for the answer, just as concerned.
It’s the sort of idiotic question people insist on asking even though there’s no point. If he is going to hurt them, then what will you do? The same only more so? And if he isn’t? The same but slower? The answer changes nothing. If it’s reassurance you’re looking for, just ask me. I’ll lie to you, no charge.
“He won’t hurt them. If he has no need to do it.”
What did that even mean? Neither Maurice nor Dudley seemed to understand either.
“The sky,” said Joshaya from where he lay staring up, “it’s not really blue, is it? More of a turquoise.” He had found weed smoking a very pleasant distraction and had remained stoned since getting here. Probably for the best.
“But he kills children,” said Maurice.
“No, come on,” said Nabbo. “Don’t believe everything you hear. It’s his priestesses that do that.”
The distinction didn’t make things any better.
“Ah, that’s somewhat, um, harsh, isn’t it?” Dudley managed, taking the scenic route. “I mean, if it were your own children… you wouldn’t be so… so…” His voice trailed off.
“No, of course not. But it isn’t, it’s theirs. And because it’s theirs, it isn’t ours.” Nabbo took another drag on his pipe. Joshaya reached out a hand to take it from him, even though I was pretty sure he was the one who had just passed it to him.
“Wouldn’t it be better if no one lost their children to the priestesses?” asked Maurice.
“Of course,” said Nabbo. “But if that isn’t possible, then better it isn’t yours.”
He made a lot of sense, to me at least. Removing an injustice rarely led to an end to all injustices.
Injustices always keep coming. You deal with one, another comes down the pipe. One DLC after another, even though you paid your sixty quid up front.
And the next one could be aimed at you. In fact, if the current injustice actually prevented you from becoming a victim, if killing human children directly led to the priestesses not killing children of other species, it becomes a hard mission to recruit for, righteous or not.
There was some sort of commotion and I popped my head up from the rushes. The frogs were gathering at the far end of the clearing as new people arrived. More frogmen, although these seemed to be better dressed. Well, most of the frogmen were naked, so even a loincloth and a headdress was a step up, but these had jewellery and armour glinting in the sunlight.
“Ah,” said Nabbo. “Ahhhh, yes, the Elder. Hmm, the Elder.”
It took me a moment to realise he was stuck in some stoner loop and would never get to the point if I didn’t do something, so I got up and helped him to his feet. He made some kind of muttering objections but didn’t resist.
“I thought he was bringing a spider back with him.” I couldn’t see any giant hairy arachnids with the party.
“He’s been sending out invites,” said Nabbo. “The spiders are on the way.”
There’s a phrase that has no appeal to it whatsoever.
As I watched the hubbub over the other side of the glade, there was a parting of the frog crowd and a small group emerged, headed our way. In the lead was the most ornately dressed of the frogmen who had just arrived, so I assumed he was the Elder who Nabbo kept mentioning. He was heading straight for us, a staff in his hand with strings of shells attached to the top, and shells hanging from his ears, all rattling melodically as he walked over.
I can’t say I’m an expert on frog facial expression—it tends to be a big sarcastic smile most of the time (and often is)—but this particular frogman was sending clear vibes of annoyance ahead of him.
“What is this?” he squealed in a voice a lot like a blender on pulse. “Humans? You invite in humans?”
“Oh, chill your nipples,” said Nabbo. “They aren’t humans, they’re Visitors.”
“I fail to see the difference,” said the Elder, quickly surrounded by a group of bigger frogmen, one of whom gave me an apologetic shrug. At least I think that’s what it was. My guess was that he was Nabbo’s son, who I had named Pitt (they all had names that sounded like a dolphin throwing up, so we had to improvise). I couldn’t be sure it was him because of my inability to tell most of them apart. Yes, frog racist, it’s a terrible thing to have to admit.
“Look,” I said, fighting my natural inclination to sink into embarrassment and slink away, unwanted guest at the party (a party with its own water park, no less), “we don’t want to cause you any trouble. We just wanted to say hello to an old friend, that’s all. We’ll be happy to be on our way and not cause any drama.”
Very reasonable, I thought. Plus, we would get out of there before anyone found the dead body in the east wing of the forest.
The Elder shook his head like he was startled a monkey could speak. So sad when the victims of prejudice use it on others.
“Leave? Leave? We’re here to stop you. That’s the whole reason we were allowed to stay here, to stop people like you.” He turned to Nabbo. “You see? He thinks he can just pass through. And then what happens to our agreement with the One True God? He can’t very well make us guardians if we don’t guard him.”
You’d think he would have just ordered us killed on the spot, but I could see his dilemma. His job was to kill people like us. Stop us getting to the One True God’s Castle. Only, he had never had to follow through on this task because no one ever got past the spider. For all I knew, no one had even tried. But now we were here, all relaxed and not bearing weapons, no one was prepared for what came next. Even the giant frog looked loath to kill someone for no reason. We just didn’t fit the violent adventurers on a murder spree profile the monsters were expecting.
“We just want to talk to the One True God,” I said. “We don’t know how else to do it except go to his castle and knock on the door. Do you think you could send him a message for us?”
“Send one of the boys,” said Nabbo. “Lazy shitbags should do something useful for once.”
There was a sudden thinning of the crowd that had gathered around us as various shitbags made themselves unavailable for voluntary duty.
“We aren’t a messenger service,” screamed the Elder. “You know we aren’t to bother him. We’re Guardians of the Forest.”
“That’s what the trees said,” Maurice interjected, “and they let us through.”
The Elder stopped looking irate, and went for a more miffed expression. “You spoke to the forest?”
“Yes,” I said. “Trees with eyes and mouths. You can ask them yourself.” I looked around. “Is it any tree? Or a special one?”
There was some confusion now. This wasn’t what they expected and I was happy to keep them off balance.
“I tell you what, your job is to prevent us getting past you, right?” I said to the Elder. He gave me a noncommittal shrug. “So as long as we don’t go past Pogo, you haven’t failed in your task.”
The Elder gave me a suspicious look. “Go on…”
“So why don’t we all go to the castle, with Pogo leading the way? Once we get there, we can ask the One True God if it’s okay, and if not you can kill us on the spot. Take our weapons if you want. Take him hostage, he’s our best fighter.” I pointed at Joshaya who had twisted a handful of grass into a straw doll with big boobs and was giggling at it. Looked a bit like Flossie.
“Sounds reasonable,” said Nabbo. “You should take him up on the offer. I saw them fight off a whole squad of Vargau.”
I felt like Nabbo was overselling our achievement in scaring off a bunch of lizardmen, but I wasn’t going to contradict him.
“The three of them?” said the Elder with the appropriate level of incredulity you’d expect.
Nabbo nodded. “Ask my son, he was there.”
They all turned to look at Pitt. He nodded slowly. “I’ve never seen anything like it. They ran screaming.” I noticed he didn’t say who ran screaming.
The Elder raised his hand and a ball of fire appeared on his fingertip, rotating like a spinning basketball. “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you now?”
It was more impressive than my little balls of light, but I wasn’t fooled.
“Because I know how feeble that thing is, couldn’t set fire to a bag of wood chips.”
He hurled the ball at me, roaring through the air, and I instinctively raised my hand and caught it on the end of my middle finger. I could feel the intense heat from it. This was nothing like my weaksauce efforts. This was the real thing.
“Level three, fireball,” said Maurice, awestruck as he stared at the slowly spinning globe on my finger. I felt no heat in my hands but I had to turn my head to stop my cheeks from burning.
Even more astonished than Maurice was the Elder. “You taught him magic?” he yelled at Nabbo.
Nabbo shrugged. “Not much to do in the swamps. We were bored.”
I could see this wouldn’t end well. I tried dispelling the fireball the same I would one of my own balls of light. It disappeared in a puff of smoke. “Can you teach me how to make one of those?” I knew the answer, but no harm in asking.
“No!” He made another fireball, bigger than the first. A stream of water arced through the air and put it out, soaking the Elder in the process. Everyone looked up at Pogo, who stared impassively over our heads like it had nothing to do with him.
“Pogo knows best,” said Nabbo. People started echoing his words like it was a popular saying.
“We aren’t your enemy,” I said. “We just want our women back. So we can breed with them.” I thought I’d put it in terms they could all understand. I got a lot of sympathetic nods from the crowd, including the females. You see, sexism isn’t all bad. Brings people together, as all of life’s basic urges do. We all need to eat, sleep and treat others like sex objects. It’s just nature, human and otherwise.
The Elder eventually relented and didn’t order us killed. He still refused to teach me how to make a fireball. I think he was sulking because Pogo had managed to very accurately only get him wet and no one else. He was a frog so the water didn’t bother him, of course, but still, no one likes to be singled out.
It was decided we would set off to the castle with Pogo, mightiest and last of the giant frogs leading the way. While we stayed behind him, the contract between the frogmen and the One True God would remain unbroken. It wasn’t really solving the problem as much as putting it off until later. If you can’t think of a good answer, waiting is often better than choosing a bad one.
We would leave in the morning, after some fish stew and a good night's sleep. Maybe some water polo in the morning to get the blood flowing. On our way by lunch, at the latest. I mean, it wasn’t like the girls were going anywhere, and you can’t rush into these things. Rescues take a lot of planning.