The morning was spent fishing. Not for fish, though. The frogmen gathered around the edge of the lake, their Frogfather squatting in the middle paying them no mind, and waded through the muddy banks and rushes. They foraged around for slugs and bugs and various slimy critters which they collected in wicker baskets.
There weren’t small, garden variety bugs. The slugs were the size of your arm. The other creatures weren’t tiny, either. They were all things you would run from your house screaming if you found them in your shower.
When all the baskets were full, the Elder gave the order (to be more accurate, he waved everyone away with an irritated look on his face) and they lined up in two rows to form a path from the lake to the jungle.
They raised their baskets of wriggling unpleasantness and made hooting noises.
Pogo’s eyes swivelled in their sockets to look at them. The tip of his tongue slid across his endless lips and shot out from the corner of his mouth, but the basket he was aiming for was pulled out of reach at the last moment. This happened with every attempt, of which there were many.
Slowly, Pogo turned his whole body, heaving up and down in strained jumps that didn’t lift him off the ground, they just took enough weight off his legs so he could shift his enormous bulk.
Once he was facing his teasers, they began marching into the trees, taking the tasty treats with them. Pogo waddled out of the lake, muddy water pouring off his lower half, to pursue his snacks.
It was slow going. Frog speed wasn’t much more than strolling for us. We were following behind, which took less effort as Pogo flattened everything in his path. Small trees were knocked over, large trees were pushed to a precarious angle. The frogmen sang and warbled as they led Pogo deeper into the jungle.
We had the Elder and his guards with us. Joshaya had sobered up, somewhat, and spent most of the time blinking hard and muttering to himself.
“This ain’t right. We’re supposed to be fighting our way there, not getting the guided tour.”
I could see his predicament—these were the monsters he had expected to be facing in a battle to the death (ours)—but he had grasped the reality of the situation and controlled his natural instincts. Lots of them, four of us, only one of whom could fight worth a damn. He could, on principle, go kamikaze and take down a few with him, but his glory would go unreported. I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone about his valiant death, especially as I planned to step in and put an end to his valour as quickly as possible. I had a ball of light ready to shove in his face the moment I thought he was getting ready to start something.
A precaution. He wouldn’t necessarily do anything like that. It was possible this would be an education for him and with some patient guidance and a heck of a lot of weed, he could realise that not everyone with an animal-shaped head was a bad person. A beautiful thing for me to instil in the world, cross-species goodwill. But if not, he’d be blinded, trussed up like a turkey and fed to Pogo as a frog-nip. You can’t let one twat get in the way of global peace and harmony.
“I feel like we are under observation,” said Dudley, chewing on his fingernails. “The forest is watching.”
I didn’t doubt it, but so far the trees hadn’t made a move. Which wouldn’t normally be something you had to worry about.
“They know where we’re going,” I said. “If they had a problem, they’d say something, wouldn’t they?”
Maurice and Dudley both shrugged.
“The forest is patient,” said the Elder. “You cannot assume your presence is welcome just because you haven’t been violently murdered. Yet.”
I walked over to the nearest tree (that Pogo hadn’t toppled over) and gave it a sharp rap with my knuckles. “Hello? Forest? Anyone home?”
If in doubt, ask. The forest didn’t seem to mind having a giant frog trampling its members into the ground, so I saw it as reasonably tolerant of others. It was all one under the soil, everything above ground didn’t seem to bother it very much.
“Are you okay with us passing this way?” I said into knot hole. “Let us know if you object.”
There was no response from the tree I’d decided to use as a communication device. That’s the problem with the latest smartphones, they keep getting bigger but you still can’t get a decent signal.
Joshaya looked around suspiciously. “We’ll be ready for them when they come,” he mumbled. “This is all part of the plan. We’ll get those girls out, don’t you worry.”
I wasn’t worried. Not about him. He had his weapons and equipment, but the frogmen were also armed and there were a lot more of them. As long as he didn’t convince himself to launch an attack, he could mutter and mumble all he wanted.
The trip, it turned out, was not to the One True God’s castle. Not directly, anyway. We reached a second lake, slightly smaller than the first, and Pogo eased himself in and settled down with a squelch. You couldn’t just frogmarch your way across a jungle in a day. You had to stop to take in the sights.
We set up for the night, fresh fish and freshwater crabs (I think). It had been a merry, if leisurely, jaunt and nothing untoward had happened. According to Nabbo, the castle was just around the next corner, although we hadn’t encountered any corners so far, just thick vegetation recently flattened. For all I knew, this was an elaborate trap to lead us into a much worse predicament. Mind you, we were already being led through a jungle by a demi-human army and a giant fucking frog. How much worse could it get?
The only really sourness on our journey (other than Joshaya’s intermittent griping) had been the constant bickering between Nabbo and the Elder. The main bone of contention seemed to be the Elder’s belief that if they upset the One True God, the frogs would be kicked out of the forest and forced to find a new home.
His concern was for his people and their well-being, which was fair enough. He was probably considering having us all killed and putting the whole matter to rest, but the forest’s lack of killing intent, and Pogo’s surprise endorsement of us not being fireballed to death, was staying his hand. For now.
“If we get evicted from this beautiful, safe forest, it will be your fault,” said the Elder to a barely paying attention Nabbo. He was sprawled out on a grass verge.
“No need to start spreading the blame when nothing’s happened, man.” Nabbo blew smoke rings overhead and we watched them drift up into the evening sky.
I created small balls of light and sent then circling around the smoke rings. I had tried to catch the Elder’s attention with my magic but he’d ignored me. Clearly, he was the one to talk to about upgrading my spells. I’d pretty much plateaued-out at dancing light shows and the occasional involuntary arson. If he could show me how to hone my skills into something actually useful, I might actually be able to win a fight, one day.
However, I could understand why he was reluctant. One of those fights might be with him.
He ignored my display.
“We cannot wait for the One True God to show his displeasure,” he continued to harp on at Nabbo. “This world does not revolve around us. We cannot be like stupid, fat, lazy minnows in a tiny pond who refuse to accept the existence of bigger, hungrier fish. Look around you – there is fighting everywhere. Quarrels and disagreements are rife. Our traditions are disappearing, respect for our ways is fading. Yet you insist it won’t end badly—”
“Man, stop nagging, will you?” drawled Nabbo. “Life is change. You can’t stop it. And you can’t keep trying to hold it back. Go with the flow, yeah?”
His spaced out sentiments didn’t go down well with the Elder. Which wasn’t surprising. When did anyone making those sorts of arguments about the good old days ever realise they were fighting a pointless battle and change tack?
“The flow? What do you know about flow? You sit in your cloud of stinking smoke, growing more stagnant in every way. Mother would be appalled.”
“Mother is long gone, and she would be pleased I have lived long and enjoyed my life.”
“You have failed our people. You who should be standing as Elder beside me. Leading the way.”
Nabbo yawned, his widening mouth threatening to take over his whole head. “That’s for the young. Ambition and chasing after the big fish. Let them lead.”
“They don’t understand tradition.”
Nabbo blew a raspberry. “That for your tradition. Rules made by the dead for the living. Ha!”
“Wisdom passed down for the wisdomless,” countered the Elder. It felt like this wasn’t the first time they’d had this argument.
I twiddled my fingers and practised playing with my balls. Not a euphemism. If no one was going to teach me how to get better, I would have to work it out for myself.
“No, no,” snapped the Elder, redirecting his irritation towards me since Nabbo was immune to it. “You’re doing it all wrong. How do you expect to create anything of worthwhile intensity if you are so unfocused?”
“I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do. Don’t focus on anything.”
“Did he teach you that?” The Elder glared at Nabbo who pointedly looked away. “You have to have a connection to the thing you care about most. That’s where you draw your power from.”
This was news to me. And not really very helpful, in my case. “I’m untouchable. I can’t form connections.”
The Elder smacked himself on the forehead. “No one is free from connections. You would float away if that were true.”
“I know that’s true for most people, but I have a special ability that allows me to not form attachments. And to remove those that do form.”
“What nonsense. I can see your many, pointless connections just by looking at you.”
“You can?” I had seen myself from a uniquely objective position, and there had been hardly any connections extending to or from my body. Or so I’d thought.
“It’s not surprising. There are some connections that you cannot, whatever your ability, break from. Can a mother stop her love for a child?”
“Yes,” I said. “She can.” This was an area I felt confident in speaking about.
“No, she cannot,” insisted the Elder. “Forces beyond her control might make it so. A blow to the head. A trauma that rattles her mind. But she cannot do so willingly. It is a source of power to be drawn on.”
He did make some sense. The kind of reasons a mother might lose interest in her child were usually mental ones. Chemicals absent from the brain for whatever reason, rather than a conscious decision. But the result was the same. A severing of the connection, just like I was able to do in a rather more tangible way.
“You need the source to draw from, and you need to push everything else out, so you have a void to direct that power into.”
“So I need to care a lot about one thing, and not at all about everything else.”
“Exactly,” said the Elder, almost looking pleased. “That’s why this one is so feeble.” He waved a dismissive hand at Nabbo who had dozed off. “He cares little for the world around him, but just as little for himself. His source is limp.”
“But doesn’t that mean to create really strong magic you have to be incredibly selfish?” I asked.
“Of course. That’s why a god is so powerful. Everything is about them. Outside of that, everything is meaningless.”
Did I have a source? I did have a link to Jenny, but that was the only one and apparently it wasn’t enough for fireballs.
“What is your source?” I asked him. “You care about your people? And nothing else matters?”
The Elder nodded. “You begin to grasp something that this one was never truly able to understand.” Nabbo snorted in his sleep. “You must create an imbalance. One end is more important than all else. The other is of no import whatsoever. One is tiny as a pinhole, the other is the size of the world. Magic arcs between the two.” He flicked his hand and a lightning bolt flew out, zig-zagged across the lake and hit a frogman on the back of his head making him yell with pain. The female with him splashed away. “No patience, the young.”
Was the reason I was good at magic because I was selfish? Did I have to become more self-centred to become more powerful? It seemed a distasteful way to level up, but one that people have always used. Make what you want the most important thing. Consider what everyone else wants completely worthless. Profit.
I was in a unique position to do it. I could literally disconnect myself from everything except what I wanted to use as my power source.
What kind of person would that make me? Not much different from what I was now, probably. But at least knowing the mechanics gave me a new way to look at the abilities I had developed so far, and a way to develop them further. I already didn’t give a shit about anyone else. Now I just needed to find something to care about.
I had plenty to think about. I wandered off to relieve myself and considered my options. I could use the last dwarfstone to enter the adjacent world of tentacles and tendrils and forcibly remove all connections, no matter how small or well hidden, until there was just one. If what the Elder said was true, that should help turbocharge my magical powers.
As I was thinking about this while pissing on a tree, the tree opened its eyes and looked at me. I jumped back, spraying everywhere and literally pissing myself.
“A little warning would have been nice.”
The tree didn’t seem to be affected, by my annoyance or the urine running down its trunk. I suppose when you’re a forest, a little excrement is no big deal.
“He is waiting for you,” said the tree.
“Are the girls alright?” I’m not sure why I asked that. Reflex, I guess.
“They are alive. You are keen to mate?”
“I wouldn’t say ‘keen’.” It’s hard not to get defensive under those kinds of insinuations. It’s not like that was the only reason to rescue the girls. I could probably name half a dozen others, if you gave me a couple of days to think about it.
“We see the animals rut. It looks tiring. We do not suffer the same urges, but we understand your nature is difficult to control. Pace yourself.” The eyes closed.
Good advice, I suppose.
There was no way round it, I had to deal with the One True God. And if what the Elder said was true, he would possess very powerful magic. There’s always some minor obstacle in the way of a quiet life. At least he’d sent an invite. Sort of. A tepid welcome was better than none.
We reached the castle the next morning, in a large clearing in the middle of the jungle. The wind rippled across the grasses growing over the ruins, rustled through the fronds of large plants growing like weeds in the cracks. The sun felt cold and harsh, drenching the walls in stark yellow light, revealing mounds of skulls baring broken teeth and staring into nothingness with their empty eye-sockets.