There were a host of frogmen (of both sexes), a giant frog and us. I was still keeping towards the rear to stay behind Pogo. Technically, as long as we didn’t pass him, the Second Guardian hadn’t failed in his duty.
In front of us was the castle we’d been looking for. It was in a large clearing that wasn’t particularly clear. There were no trees, but there was plenty of vegetation. Fortunately, Pogo had flattened a great deal of it, making it much easier to reach the stone building in the middle. He had, technically, not let us pass. He had also, technically, cleared the way.
The odd thing, though, was the castle itself. It had the four towers we’d seen from the edge of the forest, tall and imposing, but the rest was seriously dilapidated. It looked like a ruin that had been left to slowly rot and crumble over many centuries, or a particularly rough weekend.
Walls had fallen and there was no roof to speak of. And then there were all the skulls.
“I’m not very keen on the decor,” muttered Dudley.
“Yeah,” said Maurice. “They look like human skulls. Small humans.”
He didn’t mean they belonged to midgets, he meant children. They were piled up in heaps.
“This is the castle of the One True God,” said the Elder. “You can see from its majestic towers and invulnerable walls, there is no doubting the power of the one who resides here.”
Not only did I doubt his powers, I also doubted his DIY skills. The place was a dump.
“If you wish to enter,” continued the Elder, “you must find a way in.”
He said it like I couldn’t just climb over one of the breaches in the stone walls. My only real obstacle would be if I slipped on some moss or tripped on a loose stone.
“Where is the One True God?” I asked. There was no welcoming committee, no sign of life at all, in fact.
“Inside, of course.”
“Where? I can’t see him.” I had a pretty good view through all the broken stones and fallen walls.
“Of course not,” said the Elder. “You can’t see through walls, can you? To enter you must knock three times on the Gate of Wonders and wait to see if you are considered worthy. You might be allowed entry, or you might be struck down where you stand. The latter is far more likely. Almost guaranteed.”
He didn’t make it sound very appealing. I wasn’t planning on knocking even once, especially as there didn’t appear to be a door, wonderful or otherwise.
“Can I ask you something? Exactly what do you see when you look at the castle? Describe it for me.”
There was a pause as the Elder gave me a suspicious look, like he wasn’t sure if I was taking the piss or not. The other frogmen were standing around, probably waiting for me to be found unworthy and hit by lightning or something. Pogo was surreptitiously pinching slugs from baskets while no one was watching. I could see his tongue thwipping around behind everyone’s backs while he looked innocently up at the sky.
“A glorious vision of golden domes and white marble. Why, what do you see?”
I looked at the castle again. An illusion that didn’t work on us because we were Visitors? Seemed the most obvious reason he saw something I didn’t.
“Same,” I said. “Just checking. Don’t often see something so, you know, opulent.”
There was confused muttering from the crowd. I had the feeling I’d been rumbled.
“It is built of red stone and polished silver,” said the Elder. “You don’t see that, do you?”
It was a fair cop. “No. It’s a ruin. Barely standing. And there are a lot of skulls all over the place.”
“A lot,” said Maurice.
“A lot, a lot,” added Dudley.
There was more confused muttering.
“Some kind of illusion?” asked the Elder.
“I suppose so.” I walked closer, still doing my best not to get ahead of Pogo. I had told the Elder about my invite from the OTG via trunk call but I wasn’t sure he believed me. I took a breath and jumped over part of the wall that had collapsed leaving a large V-shaped gap.
The crowd gasped.
“Are you still there?” called out the Elder.
I was standing directly opposite him with nothing between us. I assumed he could see a wall, through which I had magically passed like some kind of ghost.
“I’m right here.” I stepped back. I had, technically, bypassed the second guardian, but we seemed to have agreed to overlook it. Plus, the guardian was too busy stuffing his wide mouth with things that were trying to crawl back out again to pay much attention to technicalities.
Joshaya, who had kept quiet for most of the journey, bar the occasional complaint about consorting with the enemy, stepped forward. “This is the castle of the One True God. We have to fight our way to its depths if we are to find your missing women.”
“How do you know that?” I asked him.
“It’s obvious. That’s how this sort of thing works. Believe me, I have a lot of experience.”
I didn’t believe him. Or trust him. That didn’t mean he wasn’t right, I just wasn’t going to take him at his word.
“Look,” he said, pointing. “There’s probably an entrance to the lower levels somewhere.”
I followed where he was pointing, but I couldn’t see anything. I widened my search a little by turning my head this way and that and spotted a dark opening that might have been a doorway. Strange thing was, I was pretty sure it hadn’t been there a second ago. Maybe I was mistaken.
“Yeah, looks like there might be something. Can you see it?”
“Oh, no,” said Joshaya. “I see the same as them.” He jerked a thumb at the frogmen.
“Hey, can I have a word?” asked Maurice.
“Sure. What’s up?”
“Over here. Only need a second.” He smiled apologetically at the crowd as though he was depriving them of my fine company. They didn’t seem to mind.
Joshaya began coming with us but Maurice raised a hand. “Sorry. Private stuff. About sex.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to him now. Not without a few stretching exercises to preempt the severe cringe I was about to be afflicted with.
“This isn’t really about sex,” said Maurice once we’d got a bit of distance from the masses. “We’ve been talking.”
“Yes,” said Dudley. “Assessing the situation.”
The cringe was still a very real possibility. “Oh, yes? What did you come up with?” I knew I shouldn’t ask, but I was backed into a corner. Manners dictated I pretend to care what they thought.
“Imagine you’re in a party entering a dungeon.” So far, so Maurice. “And you keep looking for the end boss, but you can’t find him. Why? Because—plot twist—he’s one of your party!”
“Hiding in plain sight,” threw in Dudley.
We all looked over at Joshaya, the way you shouldn’t when you suspect someone of being up to no good but don’t want them to think you suspect them. We waved and smiled at him like a bunch of dorks. He looked confused. Dorkism for the win.
“Him?” I muttered through my fake smile. “You think he’s the One True God in disguise?”
“Yeah,” said Maurice. “The girls set all this up. Claire can read minds, so she probably picked up on something. They wanted us to come here, with him.”
“Even promised themselves to him as a prize,” said Dudley. “So it must be important.”
It was possible, but that didn’t mean much. “And what happens when we find them? The lucky girl marries him and the rest of us go on our merry way?”
“No, no,” said Maurice. “At least, I hope not. That’s just part of the plan.”
“So they lied? Just to keep him sweet?”
They both nodded like this was a perfectly normal thing to do.
“They probably didn’t have a choice,” said Dudley.
“Whatever they want us to do,” said Maurice, “they couldn’t tell us. They had to do it this way.”
A lie to trick the One True God into not killing us all immediately? Give him a game to play to keep him interested? I could see that. I’m not saying it was a good idea, but lying to get out of a tricky situation is, in fact, pretty normal. Everyone does it.
Well, not me, so much. I had a tendency to go the other way. Brutal honesty. Needlessly so. Strangely enough, my approach usually left people upset. Whereas a pleasant lie gave them a lovely, fuzzy feeling. Up until when they found out it wasn’t true. Then they got mad, but up till that point, there were happy as Larry.
That’s the thing about a lie, as long as you believe it, you feel great. You think you’re going to get whatever you were promised, and the anticipation is better than a warm blow job on a cold day. You enjoy your work, whistling and humming, happy to be alive. Everything feels better because you got the deal you wanted. A deal almost too good to be true. So happy.
Even if you know the guy has let people down before, you’re convinced, even though he might bullshit others, for you, he’ll come through. Sometimes I think people want to be lied to. They want to enjoy the sensation of getting their just rewards even if it’s completely fake. The build-up is the same.
And when you find out the truth, what have you lost? You’re in the same position as before, plus you had all that time thinking you were getting that gold brick you’d been promised. Unless, of course, the lie was, “I have the antidote!” In which case you’re dead, so no time to feel betrayed.
Meanwhile, my relentlessly honest approach has only gotten me sneers and accusations of being tactless. I guess I’m just not a fan of the well-meaning lie.
I mean, if you found out your girlfriend was cheating on you, and the guy was tall and rugged, a professional kickboxer who had given up the fight game to study biochemistry and now worked in cancer research, and his hobby was rebuilding vintage sports cars from scrap, then fair enough. You lied to me, but I see your point. I would have fucked him, too.
But no. The lie is to hide shagging your boss while you were away at a conference. He told you his wife wouldn’t divorce him and he could only get it up if you stuck a Bic up his arse. And for some reason that made you feel needed.
That’s the kind of low-effort lie we end up getting in life. It’s just so disappointing.
“You want us to go along with whatever plan they came up with, even though we have no idea what it is, or why they think this is the best way to handle it?”
They both looked at me like, Why not? To which the obvious answer would be, because, as we’ve just established, they’re a bunch of liars.
“We could go take a look, I suppose.” I glanced over at Joshaya, fat and old. Was he really a god?
We decided to cautiously follow Joshaya into the castle. I was fully intending to play along, let the girls take the lead on this one, even if it was by remote control. Maurice was right about one thing—Claire had the best ability for this sort of situation. If she had seen what was in Joshaya’s head and made a judgement call to deceive us, as well as him, then chances were there was an excellent reason for it.
And yet, it stuck in my craw. She really couldn’t have found a way to let us in on whatever was going on? All that time in the village when they were tied to stakes? She couldn’t have passed us a note?
Maybe it was chauvinism. I couldn’t stand to be kept in the dark and told what to do, no questions. Especially by a girl. Or maybe I just thought it was dumb to let this guy have his way. If he was a god, he was in disguise for a reason. He seemed upset about us not killing the frogmen and fighting our way to the girls.
“Are you ready to go?” he asked as we returned from our conflab.
“Yeah. By the way, are you the One True God?” Sometimes it’s best to say what’s on your mind. Run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes. Or kills you.
Joshaya looked baffled. “What do you mean? Why do you say that?”
“So, how’s it work? This some kind of theme park? You collect various monsters and set them up as guardians. Feed them, protect them, get them all nice and plump and juicy, then come through with a bunch of adventuring-types, see if you can break the record for most kills in an afternoon?”
There was an awkward silence as the frogmen listened to me ramble.
“Must have been very disappointing when we didn’t chop anyone down. I mean, there was the spider, but that was an accident really. The exploding horse wasn’t really intentional.”
There was some murmuring among the crowd. This was the first they were hearing about Old Murtaugh’s demise.
“Not much of a show for you. And now you want us to go through a dungeon you’ve designed for us. Lots of traps and interesting puzzles, is it?”
Joshaya had gone from bewildered to flustered to oddly neutral. He didn’t seem quite so old and doddery all of a sudden. He might have grown an inch or two, as well.
“It’s a bit unoriginal, to be honest with you. Clichéd. We’ve been in this position a couple of times already. Don’t you have anything else you could try?”
“What did you have in mind?” asked Joshaya coldly. There had been no admission, but also no attempt at continuing the charade. Maurice had been right. He was getting good at spotting the enemy. Not through sharp perception, just normal logic and an understanding of how his girlfriend thought. Which might have been the rarest ability of all.
“You know magic, right? I’m a bit of a novice, myself, but I’m not bad. How about we duel, with arcane powers and pew pew, and so on.” I smiled at him, clearly outgunned and yet offering him the advantage. If the Elder was right, gods were the most powerful mages on the planet. I, on the other hand, was a noob.
“You wish to battle me?” Joshaya, the One True God, sounded amused.
“Sure. I just need a little time to practise, first.”
“Very well. I like your confidence. I hope you can live up to it.” He turned away from me and walked into the ruins. “Come find me when you’re ready.” He faded away into smoke.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” asked Maurice. Dudley didn’t seem too convinced, either.
They had a point. I could do a trick or two, but they were pretty feeble. Like Nabbo, I had the not giving a shit part down cold, but the other part, the caring intensely about something to draw power from it, that wasn’t where I excelled. My feelings for Jenny weren’t enough. My connection to the rest of the group wasn’t the strongest.
The frogmen just stared at me, shocked by what they’d just seen. If I could work up some interest in them, perhaps they could be my source. Did I care what would happen to them? Could I make myself think of them as my precious possessions? Probably not. But I did have one thing to help me.
“You understand this isn’t a sanctuary,” I said to the Elder. “It’s a farm. And you’re the cattle.”
The Elder nodded.
“He’s probably had others here, acting as guardians so he could play the big game hunter.”
“You can’t beat him with your magic,” said the Elder.
“True,” I agreed. “That’s why you’re going to teach me. To save your people.” I might not give a shit about these frog-headed humanoids, but he did. And he was good at magic. He’d make an excellent teacher, hopefully.
Time to level up those spells.