Chapter 255: Flags Flying High
They say everyone you meet on the way up, you will also meet on the way down. Well, not the ones you kill, obviously, they won’t be making any surprise guest appearances so fuck those guys. But others will remember what you were like when things were going well and treat you accordingly when you aren’t so high and mighty.
I think that’s good advice, up to a point, but my own personal approach is to avoid everyone on the way up and the way down. That way, when they meet you going in either direction, they’ll hopefully have no idea who you are and ignore you.
Sometimes that isn’t possible. Sometimes you end up getting embroiled in other people’s problems and in those situations, when others need your help, you should treat them kindly and fairly, and get away from them as quickly as possible before their shit infects your life, too.
Unless, that is, they have weed.
Then you have a friend worth taking to the airport. Not picking up, mind you—that’s a nightmare and not worth the best weed minus seeds—but a quick drop off? What else are friends for?
I walked into the glade, leaving the security of the trees behind. Maurice and Dudley stood up and followed. I didn’t check, but I was pretty sure Joshaya was looking at me like, Who is this guy who fears no monsters? Also I didn’t check in case he was looking at me like, This guy’s an idiot.
It didn’t matter, the important thing was that the frogmen—must have been thirty or forty of them—didn’t attack.
Nabbo came waddling over, leaning on a stick and looking exactly the same as the last time I’d seen him. The giant frog, which loomed over all of us, just sat there. It had bulbous eyes on top of its head that occasionally blinked very slowly, but otherwise it could have been a big green statue.
“Ah, it’s you,” said Nabbo, his voice chilled and aged at the same time, like a stoned pensioner. “Hey, man.”
For a moment, I thought he was suffering from the same case of amnesia as everyone else I’d ever done a favour for, and was blanking on my name (at least he would have a legitimate reason in his case), but it turned out he was just conserving energy by using pronouns instead of proper names.
“I’m glad to see you again, my friend.” He turned to face the frog people watching us. “Listen here. This is Colin, the one who saved us from those scum-sucking Vargau.”
The Vargau were the most violent race of lizardmen and had tried to pressgang Nabbo and his family into their army. We had intervened (against my better judgement) and managed to scare them off (to my very great surprise).
“I want you to treat him and his friends as honoured guests,” said Nabbo.
“Shut up, old man,” said someone.
“You can’t tell us what to do,” said another.
Nabbo turned back to me. “The youth of today.” He shook his head sadly. “Bunch of shitbags.” He took a long drag off his pipe and handed it to me.
I took a puff because it was only polite to do so. And also life had been very stressful of late. And there was a giant fucking frog looking at me, so it was like I was half-stoned already.
Maurice and Dudley appeared on either side of me and greeted Nabbo. I wasn’t sure what they said, I was away with the fairies. Not literally. Don’t want to be misleading since that was technically possible here. But my head stopped itching with its usual allergies to every thought I’d ever had and I felt like I could kick back for a few hours, regroup, maybe eat something that reminded me of a tuna sandwich…
There was a yell and Joshaya came charging out of the brush. He was red-faced and had his double-headed axe out (not a euphemism). It should be a testimony to the power of pond weed that I didn’t panic, didn’t try to dive out of his path, certainly didn’t try to dive into his path. I did the first thing that came to mind, which was to breathe.
I blew a stream of dense smoke at him and he reared back, coughing and spluttering. Then he stood there for a while (hard to say how long as my perception of time had taken a left at Albuquerque) and then he plopped down on the ground.
“Don’t mind him,” I said. “Thinks you’re all monsters.” I passed the pipe to Maurice, after taking one more hit. I didn’t, after all, want to get a bad reputation. Murderer, cheat, coward, these were all fine, but no one wants to be known as a Bogart.
The other frogmen seemed to lose interest in us, even though we had a homicidal maniac with us. Either they trusted Nabbo knew what he was doing, or they were too baked to care.
A younger frog, smaller than average, came up and stood beside Nabbo. “You remember my grandson?”
If this was the kid we’d called Suri, he had grown quite a lot in the few months since we’d last seen him.
“Where are the others?” asked the kid. “Jenny and Flossie and Vagina?”
“Actually,” began Maurice, ready to correct him.
“You’ve got a good memory, kid,” I said. “Remembered their names perfectly. You’ve had a bit of a growth spurt, haven’t you? You’re almost as big as your dad.”
The frogboy seemed pleased with this comparison. “The soft one, is she here? I liked her jelly humps.”
“Erm,” said Dudley. “If you don’t mind, that’s no way to talk about a lady.”
It certainly wasn’t, but I was pretty sure he was talking about Flossie. “The girls. Yes.” I tried to remember what we were talking about.
“Yes,” said Nabbo, “did you ever spawn with your mate? You always seemed the type to put a foot in the pond but never dive in.”
Normally, I would take this as a metaphor, but in this case it was probably how they actually had sex.
“Yes. I spawned. I spawned her real good.” I was quite stoned at this point, so I didn’t sound sexually aggressive when I said this. The giggling probably undercut my chauvinism a bit, too.
“No doubt, but I meant to the desired end.”
I looked at him blankly.
“Man, youth is wasted on the dumb. Little humans? Did you make any? I would imagine you’d have three or four dozen by now.”
His understanding of human biology had not improved, but I got the general gist of what he was asking. “No, not yet. I mean, if at all.”
“Can’t take it back,” said Maurice.
“Only a matter of time,” said Dudley, just before he began choking on the tiny puff he’d taken from the pipe he was now holding.
“Shut it,” I told them in no uncertain terms. “We’re here for a reason. What was it again?”
“This isn’t right, you know,” said Joshaya. He had appeared next to Dudley and took the pipe off him. He sucked so hard, the glow at the end went from orange to red to gold to white. He held it in his lungs for so long it made my chest uncomfortable, and then spewed out a fog bank that drifted across the glade, knocking over every frogman it encountered.
“I like him,” said Nabbo. “He’s got style.”
“Oh, yes,” I said, suddenly remembering our mission to rescue Broody, Chubby and Vagina. “The girls we were with last time, they got kidnapped by the One True God. You know him?”
Nabbo nodded. “Of course. He’s a great guy. Not like those other gods, always demanding stuff and never answering prayers.” He took the pipe off Joshaya—had to yank it out of his grasp—and got back to puffing. His face relaxed (even more). You could tell he’d missed it, those last five minutes.
“What’s he like, this god?” I asked.
“He’s chill,” said Nabbo, which wasn’t really helpful.
“And the seven women he has with him? The priestesses? Or witches or whatever.”
“Women? Oh, they aren’t women. They’re, uh…” He took another puff.
I leaned in so as not to miss the end of the sentence. “They’re uh?”
“You know.” He waved a hand at me. “What do you call them? Live in shells, always taking things, nasty temper…”
“Are you sure they’re not women?” The shell part didn’t match, but the rest was spot on.
“Fairies!” he said a little too loudly, startling himself.
“I thought fairies were tiny with wings.”
“When they’re young. Once they feed, they fill out.”
“Feed on what?” I asked, a prickly sensation reaching through the haze in my head.
“Whatever’s around. Babies, children, human sacrifices.”
Those all sounded like the same thing.
“Can you help us get the girls back?” I asked. “We need to get to the castle and, you know, save them.”
“Oh no, you can’t go to the castle. He won’t allow it.” Nabbo nodded over his shoulder at the big frog.
“He’s the Second Guardian, is he?” It was more of a rhetorical question.
“Aye. We get to stay here in this sweet forest, rent-free, as long as Pogo keeps the humans out. You can stay here if you like, but no one’s ever got past him. We’d all get kicked out if they did.”
“How many have tried?” asked Maurice.
“None. No one’s ever got past the First Guardian.” He leaned his head back a bit and closed one eye. “How did you get past Old Mitapa?”
“What’s Pogo mean? Some kind of title, is it?” I asked, swiftly changing the subject.
“Erm, well, roughly it means the Frogfather. His kind used to roam these lands freely, once. Harmless as long as they are left unmolested. He is the last of his kind.”
The Frogfather shifted slightly and the water around him rippled and bubbled. I suspected he’d just let one rip, submarine-style. Then the side of his mouth opened just enough for a long, mottled-pink tongue to shoot out and strike Suri. The tongue made a squelching sound as it stuck to his bare back. The tongue shot back into the frog’s mouth reeling Suri through the air, eyes wide (even wider than normal) with surprise, until he disappeared.
Nabbo didn’t react at all. I raised my hand and pointed at the frog, feeling I needed to draw attention to the recent frog on frog crime.
The frog was still again, like nothing had happened, and then its wide mouth contracted into a kiss and a spout of water arced out. Suri came sliding out, screaming with laughter.
“The spider guardian,” said Maurice. “Is he one of a kind, too?”
I tried to give Maurice the signal to abort, but he might not have picked up on the semaphore from my furiously undulating eyebrows.
“No, no,” said Nabbo. “In fact Old Mitapa is about to step down as First Guardian. A younger spider will take his place. Such is forest’s preference for youthful energy. Don’t get it myself.”
Maurice stepped closer to me and turned his head as if peering over my shoulder. “Three days from retirement,” he whispered. “Classic death flag.”
“Our Elder has gone with the other forest leaders to select his replacement. They should be back soon. Perhaps they can help you reclaim your mates.”
I had thought hanging out here would be a good idea. The girls were either dead already (morbid, but you have to face reality) or were being held to be used as bargaining chips against us in some way. Clearly, if the forest was a living being and working for the One True God, he would already know we were here. Rushing into the fray would achieve nothing.
But now I wasn’t so sure. How would they react when they found out Old Murtaugh hadn’t made it to his gold watch? It’s all fun and waterslides until you find out your giant spider’s been burned to a crisp. We could always blame it on Joshaya. You have to be pragmatic about these things.
“How’s the magic going?” asked Nabbo. “Getting the hang of it?”
He was the one who had taught me and I happily showed him my progress. I produced six balls of light, each a different colour, and sent them floating up. I made them dance and spin and shoot out sparks like tiny fireworks.
As I got into it, I forgot where I was and what I had to do. There’s nothing as relaxing as concentrating on one thing with your entire focus. Well, doing it while stoned out of your gourd is probably slightly more relaxing. The balls moved around ever more elaborately and left behind afterimages. Even in the bright sunlight, they painted streaks and lines in the air. On and on until, a little dazed, I slowed them down and popped them out of existence.
“Still can’t make them very hot, though,” I said. Then I realised the other frogmen had gathered around in a circle and had been watching my little display. Even the Frogfather had a look of amazement, although he looked like that pretty much every time he opened his massive eyes.
“You have a gift I’ve never seen before,” said Nabbo. “The Elder could help you become a shaman, if he decides to let you live.”
This was the first he’d made mention of living being an optional extra. “Why would he—”
Something slammed into my back and hurled me into the air. I was flying backwards, very fast. I turned my neck far enough to wish I hadn’t. Pogo’s mouth was closing fast. I disappeared into the darkness with a slippery pop. Water surrounded me, tumbled me around and bounced me off soft, slimy walls.
And then I was ejected, sliding down a fountain of water into the lake, laughing like an idiot.
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