Frogs were everywhere. We were dealing with an embarrassment of amphibians as guards lay screaming or cowering under carts or weirdly staring off into space, enraptured by a soundless rave.
Zeno, the source of that last one, sailed forward on Lily and whispered at the blue frog attacking the first cart as it attempted to flee. Somewhere in the initial chaos, I’d missed Felegum summoning his monster of a monodrone construct, and the mechanical form lumbered after the blue frog with orderly intent as a cluster of zombies hurried after Zeno like baby chickens.
One frog moved with an unexpected lethargy next to Felegum, but despite its slowness it still killed a guard.
Tem charged in on her war lizard and hit a red frog like the wrath of Bahamut. But these things were creepily resilient. Despite Tem literally bending this dude’s torso over the nonstandard way and slicing the frog through its shoulder, it still clung to life.
Iago once more ignited his saucepan. “Night, night, bitey,” he said as he placed it delicately on the bent frog’s head. “Now you wear the hat.”
And at last, that was it for that frog.
In a battle of cold-blooded animals, there was only one thing to do.
On my shoulder, Kheryph raised himself up with his forelegs and glowed. A multitude of winged lizards coalesced around me. Some had one pair of wings and one pair of eyes, while others had two, or three, or four. Sometimes a lizard would goof up in its spontaneous holy generation and have an excessive number of eyes and only like, six wings, other times you’d see a lizard that was just one big eye with a few wings, and still others would be so full of wings you couldn’t tell how many eyes they had.
Within the cloud of celestial lizards, I dusted myself off from my earlier fall, picked myself back up, and headed into the fray.
Felegum did some big brain thing that incapacitated a frog and even Big Dronie got some hits in as that chilly mechanical hand grasped so efficiently for necks.
Another guard, one who I guess had drunk a healing potion that Tem had given them, ran off and hid. I kind of wished that the dude I had healed had been so sensible, but no. Trust me to revive the guy who had to defend a wagon to the death. Luckily, my beneficiary was really bad at shooting arrows so at least none of the frogs were noticing him.
The last of the active guards was still trying to hustle out with that first cart. Zeno looked like he had that situation in hand, though, so I let him manage it. Sometimes you had to leave the land vehicles to the expert.
Meanwhile, the blue frog ran off in what appeared to be a hit and run. Tem chose not to exercise mercy and commanded her war lizard to trampled the red frog to a neat pinned position. True to form, Iago put the flaming pot back on his own head and then wobble-ran at the frog under the war lizard’s claws.
“Quit struggling!” he yelled.
I made an attempt to hit the lone frog remaining too, but like, the lizards. This was my first time invoking like, a thousand flying celestial lizards at once and I just couldn’t figure out how to attack through them without slicing one. I realized after missing twice that they were actually pretty chill and would move for me– I didn’t have to worry about the timing– but god, how rude it would have been if I’d just stabbed one seconds after summoning it?
While I was having this moral quandary surrounded by reptiles, Felegum gamely knocked the red frog unconscious. “Hey, buddy!” he called to a retreating guard. “I think we got it!”
It registered dimly to me that Zeno’s epic struggle to regain mastery over the cart had led him and the driver into the trees. I stood over the frog, lost in thought, a hail of lizards whirling around me.
When they made contact with the frog, the lizards made a satisfying wet sound, like “blarp” or “squork”, and left copper marks on its unconscious form.
“Set, wait!” Felegum cried, in an astonishing act of mercy for a frog.
“Oh,” I said. We were questioning this one too, I guess. With reluctance, I dismissed the lizards, and left Felegum to his own devices to check on Zeno and the cart.
They’d lost control and crashed into a tree. Without going into too much detail, it was pretty brutal and if even Zeno’s highly vaunted mastery over land vehicles couldn’t save that cart then, well, there was probably no saving it. Maybe the horses had gotten too spooked, or maybe the driver was just too rattled to avoid the trees or listen to the strange man on the flying horse.
“He lost control,” Zeno said, hanging back from the body. It was always strange, how he couldn’t deal with the immediate dead but the more time that passed, the more okay he got with having them around and reanimated. But that felt like one of those things both people were aware of in a friendship and tactfully chose not to mention out of respect for the other person, kind of like the thing with my parents.
I crouched down by the dead guard and said a prayer.
Then I went through his pockets.
After the crash, more of the long tubes had tumbled out of their housings in the cart. The guard possessed both a small quantity of money as well as a sealed letter which looked pretty much identical to the shipping manifesto we’d found in the ruins. I took both, as well as some folded and signed documents contracting two people named Embed and Vanis as wagon guards. The documents were signed with the name Charvans, which I took to be the deceased person whose body I was searching.
Charvans had contracted Embed and Vanis as guards coming from Tartsmith to Reach’s Fallow, where they would be paid the sum of six gold each for their troubles escorting the goods. Charvans had a few other personal effects, as well as a little journal he used as a sketchbook.
I took the sketchbook and the manifesto carefully and then did not hide my taking the purse. The contracts I chose to leave with Charvans.
Then Zeno and I had a talk.
“It wasn’t your fault,” I said before he could. “You tried your best. It was just too fast.”
And hell, by the looks of things it had been brutal. People panic in these high-stress situations and it almost always made things worse. Zeno knew how to drive basically everything that could be driven; if he could have saved it, he would have.
He just looked so stricken. “Set–“
I cut him off. I’d seen enough of guilt to know what it was. I clapped him on his shoulder. “It’s okay. You did what you could. You’re a better person than you give yourself credit for.”
For some reason, these words of encouragement did not seem to fix things. Zeno’s expression only seemed to get worse, which made me feel a) awful, because yes, while that had been corny I did believe what I’d said, and b) like I still had no idea how to be a decent cleric (definitely true, but stung to have pointed out in a moment of crisis).
I was sinking, fast. Luckily, even in crisis, Zeno was able to rescue a conversation.
“Yes, I–” He waved it off. “Forget about this for now. Did you find the manifest?”
Did I find the manifest? Please. I was no amateur.
I handed it over, feeling very cool. I may not always be the best at emotional support, but you know what? I still solved other problems just fine.
Matter settled, he clapped me on the shoulder. “I think I know what this is for.”
I looked up. This was news.
“I think,” he said more cautiously, “that this might be part of an instrument. A massive pipes instrument.”
Something clicked. “Oh,” I said, piecing it all together. An enemy, a song that became part of a culture, a desperate wish to subvert a man who had subverted you, to hoist someone by their own petard.
I played all the clues out in my head as Zeno and I walked back to the others. Despite appearances, he also put things together quickly and I had a feeling he’d already figured this one out and was letting me come to the same conclusion on my own.
We arrived just in time to see Tem murder a red frog. It seemed interviewing season was out.
Felegum, who had been so quick to condemn my winged celestial lizards attacking frog captors, did not comment on this wanton massacre but reminded us that we needed to stay and watch the other survivors (and possibly ourselves) for slugs.
The task of managing the guards fell somehow to me and Zeno. I have no idea how I keep being the wingman. Possibly it’s only because I have actual wings.
Thanks to the contract that I found and had chatted over with Zeno, we knew that the guards for the wagon with Charvans (our friends Embed and Voris) were being paid six gold, so we dispensed their fees from Charvans’ money pouch. Zeno also added a little extra, which made them happy to clear out.
All was going to plan. Until they asked us for our names.
“Kel,” said Zeno, absolutely straight-faced.
Seriously? Was he seriously using kind of my best friend’s name?
The others looked at me expectantly. Obviously I couldn’t use my real name– I wasn’t stupid– but what did I use? Also, oh god, it had been ages since we stopped fighting and I hadn’t even collected my broom–
“Osiri,” I said stupidly, on reflex, both calling the broom back and giving myself the worst secret name ever.
It was at this point that it was dawning on me that the third wagon, the one that I’d made off with the fancy bottle and wooden case from, was probably not part of the pipes operation. As you might imagine, this was also not improving my mood. I had a dumb nickname, felt guilty as hell for stealing from honestly very normal and, the more I talked to them, economically depressed people who had gotten royally screwed over (by frogs and also some invisible guy).
So I gave the three from the wine cart some gold. Why is this surprising? Money is a tool to fix problems. I was fixing a problem.
Zeno elbowed me after wine guards departed. “Aw, Set. You’re sweet.”
“Yeah,” said Felegum with a smirk.
“A real wonder kid.”
“What? No. I am not,” I fumed, turning red. Bodies were so dumb. There was nothing embarrassing about this. This was a business transaction. I was balancing a scale. “I-it’s nothing.”
It hit me about at this point that maybe the frogs were incubating in these poor people that we’d just paid off to leave and go away. Felegum slapped himself in the face and said that that had been what he’d been trying to warn Zeno and me about, but that we’d just insisted on going ahead and paying off the guards to leave anyway.
A moment of silence passed. Iago took another gulp and swill and Tem discreetly cleaned her eyeballs.
“Maybe these will give us some answers.” Zeno smacked the manifest on his thigh to break open the seal.
He read it. The destination was the inner sanctum of Schtolteheim Reinbach III, Lord of Reach’s Fallow. Zeno calmly ripped the manifest in half, and then into smaller and smaller pieces.
Or at least, he tried to– the paper was of startling good quality and resisted his efforts after the first few tears.
“Do you see where this is going!” he hissed at me, mid-battle with the manifest.
“Oh.” I nodded. “I think so.”
I turned to the others. “So, how would you take Zeno down?”
“A blow to the head!” Iago chipped in gamely.
“Not now, Set.” Felegum waved a hand, head bent over a manifest scrap. “I’m trying to think about what this means.”
“No!” I gritted my teeth. Gods, these people. “I know what it means! I’m trying to lead you to the answer!”
“Okay.” The mage looked up from the paper. “What’s the answer?”
“Music,” I said. “You take him out by drowning him out. He’s charming. He makes friends whenever he goes. He’s very loud, he makes an entrance, and his bagpipes can be heard for like, a really long distance. You need something even louder than all that to make sure no one hears him and no one wants to hear his side of the story. You play over him.”
“With a GIANT PIPES INSTRUMENT!” Zeno yelled, either having won or lost his battle with the scraps of untearable manifest.
It was at this point that Zeno had to take a few breaths to calm down. Then, he told us the story of him and Lord Reinbach.
He’d mentioned this before in smaller pieces, and perhaps this time too was a summary of all that had happened. In short, Zeno had stirred up dissent in his home town by writing zingers about Schtolteheim Reinbach III (how he rhymed anything around that was a mystery; it truly must have shaped his abilities as a lyricist), who treated his people abysmally. Locals loved it; it provided them some relief from daily strife.
However, it was not long before the lord caught wind of Zeno’s antics and Zeno was forced to leave. Songs, though, are hard to put down. Zeno’s effect had been long-lasting, to say the least.
And now, a very different story was being told about Zeno Kelethin, one with burning halos and horns and a terrible wake of death.
Tem listened very seriously, nodding her head at all the appropriate parts. “So these guys,” she said, gesturing at the frog corpses, “are attacking and impregnating travelers?”
I cringed at the word “impregnate”. Zeno looked annoyed that Tem was talking about the frogs and not him. Iago drank.
“Well,” said Felegum, “that’s a strong hypothesis, but we don’t know for sure. We just know that that guy–” a gesture at Iago, who belched– “barfed up a slug.”
“Yeah.” Zeno flapped a hand. “That’s nothing. That could be a regular Wednesday for that guy.”
“I personally see no problem with Lord Reinbach’s authoritarian rule,” Tem said. “But it seems you have trouble with a rival bard?”
Zeno looked at her desperately. “But he’s awful!”
Felegum, also a lover of order no matter what the cost, seemed on the fence. I obviously owed Zeno a debt of honor and also his mom sounded really nice. Or at least like someone who probably shouldn’t have to suffer a deadbeat dad on top of some dude being mean to her about her son writing nasty songs about him. I was in. This was our friend.
After some hemming and hawing, we made a plan: since there wasn’t an immediate way to get into the city without revealing that, lo, we had brought Zeno with us, we would investigate Tem’s cause a little more. A dragon with a ripped-out heart was also very compelling and might provide more light on the matter.
“Pipes,” Zeno spluttered to himself. “Ugh, what a mess.”
“Speaking of,” Felegum said, “what did you do with the pipes?”
Zeno shrugged. “Oh, they’re over here.”
The mage perked up. “I can bury them.”
“Oh, okay,” the bard said disconsolately. “I’ll send the help.”
He waved for North, West, Mckenna, and Vincenzo to follow Felegum. It took a while for Felegum to excavate the earth and bury the pipes well, so I also took advantage of the opportunity to give Charvans a nice resting spot.
Iago watched the proceedings with a wary eye. “We got a few hours of daylight left and Fell-um-gum is doing a dance.”
With Charvans buried, I marked the spot with the sigil of a rising sun made out of little stones. Felegum had paused in his pipe dancing burial ritual to help me get the hole big enough for Charvans, which was very appreciated, but also meant that he was doing a nonstop burial dance marathon over in the copse with me.
Meanwhile, Zeno stood by himself, bereft of zombies and, for such a loud, unmissable person, looking strangely small and quiet as he leaned on a tree and watched the pipes disappear beneath the earth.