• H.C. Mills

Chapter 56: Blue skies and sunshine, guaranteed

The Froggo leader glares at me with hate-filled eyes, but it’s hard to find him intimidating with the comical way his long legs are splayed out on the ground before him.

Suppressing a smirk, I level my spear at him. “Now, since you can talk, you’re going to answer my questions.”

The others quickly join me, brandishing their various weapons at the last surviving Froggo.

Silently, the Froggo looks us over, one by one, before finally locking eyes with me. He smiles, creepily. He takes a deep breath, his body and cheeks inflating hugely.

My eyes widen, and I jump back, my first thought being that’s he trying to blow himself up by breathing in too much Aether. Thankfully, Dave is a little smarter in his reaction. He immediately draws and releases his nocked arrow, hitting the Froggo square between the eyes. It stiffens, and then deflates anticlimactically, its eyes rolling back into its head.

Alec swears loudly, having also jumped back. Kaitlynn smacks his shoulder and shushes him.

Dave just sighs. “That was close. Unless I misinterpreted his actions, he was about to bellow very loudly, and get us swarmed by a whole bunch more of these weird things.”

Ah. That does seem more likely than my idea. A shiver runs up my spine at the thought of what might’ve happened, and I glare at the leader’s corpse hatefully. “Stupid Froggo,” I mutter. “What a sore loser.”

Kaitlynn stifles her laughter, as Jacob looks up, bewildered. “Froggo?” he asks no-one in particular.

I ignore him. “At least we know what we’re up against now. This could’ve gone a lot worse.”

Alec grunts, dissatisfied. “This stupid hammer is way too heavy,” he whines.

I roll my eyes. “Maybe if you hadn’t ignored that the recommended minimum strength of your hammer was 14, one point higher than your current strength, you wouldn’t be in this predicament.”

Alec slumps his shoulders. “I told you, I thought I could raise it by one more point during the preparations.”

“Then you should’ve bought it after doing that,” I cut him down mercilessly. Man, but he really gets on my nerves sometimes. Looking at his forlorn appearance, I can’t help but sigh. “You should’ve told me sooner,” I mutter, “I would’ve helped you.”

He shrugs. “You had your hands full. It was my mess to fix.”

“Guys, this isn’t the time or place to discuss these things,” Dave admonishes us as he frees his arrow from the leader’s head, wiping the green slime off on some vegetation. “Let’s see what we can find out about these things and then move on.”

“You’re right,” I say. “Let’s see what we’re dealing with. Appraise!”

“The Froggo’s are actually called ‘Hoig,’ apparently. Not for sale?” I sputter. “Why even specify that...”

Also, this is a ‘Hoplite’... is that supposed to be a pun?

I shake my head. “This doesn’t tell me much; let’s see what they have on them.”

Kaitlynn eyes me strangely. “Ehm, Emma, they’re not wearing any clothes or bags.”

“I noticed,” I say drolly. “And yet, they managed to produce weapons.”

I watch the cogs turn in her head for a few seconds before Dave catches my drift and starts pulling open the leader’s—or Hoplite’s, I guess—huge mouth. Her expression turns to one of disgust as he produces a slimy leather bag from the back of one of its cheeks. “Ewwww!”

Dave grimaces and holds it up for me. “Guess this is yours.”

I open it with a smirk. Upon looking inside, however, I quickly lose interest. It contains some simple tools, some pretty shells, both closed and open, and a smelly, half-eaten fish.

Shaking my head, I put the bag down on the ground, and wipe my hands on a tree. The grass is a little sharp for that kind of thing. “If anyone wants any of this, they’re free to take it. Actually, Alec, there may be some ingredients for you here.”

I walk over to the corpse of the Froggo I’m actually most interested in: The one with the blowpipe. Picking the weapon up, I turn to Kaitlynn and raise my brows at her questioningly. She waves at me, indicating that I can have it. Score!

I quickly secure the blowpipe behind my back in my backpack’s straps. Rummaging around in the still smouldering Froggo’s gullet for a bit reveals a small slimy satchel of blowdarts, and what seems to be a more general pouch filled with more of the same stuff the other guy had.

I wipe the pouch of blowdarts clean to hang it from my belt and toss the pouch next to the other one on the ground, for Alec’s perusal. He’s giving the fish a wide berth, thankfully, but seems quite intrigued by the closed shells.

I guess I’ll trust in his ability as a chef...

Finally, I wander back to the corpse of the Hoplite, to study his spear. Hmm, I think I’m just gonna leave this here. The two-pronged, barbed wooden weapon was handled more skilfully than it was made, seemingly. Moreover, the barbs on the weapon may look nasty, but they wouldn’t be too useful in combat; it could end up getting stuck in an enemy, leaving me unarmed. It seems like its main use might actually be as a fishing tool.

Nothing too different or interesting appears to have been found by the rest, so, after Kaitlynn and Dave finish up collecting their projectiles, and Alec has packed up all the shellfish, we get back in formation.

We move carefully, now aware of our enemy, and not too keen on another battle just yet. I only used up about five Onkh of Qi myself; but I know Kaitlynn fired at least two of her three shots, and I think Jacob also used at least two of his 5 Onkh costing Charges, leaving him with a little over half of his 21 Onkh of Qi.

I was a little surprised at this at first, but it turns out conservation of energy is not a thing in this Realm, which is why I can use just 1 Onkh of Qi to form almost 5 Onkh of Toxic Energy, making Infuse quite a fuel-efficient skill. It also explains why Kaitlynn’s maximally charged 10 Onkh Astreum Blast packs such a punch.

Either way, it’ll take about forty minutes or so for Kaitlynn to be fully charged again, as the time it takes to fully charge unexpectedly seems to be roughly an hour, independent of the relative size of our Qi pools.

Thankfully, it doesn’t come to another fight just yet. We creep through the underbrush uncontested until we hit upon the river. It’s pretty hard to miss actually, as it starts to our right in the form of a huge Hydrumfall, coming out of the bloody grey wall itself.

It then meanders a bit, with the riverbanks not very high above the Hydrum, to the point where we are now, before bending sharply to the right and disappearing into the forest in the distance.

Well, actually, we’re up on a hill overlooking the bend in the river, and more importantly perhaps, the collection of ramshackle huts on its shore there.

It’s a Froggo village, and its crawling with the fat buggers. I count at least a dozen of them, and there’s bound to be more in the huts. The tribal looking village doesn’t have much in the form of fortifications, just a couple of watchtowers, but I still don’t feel like storming it.

Dave seems to agree with that assessment. “Looks like we’ll have to give this place a wide berth; I’m not looking forward to tangling with this many Hoig.”

However, that’s when I spot something that makes my stomach drop. “That’s going to be difficult; I think I know how we’re supposed to go down the river now.”

I point at the wooden barge, moored in the bend of the river, smack dab in the middle of the Froggo’s village.

A ways farther from the village, sheltered by a dense copse of trees, we discuss our next move.

“I say we go stealth,” Alec starts, “wait till Twinset, sneak in after dark, take the barge, and get the frig out of there before the Froggo’s catch on.”

Jacob hums. “That would be safest, though I feel like we might be missing out on some bonus Trial Points if we evade combat...”

“Be that as it may,” I say tersely, “we’re not exactly equipped to take out the whole village. And I’m sure the fight will come to us, regardless of if we go looking for it.”

Kaitlynn smirks at me. “Aww, why so pessimistic? Who knows; maybe things will be easy for once!”

I give her the ol’ stink-eye, but she just smiles back mischievously. Brat.

Dave clears his throat. “If you could stay focused please, ladies... Now, unless I’m mistaken, the last Twinset we witnessed occurred maybe an hour before we left Hub Two. We spent roughly 48 hours inside the preparation rooms, and a single cycle of the Twin Star takes about 17 hours and 13 minutes, meaning three cycles takes about 52 hours. That means the next Twinset should be in three hours or so.

I blink at him. Wow, quick maths! “Good,” I finally say. “That should be plenty of time to recharge our Qi and plan our mission.”

Alec perks up. “Ooh, what should we call it? Mission ehm... not impossible?”

I apply my palm to my face.

Dave shakes his head. “Dude. Lame.”

“How about, ‘Operation Frobin Hood’, get it?” Kaitlynn weighs in cheekily.

I smirk at her, brow raised. “Honestly, that’s only marginally better.”

“Oh yeah, what’s your idea then?” she asks, a challenging glint her eyes, before assaulting my sides, thereby preventing me from coming up with anything, thus shooting herself in the foot. Despite the fact that her assault doesn’t really penetrate my leather armour, I stand by this explanation.

“Operation Barge In and Barge Out,” Jacob deadpans.

A beat of silence follows.

“Dude, awesome,” Dave says, nodding approvingly. Alec—grinning widely, his own terrible idea forgotten—goes for a high-five.

Kaitlynn relents her assault, saying, “Okay, that is a good one.”

“Nice,” I agree, “Operation Barge Out for short. Let’s get planning then.”

Crouched in the bushes with Alec, underneath a magnificent night sky, I fidget impatiently.

I throw another glance at our target; the guard near the river’s edge, one of the few guards the Froggo’s have posted. Alec had actually suggested we sneak up on him by diving underwater—or underhydrum I guess—and flowing along the river. I might have actually considered the plan, except for the part where, if things went wrong, we’d end up fighting the amphibians underhydrum.

No, we’ll have to do things the old-fashioned way; wait for the distraction, sneak up, and knock him out.

<Be ready to move, in five, four...> the telepathic projection of Dave’s thoughts trails off inside my mind. It really is a useful skill, though it’d be better if he could establish a two-way connection somehow.

Finally. I activate the second mode of Boost Physical and continue the countdown on my fingers. Alec tenses up and nods at me.

When I get to zero, Jacob makes his move maybe 100 feet to our left. Simple but effective; he throws a stick into some bushes, causing them to rustle.

The closest Froggo guard looks over with what might be a frown. It’s hard to tell in the dark... on a giant frog. He opens his massive gullet and retrieves a crude axe from inside, before moving to check out the disturbance. The Froggo guard in front of us readies his blowpipe, turning to stare at the bushes relaxedly.

Which is what we’ve been waiting for. Alec and I sneak out behind his back, and slowly make our way towards him, while Kaitlynn remains on lookout.

I ready my own blowpipe, with its special payload, while Alec lifts his hammer overhead with some difficulty.

Thankfully, the Knifegrass beneath our feet bends without creaking. I flinch after stepping on a twig, but it’s too Tough to snap under my weight.

Despite the favourable conditions, our target still eventually notices our approach, somehow, but it’s too little too late.

The moment he turns, I dart forward and unleash a controlled burst of Aether into my blowpipe. A generous helping of Dreamcloud powder rushes out of the other end, catching him full in the face.

I checked out the darts I found of course, and they turned out to be full of Toxic energy, by the grace of having been carved from Toxic wood. That wouldn’t do much in terms of silencing opponents however; Toxic Energy in its base form–without Purpose—just weakens and drains Lavi, after all. We considered things like coating the dart in Dreamcloud powder—maybe wetting it first, so the powder would cling to the surface—but ultimately none of those ideas seemed terribly practical, and we didn’t really have time or proper test-subjects to try them out on.

This delivery method at least has a better range than just tossing it by hand; especially if I use it.

And it works like a charm. The Froggo’s alarmed eyes turn glazed and confused, right before Alec’s hammer comes crashing down on his head from behind, sending the guard sprawling with a dull thud.

Alec pulls out a stone knife, and silently finishes the job by slitting the guards, well, upper torso I suppose. Not sure if I can call it a throat on a being that hardly has a neck.

He does it like he does most things; enthusiastically. It’s a strange sight.

Over in the bushes near Dave’s position, Kaitlynn and Jacob perform a similar two-pronged strike, with Kaitlyn rushing in with a handful of powder, and Jacob finishing the job with a thrust of his sword.

Near simultaneously, Dave executes the riskiest part of Operation Barge Out: he shoots an arrow at the guard in the watchtower.

We considered tying a pouch full of Dreamcloud powder to his arrow but ultimately decided against it, as it would affect the flight path of his arrow. And if Dave misses and the guard raises the alarm, this operation is basically over.

Thankfully, he doesn’t. His arrow flies true, hitting the Froggo square between the eyes. It slumps down silently.

Silence reigns and we wait with bated breath. That was the final guard on this side of the village, but the question remains, did any of the farther guards notice?

Ultimately, nothing happens. Looks like we’re in the clear. I reload my blowpipe in the dark, careful not to release too much powder into the Aether, and take the guard’s as a spare while Alec loots him and the rest quietly make their way towards us.

<Phase two?> Dave sends after we’ve all gathered.

I take a glance at the determined faces around me and nod. “Let’s go,” I whisper.

And we’re off, sneaking downstream next to the river into the village proper. Small, half dug-in huts are spread haphazardly across the shore. We give them a wide berth.

My heart is beating in my throat; aside from Kaitlynn’s rescue, this is the most intense situation I’ve ever experienced. It’s also rather exciting; our plan is actually working!

Of course, as soon as I think that, a Froggo stumbles out of its hut right in front of us, stretching languidly.

He notices us, and we all freeze.

Author's note:

Chapter's a day early, because I have to go into work tomorrow. ^^

If you enjoyed it regardless, please vote! ;)

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©2018 by H.C. Mills