Chapter 94 - Giant Frogs and Wooden Dogs VI
Arms crossed and lips pursed into a frown, Claire stood before the most confusing waterfall she had ever seen. So bamboozled was the rogue that she couldn’t decide if she was staring at one cliffside river or two. Both possible distinctions could be argued; the water split into two streams, one that crashed into a basin overhead, and another with its destination underfoot. In that sense, they were separate, but the pair shared the same source, a subterranean channel that flowed out from within a wall of stone.
Despite the constant influx of fresh water, the surrounding area sported a distinct lack of life. The meadow was dead. All the grasses were withered and there wasn’t a flower in sight. Likewise, the forest’s flora was also deprived of its vitality. The trees had degenerated into leafless, dried husks, and the undergrowth was shrivelled up and half-eaten. Only the marsh remained fertile and viable, its sulphurous scent overpowering, even to the lyrkress’ less-than-discerning tongue.
Bugs, frogs, and crocodiles were the only creatures present, with the lattermost group composed of nothing but rotten, half-eaten corpses, wriggling with maggots.
“Why, what a wonderful sight. It’s almost as beautiful as I am,” said Shoulderhorse.
“Can you shut up already?”
“Just let her have her fun, Claire. You’ve been around too many people. We haven’t had a chance to talk since borrok peak,” said Shouldersnake.
“I know. I like it better that way.”
“And we like it better when we get to talk,” replied the serpent.
“We all love it when I get to talk. My voice is so charming it could seduce a god,” said the horse. “I can’t believe you haven’t tried to escape the fox. You would’ve had more chances to listen to me.”
“Pony’s complaints aside, you could have at least stepped further away so you could have consulted us about your skill points,” grumbled the serpent. “All the points you put into strength were wasted.”
“No they weren’t. I can wield the crabs’ swords properly now.”
“And I could have wielded them properly without you spending any points.”
Claire shrugged. “Using you to use a weapon feels weird.”
“Raising your dexterity would have solved that.”
With a roll of the eyes, Claire waved the imaginary animals off and raised her ears overhead. The buzzing of insects and the rushing of water aside, she could hear nothing but croaks and ribbits. It was the frogs’ uncontested domain, through and through, with the lyrkress the only foreign element. Even the fox was gone, as evidenced by the shoulder pair’s sudden advent; Sylvia had bid her farewell as soon as the greenergy started to brown, leaving Claire with only a set of vague instructions and a quick description of her destination.
The rogue tore her gaze from the waterfall, stepped behind a tree, and inspected her equipment one last time. At a glance, everything seemed to be in order. She had an axe and six crab legs strapped to her thighs, her mace mounted on her back, and a sheathed broken cutlass hanging off the side of her waist. She would have preferred not to violate the weapon’s integrity, but she couldn’t easily transport it without snapping it in half.
Her cloak was exactly as it had been during her most recent trek through the maze. The overcoat was changed into a silken dress topped with a set of leather protectors, the interior material chosen primarily for comfort. Though the various components appeared as would different articles of clothing, they were all parts of the same whole, connected to one another through direct physical contact.
A pair of frozen spears formed in her hands as Claire took a breath and stepped towards the basin. The ice cold air radiating off her body chilled the mud beneath her hooves, prompting her to leave a set of icy prints in her wake. Most of the frogs were upside down, hanging around the marsh, but that mattered little. They began swarming her as soon as she stepped out from the treeline. Those that were on her side of the world hopped over while the others went through the necessary extra steps. Feathered frogpoles, the winged frogs with antlers and giant tongues, flew up to attack her, while toadempoles, the llystletein variants with multiple heads, turned themselves upside down, switched sides, and proceeded as if they had never been bound by the meadow-marsh’s pull.
Killing her way through the horde was as easy as lightly waving her spears around. Every stab ended at least one life, with the occasional swing netting two or even three. But even with an anuran dying once every few seconds, their numbers only grew. A seemingly infinite supply hopped out of the woodwork. It was a horde as plentiful as the borroks’, but unlike the annoying bug-monkeys, the frogs didn’t exhaust her or even put any strain on her mind. They weren’t organised or coordinated. The few simultaneous attacks that happened to occur were entirely coincidental. There weren’t any suicidal cyclopses, willing to give up their lives to shield their allies from harm, nor any mages lobbing projectiles from a distance. The frogs were nothing but a collection of weaklings capable of little beyond mindless aggression.
The damage that they dealt was negligible. The few that managed to strike her with their tongues failed to get past her armour, natural or otherwise. Her scales proved far too resilient for their tongues to pierce, and while her leather pads suffered the occasional rip, they always repaired themselves before they were struck again. Her exposed centaurian bits were more susceptible to damage, but she soon discovered that there was no need to be concerned with them. Not even their strongest attacks were able to leave so much as a bruise.
After working her way through the first few waves, she decided to turn the experience into a game. Each individual was given its own unique demise. She cycled through her weapons, toyed with her spells, and experimented with whatever happened to come to mind. One frog was rammed to death and impaled on her shard, another was strangled from afar with force magic, and yet another was outright destroyed with a barrage of freezing rays. There was even a particularly unlucky individual that found itself literally ripped in half. She magically grabbed one side of its body with each hand and pulled until it finally split at the seams. The only consistency was that the anurans were put down with minimal investment. Knowing of the battle to come, Claire kept a careful eye on her resources. Her mana was not allowed to dip below ten thousand and she outright refused to use any of her divinity.
As the battle wore on, however, she began to realise that keeping all five points in reserve was a mistake. There was roughly an hour between the first death and the last; most of her divine power would have regenerated in the time she had spent committing bloody murder, had she not outright refused to spend it.
Looking around with a frown, she double checked to confirm that she had killed every last one of the basin’s frogs, as per Sylvia’s instructions. But even though everything was dead, the lord was nowhere to be found. There wasn’t even the slightest hint of its presence, nor was there anywhere for her to sit down and contemplate its absence. Everything, everything, was covered in blood. The trees, the mud, and even the water were all dyed in different shades of red. There were so many corpses that it was impossible for her to take three steps without having to kick one out of the way.
“Maybe it’s underwater,” muttering the question under her breath, the frog killer stepped past the shoreline and entered the basin. She tried peeking into the murky depths as soon as she was fully submerged, but there was too much muck, grime, and blood for her to see any more than a foot in front of her.
Stepping back out of the lake, Claire was subjected to a strange sense of malaise. The soundscape had changed, dulled. It was like everything had suddenly been turned down several levels and getting the water out of her ears didn’t help. If anything, it made it worse. The insects grew quieter and quieter, just like the distant sounds she heard from the rest of the forest. Together, they vanished, giving way to the void of nothingness.
She was left in near absolute silence. The only sound she heard was the beating of a distant pair of wings, its source a large orange butterfly. Her eyes shot towards the creature and remained focused on it as it fluttered its way to the centre of the basin. After making a few small circles, the odd insect eventually settled down. By landing on a frogpole’s corpse.
That was when everything changed.
The ground shook and rumbled as the world was stretched apart. The meadow and the forest grew further, the distance between them expanding fivefold. Both the basin’s length and width were tripled, all to make room for the frog at its centre.
What started as just another dead anuran expanded into a towering upside down behemoth. Its body turned translucent, tinted in a shade of light blue. She could see right through it if she squinted, but its insides were invisible, a mystery with no solution in sight.
Though it possessed a pair of wings, she doubted that the creature had the ability to fly. Each individual feather was at least twice her height and three times her width, and there were dozens of them laid out side by side. But even then, the monster’s wingspan seemed too small for an entity so massive. Not that she would ever find out. There wasn’t even enough space for the lord to jump, let alone take to the air.
Claire was not intimidated by its size, but her eyes widened as it opened its mouth and revealed the horror within. Its tongue—tongues—were made up of long strands of muscle, each adorned with a number of extras. There were arms squirming towards her as best they could, legs desperately flailing for release, and heads either screaming for her demise or begging to be put out of their misery.
Her mind screamed. It screamed that something about the monster was wrong. The sight of it was so sanity-draining that she almost failed to realise that she was under attack. The tongue’s split ends flew at her, slowly arcing through the air before snapping forward as would a set of heavy whips. Reacting in the nick of time, she narrowly evaded all five tendrils and retaliated by throwing her half-melted spears.
Neither was able to inflict any harm. Their dulled ends bounced right off the frog’s moist tongue without so much as leaving a cut or a bruise. Its attacks, on the other hand, were deadly. Each missed lash left a deep imprint in the mud. Those that hit trees demolished them, trunks and all, without a notable decrease in their speed.
Cutlass in one hand and axe in the other, she blew through the second wave of attacks. The venom-coated blades tore through the fleshy appendages. She knew she was hurting it. Each of her slashes replenished a few points of mana, courtesy of the phantom strikes accompanying them, but none of it seemed to stick. Every bit of damage she dealt was immediately regenerated. The tongues would bubble and new flesh would sprout from whatever piece she happened to bisect.
The more she attacked it, the more she was made to understand that its mouth-weapon was the opposite of a vital. If she wanted to deal lasting damage, she was going to need to get closer.
Using her force magic, she tried just that by displacing the incoming tongues and pushing forward, dashing into the fray with her weapons swinging wildly.
Every tongue she encountered was cleaved in two. But that was only to be expected.
The frog was not a warrior.
It was a mage.
A massive, out of place tree flew at her roughly halfway through her charge, one far larger than anything else in the immediate vicinity. Even from a glance, she could tell that the ridiculously obtuse trunk was too thick to cut. With her tail pointed towards her rear, she magically leapt into the air to avoid it. A near fatal mistake.
A dozen tongues flew at her all at once. She was able to redirect herself just enough to evade the ones coming from behind her, but there were too many of them for her to strike back. The best she could do was raise her weapons and use them as a means of defence.
Neither the stone axe nor the solid iron brick were able to hold before the heavy onslaught. The lumberjack’s companion was snapped in half and the sword-turned-shield was bent out of shape, its wielder sent flying back into the forest. Discarding both broken blades, she immediately replaced them with a pair of crab-legged daggers, neither of which held for very long. A few cuts was all it took for them to dull and break. In the blink of an eye, two of the three pairs of blades were exhausted and deemed unfit for further use.
Frowning, she drew her last pair of crab legs and dashed forward, but was intercepted by a storm of objects, each fired from the tip of a tongue. She had to duck and weave past a porcelain vase, a straw doll, a broken dagger, a pillar of flame, a cloud of poison, and even an old piano. The items were haphazard and unrelated at best, but Claire was unperturbed.
She knew exactly what was going on.
The frog was tapping into the forces of chaos and exploiting the world’s fundamental lack of order. It was wild magic, an absurd strain whose only consistency was its lack thereof. It was not the sort of witchcraft that a sane combatant would ever invest their time in learning; some of the frog’s wild bolts may have seemed threatening, but it was impossible for an effective combat strategy to be formed around them. Even the caster was completely unaware of what their next spell would bring.
On the other hand, the wild mage’s opponent was able to immediately formulate a strategy to circumvent its antics. At the end of the day, the projectiles were just projectiles. Even if the objects manifested were random, their purpose remained as one. To dissuade her approach.
Warding off the next wave of tongue strikes and random objects with a freshly summoned snake, she propelled herself through the sky, constantly adjusting her height and momentum to stay ahead of the frog’s whips. She dodged a spell by flinging herself to the left, evaded a tendril by suddenly swerving to the right, and avoided a sweeping beam by landing back on the ground before finally arriving at the frog’s head. It was upside down, so she couldn’t get on top of it, but she was able to propel herself forward and plant both her remaining daggers into the creature’s eyes, the one weakness her mastery skill had managed to detect.
Claire succeeded in accomplishing what she set out to do, but the results proved her efforts fruitless. Its eyeball was bigger than she was; the tiny crab legs barely pierced the monster’s skin. It was impossible to tell if the rocket fuel coating her blades was having any sort of effect.
Whatever the case, she left her daggers where they were and immediately disengaged. Relying primarily on her force magic, she propelled herself away from the lord and landed beside the basin, near the giant wall that was the waterfall’s source.
She expected a dozen strikes to follow in her wake, but her foe had refrained from attacking. Looking back, she found it staring at her, its mouth closed and its eldritch tongue nowhere to be seen. After holding its gaze for a number of seconds, the monster took a deep breath, puffed out its throat, and croaked. A thousand different cries flooded through her mind at once, some mocking, others scornful, all horrifying.
Not knowing what to expect, Claire responded to the taunt by firing a freezing ray from her chest, but the frog opened its mouth and matched it with a beam of its own. The strange spell changed colours every time she looked at it, but it wasn’t entirely inconsistent. It was never without a purple or a yellow, somewhere in the mix.
As expected, the frog’s beam had hers completely overpowered. She had to cancel her attack and leap out of the way to avoid the magic’s effects, of which, there were plenty. Everything the light touched was polymorphed. Trees became keys, keys became sheep, sheep became cakes, and cakes flyswatters. It was a pure mess of mass destruction, one that even spawned and subsequently removed an unlucky orc.
Another wave of tongues closed in on her before the beam was done firing. They were deadlier than they were before, faster and more fluid. Dodging was unreliable. She had to swat them away and the only weapon she had left was her mace. She held it in both hands and did her utmost to meet the abominable tendrils head on.
The first two hits were deflected without any issue. But the third proved problematic. Because it was accompanied by a loud crack.
The sound of her supposedly reliable club suffering an irreparable amount of damage.
A series of fractures ran down the weapon, spreading each time she parried a blow. It would last another few attacks, that was it. Fortunately, Shouldersnake was able to make up the difference. Holstering the weapon and relying on the spirit guardian for defence, she raised both her hands and fired another beam. Again, it was intercepted. But this time, hers proved more powerful.
Lacing the attack with four points of divinity, she blasted through the polymorph ray and froze her target, the back of the frog’s throat; the tongue’s base. The ice blossomed into a violent burst of shards, each gouging the monster’s flesh and tearing it asunder.
A grin surfaced on her face as she watched the frog shriek.
It wasn’t healing. At least not right away.
She had finally found a way to deal it lasting damage.
But that was all she accomplished.
One of the many tendrils flew at her gut faster than even Shouldersnake could react. It pierced it right through, its limbs and mouths tearing and chewing at her insides.
She whacked at it with her mace, but she couldn’t muster up the strength to bend or break the frog’s weapon. Magically pushing herself with her tail got her nowhere. The tongue had shattered her spine. The entire lower half of her body was unresponsive.
Gasping for air, Claire magically grabbed the weapon stuck in her gut and tried to tear the muscle in two, but another pair of mouth tentacles flew at her and pulverised her shoulders before she could break free.
She began to panic as yet another tongue wrapped itself around her neck, squeezing. Hard. Too hard for her to breathe.
Claire felt like she could hear something vague, coming from far, far away.
But she couldn’t tell what it was.
She tried to look, but her vision was stolen. By the tendrils that drilled through her eyes.