Our last adventure had a rather chilly river involved. Let’s warm up in the desert for this next adventure =)
It’s dry as only a desert can be. Each breath creates a dull ache in the back of your sinuses like the flow of air is actively pulling moisture out of your body. Well, you admit, it is in fact doing just that.
Your goal is the small town of Caspian. As far as you know, it’s the only oasis in the otherwise flat, tan and white of the desert, and it’s the only waypoint in the middle of the Salt Desert.
“We’ll make it,” you tell Opher, your nag of a horse, as each of her steps trudges forward. As long as you can reach Caspian before the sun sets, you should be fine. You’re not prepared for another freezing night out on the salt sands, however. “We’ll make it,” you say again.
Opher doesn’t respond.
Not more than an hour before the sun disappears below the horizon, you top the crest of what can barely be called a hill, and there sits the dumpy town of Caspian. Right in the middle of the sloped, dried looking shapes of the buildings sparkles the town’s claim to fame, the Caspian Lake, and the only true water for miles.
As though she can smell it, Opher picks up her pace toward the main street.
You pull her up short in front of the Horse’s Shoe, the only tavern in town. In previous visits, the people of Caspian haven’t been openly friendly, but neither were they openly hostile either. As you dismount now, an elderly woman wanders by and gives you such a hairy look that you check to make sure you’re not indecently dressed.
Perhaps she’d just having a rough day, you decide, and wander into the tavern. At this time of day, the main room’s full. Before you opened the doors, the general hubbub of the place carried out into the street, but as you enter and pause in the dark interior, all conversation stops.
The older lady was easy to shrug off but this is a clear sign something’s amiss. You meet the bartender’s stare and hold up your hands to show you mean no trouble.
“Meal and a glass of water?” you ask.
The bartender, a heavy shouldered man with such red hair it could be flame, grunts. “Sure,” he says and nods his chin to the only open stool at the bar.
As you slowly make your way to the spot, conversation picks up again although it stays more hushed than before.
When the flame haired bartender sets a plate of over cooked beef and a hard roll on the bar, you thank him and then ask, “trouble in town?”
“Something like that,” he says as he turns away.
Before he can get too far, you ask, “Any rooms open for the night?”
He eyes you for a long moment before nodding, “Sure. So long as you stay inside the whole night. Want no trouble.”
There’s more going on than one stranger rolling into town and creating possible trouble, but Red doesn’t seem interested in sharing.
“Deal,” you say. Staying inside shouldn’t be a problem. You’ve been traveling for several days and a solid night of sleep sounds good.
Red grunts and walks away.
A room turns out to mean a closet with a twin bed and a nightstand with a small bowl of water for washing up. Thankfully, there’s a tiny window to let in fresh air or the place would feel uncomfortably close.
You splash your face to remove some of the desert dust and then flop onto the bed for much needed sleep.
It’s perhaps an hour after midnight when a sound, a solid, deep chested roar like a lion’s but much deeper, wakes you from a dreamless, drool-inducing sleep. Your heart rate hits top speed, rushing blood through your ears and making you wonder if you only imagined the noise. As you listen, the whoosh, whoosh of blood screams in your head.
Then the roar comes again, accompanied by a subtle shudder to the earth. You sit up in bed and hesitate. There’s a faint light shining through your small window but between the haziness created by dust on the pane and the shifting clouds across the moon, you can’t actually see anything outside. You said you’d stay in the room, but nothing you know of makes a roar like that.
Oasis Disturbance-Go Outside
The subtle shuddering in the floorboards continues, growing in strength until dust floats into the air from the surface and each dry board creaks against its neighbor. Red, the tavern keeper, may have asked you to stay in your room all night but you’ve a sinking premonition that your room might not last till dawn and it might be safer to move your body elsewhere.
With a firm grip on the doorknob, you turn it carefully and peek into the hallway beyond. Darkness greets you but it’s a sleepy kind of hush, not a creepy kind. Keeping your steps soft, you exit your closet room and make it three steps down the stairs before a grating, grinding crash shakes the walls. Even before the noise stops, you notice light coming from under the door of the room you just left. It’s silvery light, like someone opened a giant window…except there wasn’t a big window in that room to open. Maybe it’s time to get out of town, you decide, and take the last six steps down to the bar two at a time.
Before your feet finish thudding on the landing, someone’s got you by the arm.
“Should’ve told you to leave town!” Red shouts. He spins you toward the back door where you assume the kitchen sits.
“How do I have anything to do with this?” you shout right back, both from his rough handling and from your surprise.
By now, Red’s shoved you through the kitchen and toward the door outside. He lets go of your arm to swing the door open.
“Look at that!” He points through the door but does not step through it.
Beyond the door lies the backyard of the tavern and beyond that sits the stables. Or rather, what used to be the stables. A jumbled heap of timbers and thatch meets your gaze, and now that you know what you’re hearing, you realize some horses must have survived because their worried neighing carries through the tavern yard.
“Opher!” You run to search for her but Red grabs your arm again before you exit the door.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“My horse. Your stables. We’ve got to help them!”
He lets go like you burned him. “And go out there? You’re battier than a belfry.”
For a moment, you simply look into the big man’s dark eyes. Under the bravado, there’s a layer of fear so thick he’s almost drowning in it. No argument will make him leave the questionable safety of the tavern.
“Fine,” you say, and step out the door.
It’s a relatively clear night with only a few scattered clouds to hide the moon occasionally. You’re so focused on the stables that you don’t immediately see the creature running toward you waving its spindly arms. When you do catch sight of it, however, you freeze as your brain stumbles over an explanation.
“Look at you!” the creature crows. “All that lovely skin and hair and—and—and look at your eyes! You have eyes!”
This would be a very strange statement except the creature doesn’t have eyes—or skin—or hair. It’s just bones and now that it’s standing right in front of you, there’s no denying what’s talking at you.
A dinosaur, or at least it’s the talking bones of one. About the size of a thin, medium sized dog, the teeth and snout look like they could leave quite the wound in all your lovely skin.
But the dinosaur isn’t biting, or even really aggressive. Instead, it grasps your hands in its long claws and sighs, “You’re perfect. Please help us.”
“Um,” you say.
“Oh right,” the dinosaur drops your hands and takes a step back. “They all say I’m a little much. Calm, Calvin, stay calm and explain.” This last bit seems to be said more to himself than to you.
“Someone stole the toad king,” Calvin says.
“I know, right!? Who would do such a thing? But they did and now we need to un-damn the lake or we all stay dusty, thirsty skeletons. Help us?”
“My horse needs my help first.” You point toward the rubble of the stables as you try to edge around Calvin.
He grabs your arm and then flinches back. “Calm, Calvin, calm. Don’t scare the human,” he tells himself, then, “un-damning the lake will help everyone, horses included. What do you say?”
Oasis Disturbance-Help Calvin
“How does un-damning the lake help my horse?” you ask Calvin.
He hops from one foot to the other with a toothy grin. “If horse is hurt in the moonlight, horse becomes like me. Then you end up with a thirsty, dusty skeleton horse. By un-damning the lake, your horse’s injuries remain normal and she’ll heal like any normal flesh and blood. See, easy peasy. It’s all connected.”
You shake your head and Calvin takes this as you disagreeing with him when, in reality, you’re just trying to understand everything.
“Please help. I promise it’ll help your horse. I promise, I promi—”
“Okay!” you say. “What has to be done?”
“I finally figured it out!” Calvin says. “He kidnapped the Toad King and now we’re suffering the curse. We need to return the King to the lake.”
“Who kidnapped the Toad King?”
Calvin points one long claw behind you at the back door of the tavern. When you turn to look, you see Red staring with such an expression of fear, anger, and defiance that you take a step back.
“Why don’t you retrieve the King?” you ask Calvin as Red spins away to disappear into the darkened interior of the tavern.
Calvin spits his disgust. How he does this when he has no tongue, you don’t know, but you’re pretty sure he hawks a loogie that kind of looks like a tumbleweed. It blows around in the dust of the tavern yard.
“Once a skeleton, all indoors are denied to you.” He reaches out a careful claw and touches the skin on the back of your hand. “Skin,” he says simply, and then grins his delight.
“I don’t get it,” you admit. “Why would Red want a Toad King?”
This time Calvin palms his face, making the bone of his hand scrap on his brow ridges. “Don’t you know anything?”
You don’t answer that. Why should you know anything about a Toad King, a curse, and walking skeletons?
“Sheesh,” Calvin exclaims. “Anyone who has the Toad King has his luck.”
“Doesn’t seem like good luck to me,” you comment with a gesture at the rubble of the stables.
Calvin grins and waves a claw like a teacher would at a smart point made by a student. “There’s always a catch. The Horse’s Shoe is doing great and even the damage Rex did to the front of the tavern tonight will be gone by morning—that’s how I know Red’s the one holding the King—but now Red’s stuck with night terrors every night. While he holds the Toad King, he can’t be harmed by anyone, but as soon as he puts him back, people can take whatever retribution they want for this nightmare.” Calvin shrugs. “He’s in trouble either way.”
Considering there’s a T-rex wandering down the road and you’re talking to a tongue-less skeleton, you can’t really argue with Calvin’s logic.
“What am I looking for?”
Calvin’s description of a large toad in a jar can’t be that hard to miss, right? As you walk back into the tavern’s dark kitchen, you’re running over all the possible places the tavern keeper would keep just such a jar.
You needn’t have wasted your brain power, you realize, as you step into the tavern and find Red standing at the far end of the bar with a shotgun aimed your direction. He’s holding the pistol grip because he only has one hand free. Under his left arm is a large jar with a green and yellow, wart-covered toad inside.
“Stop there,” Red says. “I don’t want any trouble.”
“You’ve already got trouble,” you say without thinking and Red growls at you.
Besides his description of the toad, Calvin also gave you a couple suggestions on how to approach this situation. One, he thinks Red has an addiction to licorice candy because he pays exorbitant prices to have it shipped into town. The talking skeleton even came prepared and handed you a small package of the stuff. It’s sticking out of your right back pocket in case you need it. Calvin surmised you might be able to bargain for the Toad King because the skeletons have been destroying every shipment of licorice for the last month.
The other option presented was to appeal to the Toad King himself. Apparently the slimy creature isn’t without some power even when he’s being held in a jar. If he’s motivated enough, he might choose you as master over Red. Again, Calvin suggested sweets but this time he figured chocolate covered crickets might entice the Toad instead of licorice. A small packet of crickets is tucked into your left back pocket.
With the shotgun pointed at you, you don’t have a lot of time to debate your choices.
Offer Licorice to Red?
Offer Chocolate to the Toad King?
Oasis Disturbance-Offer Chocolate to the Toad King
You question whether or not Red can be reasoned with, so instead of addressing him, you meet the bulgy eyes of the Toad King. His tongue flicks out to hit the glass of the jar. It pings like a moth hitting a window.
“Your majesty,” you say. “Would you agree to un-damn the lake for some chocolate crickets?”
“What are you doing?” Red growls. “Battier than a belfry! It’s a toad, for crying in a bucket! He can’t talk.”
However, right on the heels of his statement, the Toad opens his mouth in a wide yawn and asks, “Crickets? Chocolate covered crickets? Oooo, that is tempting.” His croaky voice sounds almost British.
Red gaps at the toad in his glass cage. He lowers the shotgun in order to place the jar on the bar. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was afraid the toad might explode. Then he backs away a few steps to stare.
“What?” the Toad King asks. “I never wanted to talk to you, so I didn’t. Plus, you feed me flies. I’ve never seen a chocolate covered cricket in this dusty establishment before.” At this, his tongue flicks out and he turns his bulgy stare toward you. “Let me see a small piece. See if it’s worth the hassle.”
You pull a small cricket from the package in your left pocket and slide it down the bar. It hits the glass of the jar and sits there. The Toad King smashes his face against the glass to get a better look at it.
“Hmmm,” he mutters, “dark coloring, smooth texture, legs included. Seems like a good product. I’ll take your offer, human,” he says.
“Ha,” Red laughs. “You’re my Toad King.”
“Ha,” the Toad King laughs back. “Hop around like a kangaroo for the next three days.”
Red stiffens and then, to your surprise, he holds his hands close to his chest and starts hopping for the front door of the tavern. As the door slams shut behind his bouncing gait, the Toad King turns to eye you and you suppress the urge to gulp. What did you just get yourself into?
“Can you do that to everyone?” you ask.
“Only the person who claims me,” the King grins, “and since I’ve accepted your offer, that’s you.”
“What? I just offered crickets, not ownership.”
“You made a deal with me,” he responds, “ownership passes to whoever made the most recent deal. Now, crickets?”
As you leave the tavern with the Toad King sitting on your shoulder, you find the yard suspiciously quiet.
“No skeletons?” you ask.
“The curse on the lake is lifted.” The king shrugs as he crunches into his second cricket. “Can we explore somewhere that’s not Caspian?” he asks around the bug in his cheeks.
“Uh, sure, but I think my horse needs time to heal.” You point out the destruction to the stables and the worried neighing inside.
“Oh bother.” The Toad King waves his webbed feet. The rubble of the stables gives a jerk and, between one blink of your eyes and the next, they’re back to normal with a sleepy hush hanging over the predawn.
As you travel with the King, who’s name you find out is Martin, you find out there’s good and bad to having him around. He always wants chocolate crickets, so you start carrying ingredients to make them yourself. He likes small tricks and you end up wandering around thinking you’re a dog occasionally. On the upside, Opher never gets tired and every tavern you stay at suddenly gets the urge not to charge you. He’s also very good at eating mosquitoes, so you never have to worry about bug bites.
Everyone does ask about your ‘pet’ toad. You ‘jokingly’ ask them if they’d like to offer him a sweet. As of yet, however, no one’s topped chocolate covered crickets, so he resolutely rides around on your shoulder and, in general, just bothers you.
Hurray! You survived this adventure and helped the town of Caspian. Good luck getting arid of the Toad King 😉
(If you liked this story and are interested in more adventures, you can find my book, The Adventure, on Amazon.)