Seeing the Ladybug on a leaf not terribly far from the battlefield, Storm Wizard speculated about the possibility of getting her to return and fly all of the tiny adventurers away on her legs. But thinking it over as he watched the Mosquitoes, Water Bugs, Wasps hovering, darting and whizzing around, and the lone black Dragonfly with unknown intentions perched on a grass blade not far away, he guessed that Isabella had sent her aerial servant away to keep the Ladybug from excessive danger, probably because the poor dear creature would be quite helpless in combat. He cast about for other ideas. He reviewed in his mind their immediate objective, which was to convince their human brethren in Hamfest that the Locusts were preparing the Grand United Army to swarm in the east, unless the Insect King agreed to give them all of the food of the Ant-people, and were therefore a deadly threat to the entire Glendale region if everyone did not band together to stop them. Their plan was to use the influence of mystical Elkron to cause great circling winds to push the locust swarm toward the Mountain of Zim in the north as they crossed the desert. There they intended, with the help of the Aphids and other Insect people to lay a huge fire trap. This of course would require the cutting down of a great number of trees from the Black Forest, and the movement of a great deal of lumber. Which of course would require the muscle power and skill of the humans, as the insects could not accomplish this feat on their own, clever as they may be. And so the party had come to the conclusion that capturing the Locust Ambassador and hauling him in front of the town-folk in Hamfest would at the very least convince them that a race of Locust-Men existed, and that the threat of the “Grand United Army” was in all probability real. Especially when they heard what the brutal Red Ambassador would doubtlessly have to say on such an occasion.
Meanwhile, down in the spider hole, Juliette was eyeing the sword that Laraby was holding. A fine and beautiful silver blade it was, etched with scripts and intricate designs. She wondered if it would be possible that they could use the sword to convince the townsfolk that the Locusts were real, since it had been the Locust Ambassador’s sword before Storm Wizard had pilfered it from his side when they had captured him the first time. Perhaps the script on the sword was in the Locust’s language and would suffice to persuade them. But it seemed that was unlikely after all. No one that she knew of had any idea that there were Insect Nobles who could assume a humanesque form, and it seemed rather unlikely to her that the people from the township would have any idea what Locust script looked like in any case. So bringing the sword to them as evidence would simply not do after all.
Storm Wizard looked down at Emmanuel lying prostrate on the brown bark of the twig. His copper toned skin was glinting in the rays of sunlight that dappled the grounds around them. He knew that the Locust Ambassador would awaken in a less than a minute, as that was the longest he could expect his Stun Beam spell to last. The Black Ants were rapidly approaching in long columns between the towering green grass blades. Other Ants, he saw, had taken positions on grass blades all around them. In the distance he saw a troop of Red Ants heading their way in a two colums along the ground.
Storm Wizard considered taking some radical measure to wake Rohar from his Battle-Trance, since he believed that it was possible that Rohar would come with them back to the human lands. The adventurers had no interest in the outcome of the battle between the Mosquitoes, Wasps, Ants, Water Bugs, and the Locust-men. All they were interested in was the acquisition of one of the Locust-men, by hook or crook, to return with them to the human lands. However, it seemed that Rohar was so preoccupied with controlling the Mosquito Squadron, and Water Bug Fleet, that it was unlikely that he could be moved to let go of the battle and flee away with the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’. As he thought about this he noticed that the Ants were in such large numbers on all of the leaves and grasses around them that it would be unlikely for Rohar and his brother Emmanuel to escape them. No matter how far he looked he could see Ants on every blade.
“Perhaps”, he thought, “we should wait until the Ants capture the two of them, and then negotiate for the release of Rohar into our hands somehow. Then at least Rohar would owe us something, and we could get him to oblige us by returning to Hamfest and showing himself to the aristocrats at The Manors. That, surely, would do the trick.”
“We are working for the King to complete The Plan!” shouted Storm Wizard to the Ants. “Please do not eat this Locust-Man, or kill him, as we have need of him!”
Out from among one of the battalions of Black Ants stepped a heavy set man dressed in black armor carrying a great black sword. He was stocky, barrel chested and built for fighting. His eyes were the eyes of ants, and he had two antenna, and two sharp black mandibles protruding from his heavyset jaw.
“Rohar! You are under arrest! Give up!” shouted the Ant-Man to the Silver Locust Prince.
Rohar made no movement except to point one of his hands towards the Ant-Man. Immediately several of the Crimson Heart Mosquitoes broke formation and flew toward him. Another Ant-Man from a different battalion stepped out and shouted, “Rohar! We have you surrounded! You can not escape!”
Juliette was watching all of this using the Eye-Stone from within the spider cave. She thought it would not matter much even if the Ants killed Rohar, as he would still look like a Locust-Man, and that should be enough for the towns people to convince them. Storm Wizard was thinking the same thing, in fact, and thought it a good point. That the thought was rather unkind toward Rohar, who was after all risking his own life trying to help the 'Steel Wool Sheeps' escape, evaded the siblings. They were focused on the success of their mission. And understandibly so, since so much hung in the balance.
Laraby, who had been watching from the mouth of the spider cave, called up to Storm Wizard, “While Rohar is occupied, you might have time to push Emmanuel off the log, down to us, and we could tie him up again, and escape with him!”
Seeing that this was probably their best chance, under the circumstances, Storm Wizard shoved Emanuel over the edge of the log, down to the mouth of the cave. Laraby immediately tied him up with ropes, and for good measure cut spider webs from the walls and used them to securer the bonds. This was all done in the nick of time, as Emmanuel was just on the verge of reviving, and as the last knot was tightened and sealed the brutish Red Ambassador awoke in a rage. He was just about to belt out one of his mind-crushing roars when Laraby shoved spider webs into the Ambassador’s mouth, and so saved them from being blasted by a sound so loud it might have collapsed the cave on top of them all, and at the very least deafened everyone. Instead, Emmanuel struggled in his bonds, attempting to break the ropes by sheer force. He was, fortunately, unable to do so, as ropes were strong, and the spider webs unyielding.
Meanwhile Juliette watched as the battle above raged. The Ants were closing in on Rohar, as the Wasps attacked the Mosquitoes with well coordinated strafing. She turned her attention to the cave. It seemed to her that it might be safer to make their way back through the spider cave tunnels to get back to the entrance they had entered on the other side of the battlefield, rather than attempting an above ground run for it with all of the Ant Battallions stationed everywhere. However, it would be slow going as the spider cave was covered in a shroud of webs, any of which could ensnare members of the party. But looking above at the profusion of insects waging full-scale war, it seemed the safest route, as terrible as it may have been. Besides, she thought, as far as they knew the two spiders in the cave were dead, and the baby spiders in their eggs were no immediate threat. And so they organized themselves into a single line, and moving as slowly as possible through the webbing they made their way down toward the first of the tunnels that would lead them through the spider lair to the outside beyond the battle.
Up above Storm Wizard landed near Rohar. He tried to convince the Ants to stop attacking the Silver Locust Prince, but it seemed a futile gesture. One of the Ant-Men ordered him to get away from Rohar, and Storm Wizard began to back away slowly.
“I don’t know who you are, or how you got here”, shouted the Ant-Man, “but you in extreme danger! Back away!” The Ant-Man seemed to have the mannerisms of a military officer or high ranking official of some kind. Around him the Black Ants were positioning themselves for battle. The Mosquitoes of the Crimson Heart Squadron continued toward the Magistrate, but he stood fast and prepared his rather enormous black sword for combat. A Wasp flew directly over Storm Wizard’s head, and made a line directly toward one of the Mosquitoes along the right flank of the Crimson Heart’s Diamond Formation, grazing the Mosquito's flank with it’s stinger, so that it was badly wounded. Still, it stayed in formation, hovering in the air with a distinct wobble, greenish puss spilling from his wound to the ground. The Wasp once it passed circled too close to the lake, and was pummeled by globules of water. It fell into the lake with a huge splash, and the Water Bugs immediately flicked over to where it landed and surrounded it. Though it struggled mightily, the Wasp once in the water stood little chance of escape, and the Water Bugs drowned it.
Down in the spider hole, as the tiny adventurers moved slowly through the web shrouded tunnel, lead by Daniel who had a torch in hand, using it to try to burn the webs out of the way.
"I'm stuck!" Morgana shouted suddenly. She was esnared in the webs. She tried to free herself but it was useless. Daniel returned to her and with his dagger began to extricate the girl from the silken threads. They were in the center of the second chamber, a wide cave shrouded in webs.
“My feet are freezing”, she said as she struggled to free herself.
Juliette could see around the chamber into which they had entered. There was something wrong. The webs around Morgana had formed a series of veils that were blowing in an unfelt breeze. They began to billow like sails. She wasn’t sure, but as she looked it seemed to her that the webs formed runes written into the fabric of the webs. She then began to hear the children again, singing the nursery rhyme.
“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…”
Juliette then noticed a piece of paper near her that was stuck in the webs, fluttering. She took the paper and read it. It was a poem.
alight fond caress,
She had no idea what it meant, and decided to read it aloud. As soon as she did the children’s voices grew audible again to everyone and became louder. She then heard a disturbing series of noises coming from the exit cave where the spider egg sacks were. And with her Eye-Stone she saw the spider-children eggs had begun hatching, one by one, and small black spiders crawling out onto the floor. They skittered towards the tunnel down which the party had fled.
“Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream…”
It was then that Morgana became very frightened. She looked into the webs and could read the silken runes and they told her a tale of deadly horror, and unbearable sorrow.
“The bird! … The bird!” she began to whimper.
“You mean the bird that I tossed in The River?” asked Juliette.
“The Black Bird… is coming!” whispered Morgana.
This brought Juliette’s mind back to the place where she’d seen the Black Bird on the shores of the River of Death. And she was reminded of the handsome prince with the long black hair who had wanted to marry her. She thought of him, and it seemed to her that she had thought of him frequently since then. He’d been so serious, so handsome, and she wondered what it would have been like to be married to him. It seemed to her then that he would not have been a terrible husband after all. Why she hadn’t agreed to his demand at the time began to evade her. She felt an unexpected desire to see him again.
Her thoughts were interupted by sight of the spider-children that were beginning to enter the second cave. She could see them crawling along the walls and ceiling amid the haze of webs. They were the size of Juliette’s fist. There were fifty of them entering the cave. More were hatching behind them. And a group of of the spider-children remained behind and had begun to weave a web over the exit of the cave. This Storm Wizard saw, and he became alarmed. The cave entrance rapidly covered over with a white sheen of silken threads.
The Ant-Men were fighting for their lives. The Mosquitoes were hovering before them using their hypnotic power to try to control the Magistrates. One of the Wasps whizzed past Storm Wizard on his way to the next attack. Black Ants in troop formations of 20 began to march toward Rohar from four directions. The Red Ant battalion had gained considerable ground and was getting close enough to see clearly. Among them was a Red Ant-Man wearing red armor and carrying silver tipped spear. “Fight on! Complete our mission!” yelled one of the Ant-Men as they fought against the Mosquitoes.
In the spider cave Laraby and Juliette struggled to carry the Ambassador whom they’d trussed onto a pole that was hosted between them. Isabella was guiding Ferdinando in his delirium, while Juliette had made Brian grab onto her belt so that he would not get lost. He followed along close behind her like a little child, silent, scared, and hallucinating the most terrible things. He mumbled the nursery rhyme as he went, trembling, and sometimes leaning heavily on Juliette’s shoulder. If Isabella was frightened, which she very much was, you would not have been able to guess by her demeanor. The courageous young lady moved forward with a stalwart determination, cutting away webbing with her dagger as she followed behind Daniel clearing the way for those behind. For his part, Daniel was not frightened at all. He found the entire adventure exhilarating, and was focused on successfully guiding the party out of the caves. He felt quite sorry for Brian, because he knew his brother would have very much enjoyed it all, had he not been suffering the delusions of the spider poison. He planned how he would one day soon tell his brother the whole story of how they escaped from the Insect War with the Red Ambassador through the terrible spider caves.
It was about this time that Juliette began to smell chicken. Roast chicken. The beautiful smell of delectable herb-roasted chicken. She thought it very strange! She suddenly realized that she felt very hungry. What could possibly be the cause, she wondered, and half expected to see old Biddy Mable show up with a roast chicken on a platter. As she watched she noticed that Morgana, who was still not entirely cut free from the webs yet, was standing in a rivulet of water. Not real water, but the shadow of a reflection of water on the ground. It was black as night, yet its rippling surface reflected the dark light of stars somehow.
“I do not like this cave!!” she said to herself. “It’s creepy!”
The webs began to shake along the north wall. Gazing in that direction with her Eye-Stone she saw through the shadows and found that there was a solid mass of webbing the size of a man, far too thick for her to see through, horizontally attached to the wall, shaking. She guessed it was the spider’s dinner. Juliette decided to keep moving forward, and taking Brian’s hand stepped way from the white vibrating mass toward the exit they were seeking. The smell of roast chicken began to mingle with that of a fine wine, she thought. She shook herself and followed after Laraby, carrying the burly Ambassador painfully on her right shoulder. She took a glance toward the spider-children who were inching their way into the cave. The tiny adventurers crowded together in the center of the second cave. Everyone was looking in a different direction, each in his own world.
Finally Morgana was freed from the webs, and Daniel began to lead the party forward again. His torchlight flickering ahead on the trail, crossed by thick white threads and shrouded by wisps of white silk on all sides.
"We have to move more slowly to avoid anyone else being caught in the webs," Juliette said. And so they inched forward through the tunnels, surrounded by the echoing voices of the spider-children as they sang their rhyme slowly over and over again.
"... life is but a dream ..."
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