Storm Wizard fingered the silver inlaid Ladybug calling card that Isabella had given him in his pocket wondering if it would work again as they walked away from the ‘Leaves and Roots Pathway’ through which Isabella had just vanished with her Warrior Ferdinando. He wondered, briefly, if he would ever see her again. But other matters pressed on his mind, and he soon left his reverie.
Eastward from the canyon wall the tiny sized ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ found a frost covered clearing amid the towering brown tinged grass blades in which they formed a circle. It seemed suitable. Storm Wizard took out the Red Pearl from his pocket and everyone held hands. Juliette, Brian and Daniel Bellowick, Morgana Feyton, Laraby Jones, Ben Simon, and Storm Wizard all looked from one to another as Storm Wizard made his wish to the Red Pearl for everyone to grow to their normal size again. And the Red Pearl began to glow with an inner fiery light casting a scarlet glow over them all, and everyone grew larger and larger until their heads were above the grass blades, and larger still until they were the size of cats, and then larger still until they were finally all normal sized people. One would be hard pressed to comprehend the great relief they all felt as they looked at each other, and round about them, at their old comfortable size once again. One simply can not fully appreciate the blessing of being normal until one returns to it after a long time.
Storm Wizard noted that the Red Pearl appeared a little less lustrous than when he had taken it out, but then put it away back in his pocket without comment. He was just glad that it had retained enough power to grow them to their normal size. He thought he ought to give it time to recuperate its energies before using it again, if that were possible. He was not very certain how the Pearl worked, and whether or not it was capable of regenerating it's power, or if it would last only until it's last spell had been cast. It was cold out, but Storm Wizard realized that while he held the Red Pearl the frost seemed to have scarcely any effect on him.
It wasn't long before the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ found themselves back at Biddy Mable’s shack between the hills. It was a lovely little shack, they decided, with a thin column of hickery smoke ascending from the chimney. Though it had been snowing in the hills round about, and the air was brisk, her spot between the hills was actually still verdant with green grasses and her garden still had flowers blooming here and there.
“Biddy Mable,” called Juliette when they arrived at the old green door, “it’s Juliette and Ember, and lots of company!”
Biddy Mable opened the door as delighted as could be and ushered the weary adventurers inside. She set the table with aromatic bowls of hot herb soup and poured cups of fresh clear water from a translucent stone pitcher. Though everyone hesitated for a moment before eating the soup on account of their recollections of the last time they'd eaten there, Juliette sat right down and ate heartily. At this point she trusted Biddy Mable, and thought much better of the old lady than she had originally. Everyone quickly followed suit. When she was perfectly full, and feeling warm and cozy, she pulled her little black kitten Ember out from the folds in her cloths, and handed the purring feline to the old woman. Ember happily passed into the old woman’s arms, and so Mable sat in a corner by the fire with the kitten purring on her lap and began to fall asleep. Everyone ate and drank and though no one spoke they were all quite satisfied, and by the time everyone had finished eating they all felt completely refreshed and healthy.
There was a knock on the door. Biddy Mable lifted a contented eyelid and smiled. She said, “Someone is at the door! It’s a wonderful day for company, isn't it?!”
“Biddy Mable, it is Bran from Hamfest. I've brought you a basket of Tansy from my mother.”
“Oh do come in, Bran. It’s lovely to see you!” called Biddy Mable, still sitting by the fire.
Bran entered the shack, which was crammed full with people sitting around the table, on boxes, or logs, or wherever else there was a seat as the case may be. He carried himself with a melancholy expression, his long tussled brown hair wet from the snow.
“Oh, hi Bran,” said Juliette, as the others greeted him with various shades of disinterest. Bran was not the most popular kid in Hamfest, as it happened.
“Hi, Juliette,” Bran replied as he found a seat at the table by pushing Juliette and Storm Wizard to the sides. Biddy Mable brought him a steaming bowl of soup, and he ate heartily. He was a big kid, and nothing pleased him more than a hearty meal.
“Juliette,” said Bran, while hunched over his soup. “What happened to your eye?”
“Well, it’s a long story, Bran, but … I gave it up for a new one in order to escape from the River of Death,” she said plainly.
“Oh. That’s interesting. Hey, by the way, this soup is pretty good, Mable,” he said. It was, in fact, a very good soup. Biddy Mable gave Bran a bag full of special herbs for his mother. “You take these home when you go, and give them to your dear mother with my blessings. And don’t forget to tell her that they must be used with the other herbs I sent along last time, ok dear?”
“Mmm, sure,” replied Bran. He was not the most talkative person in the world, though one would be mistaken to assume that there was not a bright intellect beneath his melancholy demeanor. He was quite an intelligent young man, actually, but he preferred to hide that fact. He looked around and recognized everyone at the table, except for Laraby, and greeting people with the casual air of someone who had been with them all along.
“So you folks heading back to Hamfest any time soon?” he asked.
“Well, yes, we’re heading home as soon as we’re finished eating,” said Juliette.
“Oh, ok. I’m heading that way, too. Mind if I join you?” he asked.
“Not at all. We’ll be leaving soon,” she said.
“So, you lost your eye at the River of Death, eh?” he asked as he sopped up soup with a crust of bread. "That's too bad."
“Well, yes. I did it so I could escape, and rescue Pamela McFearson, actually,” she replied, a bit frustrated at his apparent lack of awe at her statement. It's not as if people sacrificed their eyes at the River of Death every day, you know.
“Oh. Huh. I thought she died in the fire at McFearson barn last year,” he said between mouthfuls.
“Well she’s fine now. She’s at the monastery of the Golden Sheaf with Abbess Penelope,” continued Juliette matter of factly.
“Huh. Really,” he said. “Its too bad that her boyfriend Robert died looking for her then. I mean since she’s safe and sound now. He never believed she died in the fire to begin with, from what I hear. Well, I mean, its kind of a pity, isn’t it? According to the ‘Golden Sheaf Society’ guys, he died while trying to find her down in some tunnels near the McFearson place, or something. You know Arthur, right? He can’t tell a story to save his life, to be honest, but that's what he said. Anyway, that’s too bad… if it’s all true, that is, of course.”
“Well, I can tell you for sure that Pamela McFearson is safe and sound at the Monastery. As for Robert, I really haven’t any idea,” said Juliette, though she felt sorry to hear the news just the same. Robert was one of the local kids from Hamfest who had joined the Adventurer's Guild, and she'd always thought he was a brave and honest lad. It was indeed a pity if he had died. But she took what Bran said with a grain of salt. Not everyone who died around Hamfest lately seemed to be quite completely dead after all, she thought. So perhaps there was some hope for Robert.
“So, it sounds like you people have been on an pretty interesting adventure, anyway,” said Bran. “Another one of those Kinda-Hard-To-Believe adventures, but an adventure just the same. So… what happened?”
“It’s a pretty long story,” said Juliette, “but in a nutshell, we went to tell the Abbess about an earth tremor we felt in our barn after we planted one of the black seeds we got from a furry miner of some sort someplace, and wound up getting lost on our way back after we rescued Besty the Pig and her idiot brothers, and being attacked by the Little Ones in the northern forest where we discovered the Green Dragon Inn, and I got a magical kitten named Ember from landlady Lucia, for Biddy Mabel here, who turned Storm Wizard into a talking pig with wings, whereupon we called him Storm Pig, and then Morgana was kidnapped at night by the man she later married after he drew the Death Card from her Tarot Deck, and we went to rescue her in the mountains the next morning after Storm Pig had a dream in which he followed a black bird to where Morgana had been taken, and we met Laraby among the lumberjacks there who agreed to help us, and we found Morgana, but her husband-to-be was slain on the ruined tower by the black bird-shadow of death and fell from the Tower of Black Forest Hill in her stead while we were trying to save her, and so we had to fight Mr. Montague’s boss, who happened to be a vicious villain with long white hair and an eye patch, and his shadow wolves, and a tiny-wolf shaman riding one of the wolves almost killed Storm Wizard with lightning, and his gang of brigands tried to trap us in the tower, where we found a hidden passageway into another world of symbols or something but didn’t go there, but instead escaped with Biddy Mable's help when we were shrunk down to tiny size as we we went through the blue door up a long stairway," she said and took a long breath.
"And then we fled with Tinkin and Kintin the Aphid Princes past a huge centipede into the stone Temple where we met the old Holy One of the Aphids and feasted with him and listened to the a sacred song of the Celestial Elkron, and then the Red Locust Ambassador arrived demanding all the food of the ants which would have starved them all to death, or he said the Grand United Army would come because they were starving on the far side of the western desert and devour all of the living things in Glendale valley, so we formulated a plan with the Holy One that the Insect King approved, which would have burned all of the locusts at the base of Mount Zim to the north, and we went down the Great Ivy Way on the backs of aphids, to execute the plan after we captured the Red Locust Ambassador, but we had to fight our way through the terrible spider cave because Rohar the Silver Locust Prince showed up and was helping us to escape his brother, but things were complicated by the Mosquitoes with hypnotic powers, and so we went back into the spider cave to escape and had visions, and Morgana got married to Mr. Montague who had died but was revived we think, and there were baby spider-children singing creepy nursery rhymes, while above us the Silver Prince of the Locusts was captured in the Insect War in which the Moon-Tiger Wasp Squadron fought the Crimson Heart Mosquitoes, and the Water Bugs, after Lady Isabella of the Ladybug Empire hired Storm Wizard because she had some foreknowledge about the Locusts, and then helped us escape with the Red Locust Ambassador, along with Ferdinando her Wasp Warrior Guardian who got bit by a spider along with Brian and almost died of delirium, and we went through the Plant Kingdom on the ‘Leaves and Roots Pathway’ somehow, after I came back from the River of Death without my real eye by climbing a tree after the Raven took my eye and the Salmon put the new one in my head, which is a mystical Sight-Stone from the Tower because I needed to sacrifice my eye to save myself from that dreadful black beach on the River of Death after the boat was drifting toward the waterfalls of oblivion, but the oarsmen arrived from the glyph stones, and I found Pamela McFearson being carried by the black bird who took my eye. I left her with Abbess Penelope at the Monastery after carrying her up the tree toward the ray of sunlight, and we took the ‘Leaves and Roots Pathway’ a second time through the black walnut portal and got back to Hamfest and grew large again and came to Biddy Mable’s to eat some soup, when you showed up. Whew!" she said panting. "That’s the story, for the most part, or some of it anyway, a bit jumbled up, but pretty much what happened Bran. See?”
“Hmm… that sounds pretty interesting,” said Bran, wiping some soup from his mouth on his sleeve. “Of course it’s not really very believable, to be honest with you. But it’s a good story, more or less.” Bran then tried to get Laraby to show him the sword of the Locust Lords on the pretext that it might help convince him of the story, but Laraby didn’t care to show it to him. There might have been an argument at that point but Juliette made a show of the power of her Mystic Sight-Stone to prove the story was true by using it to see everything in Bran’s pockets, and so she told him every item he had. He would have most likely taken it as a pretty good parlor trick had her eye not glowed with a fiery light when she did so.
“Woah… ok that’s different,” said Bran, finally impressed, and now showing some indication that he was persuaded that at least some part of the tale might have some true elements to it.
“Well, it’s all true and we have plenty of proof, anyway,” said Juliette somewhat peeved.
“I guess so,” said Bran as he finished his soup. “That really was some pretty darn good soup, Mable,” he said again, but Biddy Mabel was sleeping in the corner by that time, with Ember purring on her lap.
With that the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ decided it was high time they head back to Hamfest, as everyone was longing to get home and see their families. On the road they went, and it didn't take long before the Bellowick farmstead was finally in sight as the sun set and the sky was turning a deep shade of purple.
All around barn there was a huge murder of crows. Hundreds of crows cawing, and flying about the barn in large dark circles, gathered on trees and all around the area they were perched in clusters of ten or twenty. Crows everywhere. Cawing.
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