Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Great Ivy Highway (part 3)

“Good Ember”, whispered Juliette after Morgana came fleeing back from the pulsating horror, returning to the relative safety of the overhanging twig. Morgana was terrified of what had just happened to her mind. She had never imagined that such temptation could overwhelm her. And yet, it did. The pulsing green and red light grew bright again over the mist. The low humming vibarion of the giant mosquito made their bodies quiver.

Within a few moments Daniel was persuaded that going out into the glowing green and red light would give him tremendous, incomprehensible Power. Morgana, having been rescued by Ember, saw his expression and began to slip the kitten into Daniel’s arms thinking the bedazzled young man would also be saved, but he wouldn't have it. He tried to swat the kitten away, but Morgana twisted herself at the last second and Ember slipped to the ground and ran over to Juliette.

Daniel walked resolutely out into the pulsating mist and turned to face the floating monster above, a look of exquisite agony covering his face. Morgana and Ben grappled him and barely managed to wrestle him to the ground. Storm Wizard tied the rope around Daniel’s hands and legs and with great effort they managed to control the lad. He struggled and fought but once all of the members of the group worked together he was unable to resist them, despite his strength, and so he sat twisting and writhing on the ground, cursing and pleading to be let go.

At that moment a huge sound of a gigantic creaking door cascaded over the stonework and in the vast distance the adventurers could see that the tower door had opened and out stepped a huge man onto the parapet. He was, compared to them, a veritable giant, hundreds of times larger than they. Out onto the parapet he stepped looking around with furtive glances in every direction. He sniffed the air. He stepped into the moonlight.

None of the young people in the “Steel Wool Sheeps” Adventure Group had ever seen him before. He had long white hair, white eyebrows, redish colored skin, and wore a black eye patch. He was dressed in a short red shirt, with a black sash, and wore black pants and black leather boots and a silver buckle on his wide black belt. At his side he carried a rapier with a silver hilt. This was not a handsome man. He had a cruel look about him, and his lips were distorted into a crooked and harsh grin, split by a scar from his nose to his chin.

When the man came out, the great pulsating mosquito rose high up into the air and vanished off in the enormous foliage, the dreadful humming of its wings fading into the distance. And so the pulsing ceased and Daniel sat up dazed.

“What happened? Why am I tied up?”, he asked. Ben explained as he untied the lad.

“Quickly, quickly, the cave is not far from here. We must go before the monster returns”, stammered Tinkin.

Brian groaned as he tried to stand up. “Did you have to free me ... so hard?”, he asked with another groan.

“Sorry ... Well, would you rather be in pain, or not have any blood left?”, asked Juliette.

“oh ... well ... pain is good.”, replied Brian weakly.

“Minvar be Praised!”, she said, and hefted herself onto the back of her aphid.

It was time to go. Everone boarded the aphids as quickly as possible, and the tiny caravan scuttled across the stone toward the next Great Gap.

The Great Gaps were separations between the parapet’s outer stonework. To our tiny heroes they were enormous, and they dropped off into dark chasms below, though in fact they were only a foot and a half tall. Yet had any of the “Steel Wool Sheeps” fallen into them it would have been more than a hundred foot drop onto rocks and jagged wooden splinters at their tiny size. Fortunately the chasms they found were spanned by ivy, or stones, or other helpful crossings. The one ahead was spanned by a twig that had fallen across it, and so the aphids climbed up on it and were half way across before someone shouted.

“Look down there! Something is moving!” shouted Ben.

And sure enough in the darkness below them, along the wall of the stone block that they were departing they could dimly make out a long slender and colossal shadow slithering its way toward their bridge. It climbed onto the end of the bridge and began to make its way toward their position. It was covered in a hard gleaming shell, fifty sections long, with its hundred legs it moved with a ruthless efficiency which made it much faster than the aphids. The horrendous creature clicked it's gleaming pointed mandibles and made straight for them, it's terrible eyes glittering with wicked anticipation.

“Run for it!” shouted Juliette. They spurred their aphids onward as fast as they could, but aphids don’t usually like to rush anywhere and so they plodded along, but not very quickly. Until, that is, Juliette said, “I think there are Ladybugs behind us”, and this caused the poor little aphids to panic. When aphids are frightened, as it happens, they can actually dart forward short distances rather quickly. And this is what they did. And so they crossed the bridge in what was record time for aphids.

When they made it to the other side of the bridge they immediately climbed straight downward along the side of the stone at the center point of the Great Gap. Daniel held Brian, still groaning, as best he could, and looped the rope around him so that he was tethered as firmly as possible to the wickerwork. The rest held on for dear life. And the chase was on. Down into the dark trench the line of aphids scurried; behind them the centipede crawled with inexorable speed, rapidly closing the distance. And just before it managed to get is hideous mandibles onto the last aphid in the line, the one that Daniel and Brian were riding, they all slipped into a small archway with a strange glyph above it that formed a hole in the wall, just a little larger than an aphid, and clambered downward into the darkness. Behind them the hole was covered over by the slithering body of the centipede, it’s horrible mandibles clattering against the stone entranceway which it was too large to enter.

Down a cool dark tunnel the adventurer’s travelled. It seemed like a long time before they came into a larger opening, and then they began to detect light. It grew lighter and lighter and they found that they had entered a huge cavern and were heading toward a large archway at the far end. From this opening there could be seen a warm glow of light. And when they arrived they found that it lead through a short tunnel into a much larger chamber, and one that was lit by glowing lichen along the walls and ceiling. It was a stately chamber, with tall fluted columns, crystal pillars, silver pools of water, and a large round stone at center, upon which they saw an old aphid sitting, surrounded by a large gathering of aphids all pointing their little bodies toward him. With their antenna they made gyrating motions toward him, all in unison. And around him the aphids were all making clicking whirling sounds with a rhythm that was quite enchanting, and this was their singing.

“They are ... worshiping ...”, said Ben incredulously.

The song went on and on and eventually it finished and all the aphids left the cave. Only the old aphid on the stone remained. He was a rather small aphid, though he looked somehow quite venerable, which is probably hard to imagine, but it was true nevertheless.

“Come forward children”, he said, in a strange accent.

“Hello Mr. Holy Aphid”, said Juliette, to which he smiled benignly.

“I heard you are a healer, sir. Would you be willing to bestow your healing on us?”

“It is not common for us to have humans among the aphids, and so it is a remarkable time for us. And we are ... honored”, said the holy aphid. “Bring forward your wounded and I will heal them”, he said kindly.

“We’re all pretty badly wounded”, Juliette said, “but my brother Brian is the most wounded. Perhaps you could heal him first.”

The old aphid made a clicking whirring sound and two aphids scurried out of the chamber, and returned shortly with leaves and moss and herbs in baskets on their broad green backs. They put the ingredients into a silver depression in the stone where there was a pool of clear water, and the old aphid stirred it with his antenna while chanting in his whirling clicking language.

“Come forward children, and drink of the healing potion”, he said finally.

The children all stepped forward and took sips of the water. Brian was first, and found the herb-waters to taste very nice, and very soon afterwards he found that he felt much better. In fact, he found that he felt wonderful. He sprang up and stretched with great joy. The other children did the same, and everyone very quickly felt wonderful.

“Thank you”, said Juliette. “you have probably saved our lives.”

“It is an honor”, replied the old aphid. “And now, let us feast.”

Within a few minutes hundreds of aphids had entered the chamber with all manners of foods, which they laid on the stone tables around them. And everyone ate and enjoyed. There were leaves of various kinds, mushrooms, flavorful mosses, braised bark that seemed almost like meat, and many kinds of drinks each of which tasted uniquely lovely. Nothing on the table tasted bad, and everything tasted good. Only Daniel, who preferred a grilled steak to anything, seemed only partially satisfied, but everyone else in the group was quite content with the fare.

And so Tinkin and Kintin, who had been happily feasting with everyone else, began to recount the philosophical discussion from earlier in the journey to the old aphid. And this topic was bandied around with great earnestness by the aphids, with the holy aphid presiding over the discussion and nodding his head slowly as various points were made.

The main question that rounded the room was, should one follow the Elkron blindly? Some argued that Blind Faith was the best kind, as it shows complete trust in the Elkron, which is deserving because the Elkron know more, and therefore their decisions are greater and wiser than anyone elses could be. But others rose the question of whether or not the Elkron are always wise, or sometimes foolish? Several aphids pointed out that the Elkron were habitually in disagreement with one another, siting numerous examples, and therefore some of them had to be wrong about at least some things, for it would be impossible for them to disagree with one another if they were all equally knowledgeable and equally wise.

“They can’t all be right”, said Storm Wizard.

The aphids agreed with Storm Wizard's statement after a brief debate wherein one surly aphid proposed that perhaps everyone is right, for themselves, and that rightness is really merely an opinion held by each individual for his or her own convenience. But that argument fell apart quickly when it was pointed out that some things must exist, and that two contradictory opinions would rule one another out, making such a universe impossible to sustain. The conversation went on for quite some time, until the end end of the feast when the aphids brought out beautiful jade pitchers filled with of Water of Roses. Crystal bowls were brought out, and everyone drank a toast to the holy aphid’s health, and with the drinking of the Rose Water, everyone felt even more wonderful than before.

“Sing us an aphid song!”, requested a giddy Morgana, and so the aphids sang one of the great songs of the aphids. It was translated by Tinkin for them. The song was an amazing combination of celestial knowledge, folklore and herb lore, and the three aspects combined into an adventure story about an early-dynasty aphid hero-mage and his heroic wife who discovered these connections, and saved the western forests from a great and terrible ruin long ago.

Slowly but surely the evening wound down, and the aphids retired to their sleeping places. Only the old wise aphid sat with the adventurers, still nodding his head in pleasant reverie.

Storm Wizard wondered where their destination would be. But everyone was very tired, and so Juliette inquired if the holy aphid would allow them to spend the night in the aphid cave.

“We are happy to be your hosts. We have nice accommodations that will be very suitable for you. I will have one of my people take you there.”

“Thank you very kindly, dear sir, for your wonderful hospitality.”

“May you be blessed, dear child. I am pleased to meet you, and wish you well on your journey”, said the holy aphid, and then he nodded off into a quiet slumber.

An aphid brought the party through a long tunnel to a balcony of delicate arches that overlooked the outside of the tower, from which could be seen the forest below, and along the side of which were a series of doorways that lead into very pleasant rooms with beds, and pillows and fresh linens and basins next to which sat pitchers filled with cool crystal water. In bowls on wooden tables were various aphid snacks and treats. It was exceptionally nice accommodations.

And so the young people went into their rooms and went to sleep.

Previous Episode: The Great Ivy Highway - Part 2
Next Episode: The Encroaching Doom - Part 1

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Great Ivy Highway (part 2)

As the tiny-sized Aventurers of the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ Group rode the aphids away from the ant hole sized entrance way in the huge wall of the tower, they entered into the swaying shades of the enormous undergrowth. Tree sized twigs loomed overhead, gigantic leaves undulated slowly in the moonlight casting colossal shadows, and all around a myriad of insects crawled, slithered, and buzzed through the airs above. At some point along the path Juliette noticed that the strange pair of eyes that seemed to have been stalking after thoughts in her mind appeared to pad off around a corner and disappear.

The journey on the backs of the aphids was a reasonably steady one as they don’t tend to bob or sway, but move relatively level over ground. Just the same it was good to have the wicker saddles to keep them steady. The problem was when they would head down the sides of things, and if one did not control them with the reins they tended to wander toward any sort of green leafy food stuff they come across. But the journey under the stars was fascinating to everyone, and despite their feeling of incredible vulnerability, they did enjoy themselves with light banter, and the occasional “oohs” and “aahhs” at various sights of interest.

“It was nice of Biddy Mable to let me take Ember”, thought Juliette as she rubbed the kitten's neck. Ember sat quietly sleeping in her lap. The aphids climbed up an arched leaf that sat like a giant stairway on the stone floor, ascending upward onto the narrow branch of an ivy. Along the branch they could see a mass of aphids making their way in long lines toward the heights. Not far away they could see a cluster of Ladybugs, much larger than they, on another branch herding a jumble of aphids along a branch that ascended up into the canopy of swaying leaves. Juliette began to worry for the aphids when she saw that.

“It is the natural order of things”, said Storm Wizard sitting next to her. “You, as a worshiper of Minvar, ought to understand the natural order of things.”

“Of course I do”, retorted Juliette, “but that doesn’t mean I have to be happy when I see it. Does it look like I’m going to stop the natural order?”

“That’s the problem with religion”, he replied. “If Minvar told you to eat kittens would you do it?”

“She wouldn’t do that!”, flared Juliette.

“That’s not what I asked. What if Minvar in her infinite wisdom decided that a greater good would be served by you eating a kitten?”

“That hypothetical situation is completely invalid because it’s impossible”, she insisted.

At this point the aphids had stopped, and Tinkin, one of their aphid-men guides who had been listening avidly, said, “I think it is possible for Minvar to decide that eating kittens could produce an effect that might be for the greater good. Hypothetically speaking it is possible.”

Kintin, his brother, thoughtfully responded, “I find it highly improbable, as it would be unusual for Minvar, a Guardian of the Natural Order, to legislate something against the natural order. And for Juliette to eat a kitten would be, I suspect, very much against the natural order. Therefore, I tend to agree with her… it would not be possible.”

“Eating kittens is not part of the natural order”, Juliette stated triumphantly.

“If it’s not part of the natural order, then it should become part of the natural order”, said Storm Wizard with a certain malicious glint in his eyes.

“What is the natural order, is the natural order. I don’t think Minvar or anyone else can decide what is part of the natural order. It just *is* what it is”, said Juliette definitively.

Then Kintin advanced a new theory, saying, “but what if the being who created the natural order decided to change the natural order? Wouldn’t Minvar have to follow that? And in that case, wouldn't it be possible for kittens to need to be eaten?”

“But the Natural Order doesn’t change,” replied Juliette, rubbing Ember reassuringly behind his ears. Ember gave a little "meow".

“Well, when the weather changes, isn’t that a change of the natural order?”, inquired Kintin politely.

“Indeed, what if Minvar foresaw that the cat population would over take the world if you didn’t start eating kittens?”, asked Storm Wizard, glad to have gotten his sister Juliette agitated.

Tinkin and Kintin, continued to converse amongst each other over the topic, taking pro and cons in an oddly macabre dialectic. Is the natural order permanent and perfect, or does it happen to be that perfection is achieved by it's transmutability? And so on. Meanwhile the aphids began to wander around the branch looking for leafy green mounts of food. A couple of the aphids began happily munching away.

“Perhaps we should get moving again”, suggested Storm Wizard.

“Oh quite right,” said Tinkin and Kintin, and they began to reign the aphids back onto the path.

“The Ladybugs are behind you”, whispered Storm Wizard to his aphid. Alarmed, it began to move faster, and bumped itself into the aphid ahead of it, giving Morgana and Ben a jolt. “Hey, watch where you’re going!”, said Morgana over her shoulder as she gripped the wickerwork saddle. There was a brief burst of laughter in the air.

Meanwhile, following up in the rear, Brian and Daniel happened to have trouble getting their aphid to stay on the path, and so it was that they took to wandering along the side of the stem, nearly pitching themselves out of their saddle to the ground far below. Eventually, Daniel got the hang of it, and so by the time they climbed to the top of the vine they managed to have better control. At that point they had crested the top of the vine, and looking over the edge of the tower they could see all the great wide forest below. It was a terribly, terribly long way down, they thought as they swayed on the broadside of a huge leaf. Down the wall of the tower they saw the vines that would be their road of escape from the fearsome Thurwulv.

Tinkin and Kintin at that point got off their aphid, and they announced that the journey from there would get more dangerous and troublesome, as they had a long way down to climb, and there would be few places for rest along the way. They suggest it might be a good idea for everyone to take a rest there. Because the aphids liked to wander, the branches sway, and they got easily tossed around in the wind, the aphids were difficult to control, and the riders found it tiring to hold on for the ride. And so it was agreed that a rest was in order, and the aphids were tethered with rope lines to nodules on the vine and were allowed to feed while everyone layed down on the branch using bits of bracken for pillows.

Conversation wandered back to the eating of kittens.

“The question was not so much about eating kittens, but about whether or not one should blindly follow the Elkron”, Storm Wizard pointed out. For those who live in other universes than Elthos, it should be mentioned that the Elkron are the Great Celestial powers of the Cosmos, much like what we on earth called Gods in the days of yore when people believed in such Beings.

“If Minvar announced that I had to eat kittens, I think I would go to the temple and ask about it”, said Juliette.

“What if Penelope, the abbess at the Monastery, was eating kittens herself?”, asked Storm Wizard.

"Meow!", said Ember.

“Why would you betray your own instincts to follow Minvar, is my point”, he continued.

“Minvar doesn’t betray instincts”, Juliette shouted at Storm Wizard and tried to hit him.

“Oh my”, said Tinkin, “our philosophical discussion has resorted to blows of violence! For shame, for shame!”

“You know”, said Kintin, “I think you making the assumption, sir, that the natural order is more moral than what Minvar might say. But looking at the natural order it doesn't seem all so clear that such would be the case, does it?”

“I am arguing that you are blindly following this external thing, while we have no evidence that Minvar is morally correct. I care that my sister has chosen to follow someone else’s concept other than her own.”

“So you are advocating that instead of blindly following the Wisdom of the Elkron, you prefer to blindly follow your own precepts?” asked Tinkin.

“I don’t follow my own blindly. They are based on my observations of life.”

“But your precepts can be completely wrong!”, said Juliette.

“I prefer to follow my own experience than the word of some external power.”

“Aha!”, said Kintin, “it is just as I told you, Tinkin. This is the exact difference between a Wizard and a Cleric, right there!”

“Exactly”, said Storm Wizard.

And so they sat and ate a meal of leafy green sandwiches on the top of the vine, along the edge of the parapet at the top of the tower on Black Hill, overlooking the vast forest below. Tinkin noticed that some of the members of the party were wounded, having not had time yet to recover from their last battle.

“You haven’t been… *battling*, have you?” he asked nervously.

“We were attacked by wolves”, replied Storm Wizard.

“Wwwooolves?!” said Tinkin, a look of horror crossing his round little face.

“Yes, and a nasty little wolf-wizard, too”, Storm Wizard added.

Tinkin and Kintin looked shocked and terrified.

“Oh that’s a big lie. We never saw any such a little wizard.”

“Oh really?”, asked Tinkin a little relieved.

“We never saw it, and I still don’t believe it.”, replied Juliette firmly.

“Well, maybe it was his imagination, then”, Tinkin said half to himself.

“Well, we see you are not all entirely well. We happen to know of a place where you can take healing, if you wish", Kintin went on.

“Really?”, asked Juliette.

“Yes. We are not far from the sacred cave of the Holy Aphid.”

“The Sacred Cave... of the Holy Aphid? Where is it?”, asked Ben, who was among those in need of restoration.

“Not terribly far. It is just over the edge of the cliff at the edge of this stone, down the wall, and there we will find the cave. We can take you there if you like. It is less than a half day from here.”

There was little debate. Everyone was in agreement. It would be good to take healing from the Holy Aphid, they decided unanimously. And so they took off in that direction over a relatively clear section the stone wall. It was to them an interminably far distance along a wide flat stone desert, but it had the virtue of not having edges that the aphids might crawl over the egde of. So they bore with it and plodded on. It was a long trudge taking many hours.

As they traveled they noticed something peculiar about the forest below the tower. It was no longer covered with snow as it had been when they’d arrived at Black Hill, and more recently when they fought the battle against the wolves. Today the forest had barely any patches of snow on the trees, and the air was much warmer than it had been. It made them wonder how long, exactly, they had spent in Weeleena's Tea House. As they contemplated this oddity, Morgana began to notice a humming sound coming from somewhere above them. She nudged Ben, and they both listenned intently. Then everyone grew silent. Something was coming.

From beyond the branches and leaves there came a low-toned vibration. It grew louder and louder until it became almost a dull roar all around them. Over the past hour a mist had formed in the area and now it began to pulsate with a red and green glow. Red. Green. Red. Green. It pulsed rhythmically, hypnotically, getting brighter and brighter. Out from above a wide green leaf there emerged a huge mosquito the size, relative to them, of a horse, with glowing eyes that pulsated red and green. The aphids stopped in their tracks and froze stock still. Tinkin and Kintin rapidly whipped their aphids and hustled them with shouts under a overhanging twig, beneath which all of the aphids quickly scuttled.

The gigantic mosquito landed on the twig above them causing an avalanche of dust, small rocks, and bracken to fall onto the members of the party. Ember dug her sharp little claws into Juliette, trembling.

“I smell humans,” said a huge low voice that sounded like it was speaking through a tympani drum. “... I smell ... blood.”

No one said a word. Everyone held their breath.

The pulsating light washed the mist all around them, and then, inexplicably, Brian sat up with a strange look in his eyes. He stood up and began to climb down from the aphid on which he had been sitting. Storm Wizard threw a pebble at Brian to snap him out of it, but it had no effect. And so Storm Wizard leapt down and tried to grab him. Daniel also did the same. However none of them were fast enough to stop Brian from walking out into the pulsating light. The poor boy turned around, and looking up his face was transformed into terrifying mask of horror. A long narrow pointed and barbed tube came slowly down from above. It was aimed directly at Brian's chest.

At this Storm Wizard looked around for a safer place to hide, and nearby he spotted some moss in which there were lots of nooks and crannies. But it was too far, and they decided they needed to try to rescue Brian before anything else. Juliette leapt down from her aphid, and ran out into the pulsating mist to grapple Brian in an attempt to wrestle him to the ground. He turned on her trying to push her away, saying “The Power, The Power!”, in a terrible unwholesome tone. Juliette and Daniel tried to pull him back beneath the twig as the long proboscis of the mosquito came closer and closer toward Brian’s chest, it’s long barb glinting in the green and red lights. Ben ran up and threw his weight into the matter, and between the three of them they managed to drag Brian, resisting mightily, back into the shadows beneath the twig. The proboscis returned back from whence it came. There was a loud hum and the branch gave another rain of dust and stones. The mosquito was maneuvering around looking for a better angle of attack. They considered making a run for the moss. But it was too far.

“Brian… Brian… come to me", resounded the hypnotic voice from above.

Brian began struggling and shouted, “Let me go! Let me go!”

At this point it was decided to attempt to subdue Brian. Storm Wizard was unable. Daniel then tried, but he also failed. Ben then made an attempt using his staff a little over zealously, hitting him with a dull thud. Morgana tried as well, but her attempt only managed to buffet him. Finally, Juliette gave him a stunning kick in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him, and indeed subduing him, nearly killing him in the process. He slumped over and fell unconscious onto a piece of bracken.

Meanwhile Tinkin and Kintin were cowering in the darkest corner of the shadow beneath the twig. They were too frightened to move. The aphids all cowered with them.

Again the voice from above, “Come to me Brian. Come to me.”

When nothing happened the pulsating light became brighter. Juliette felt some hideous force pass across her mind. An ominously seductive invitation to Greatness and Power such as she had never felt before. She searched her mind to discover where this hideous thought was coming from. It felt that some great dark Being was offering her this power, and she resisted it with all her might. And so, after a few moments, it moved on like a horrible searchlight. Storm Wizard battled the mentality next and was able to deflect it. As did Morgana who was trained to have a strong will. But she was unable to resist, and after a moment she began to succumb to the voice.

Juliette, thinking fast, slipped Ember into Morgana’s arms, and whispered “Help her, Ember, help her resist the force!” With this Morgana regained power over her own mind and shook off the overwhelming presence.

With the handing of Ember over to Morgana, Juliette immediately felt that the entire sense of eyes watching her mind vanish. And this fact puzzled her greatly. Was it Ember’s eyes who had prowled her mind? Or was it that whomever’s eyes they were, watched whomever held Ember? She could not tell. And it disturbed her considerably.

But for the moment, the party was able to resist the horrible temptation, and hid cowering in the shadow beneath the twig from the monstrous mosquito and his hideous power.

Previous Episode: The Great Ivy Highway - Part 1
Next Episode: The Great Ivy Highway - Part 3

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Great Ivy Highway (part 1)

Old Biddy Mable sat as quiet as a field mouse while Juliette, Storm Wizard, Ben, Brian, Daniel, and Morgana conversed in hushed tones at a round wooden table, highly polished and embroidered with opal inlay forming interwoven dragon and serpent patterns. In Weeleen’s fabulous Tea House there is much that escapes casual notice, for there is simply so much to see there. Surrounded by fragrant aromas, teas, and honey candles, and sweet scents of cinnamon and nutmeg, amid the soft flickering lights from the lanterns and candelabras, the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ were considering their options.

On the far side of the tea room Lady Isabella could be seen departing through the same wide archway she entered from, ascending a broad marble and silver stairway. Her golden orange dress with the multi-sized poke dots sashayed and swished on her way as her blue and black warrior walked calmly behind her, his rapier’s silver hilt glinting in the candle light as they vanished up the stairway.

There was much on their minds as they contemplated the impending Revenge of Thurwulf. Having killed, if accidentally, one of Thurwulf’s minions, Mr. Montague, over whom Morgana wept quietly to herself, they were certain that the attack would be swift and merciless. And so Old Biddy Mable, having drawn their attention to the idea of an escape route, sat waiting, and casting glances around the broad and crowded room. There were many tables in this section of the tea house, and glass partitions and low stone walls formed sophisticated, yet effective, barriers between areas of the floor. Through one archway one could see the extension of the tea room as it apparently looped around in an arc toward what Morgana considered “East”, and was already drawing maps in her head.

“Now this will be worth something to the Adenture’s Guild!” she thought with a fleeting smile.

Juliette sat with Ember, the tiny black kitten, purring on her lap. He was looking up at her with his enormous orange eyes purring contentedly, for all the world in a state of perfect happiness, as kittens are wont to do. Around the room could be heard the buzz and hubbub of many conversations, all hushed and muffled, they thought by the acoustics of the room, so that no table could actually easily overhear what the patrons at any other were saying. All the while the pretty young hostess with the golden locks and flowers in her hair wearing a gossamer blue dress, carried an ornate silver tray with teas and crystal flasks hither, thither and yon. Here and there she would clear off a table, give a check, or receive payment, and with her dazzling tiny smiles she charmed everyone in the room. In fact, to tell how some there thought of it, every person there was there to see her alone, and any other reason was simply some contrivance in their minds. And so the guests were sitting there enjoying themselves. And if there happened to be any who weren't, it was quite obvious to the others, that these were strangers to be tolerated, but nothing more.

There came a hush upon the room, as an unseen flutist played a soft sorrowful melody from the spiral stairway overlooking the Tea Room. A cool breeze softened the air, as the music touched the listeners, though many of them knew it not. The few talkers during the flute recitals was evidence, to the friends, of strangers in the room, and one or two scowls were cast in their direction. The music was so soft you would not notice it unless you were listening for it. And yet for those who were, it was the loveliest sound they'd ever heard, or would ever likely hear again, so enchanting were those delicate melodies. And then the music faded away, and the hubbub and bustle picked up once more.

The 'Steel Wool Sheeps' were drawn out of their reverie as Old Biddy Mable had just finished saying, “Well dears, I don’t suppose it’s time for you to leave, but it most certainly is, I should think. Whither whichever way you go, you ought to consider going soon.”

Juliette, rubbing Ember behind the ears, suggested that as much as she would have liked to explore the Tea House much more, with it’s wonderful archways and mysterious colored doors, both open and closed, leading into mysterious passageways. Ah but they felt, and wisely so, that it was probably better to leave soon, than to face Thurwulf in their current state. Each of them was wounded or exhausted from the last battle on the tower’s parapet. Brian, though recovered by the healing of the Mighty Elkron Minvar, was still dazed and could barely walk without Daniel’s help. Storm Wizard agreed, as did the others, that escape sounded like a good idea.

But before they got up to leave Juliette began to notice that somewhere within her mind there seemed to be a presence and that somebody was very stealthily peering at her thoughts as they were sailing by. It was a strangely elusive feeling that a pair of eyes were following after her thoughts, furtively stealing between the shadows, and hiding behind things in the corners of her mind somewhere. Off in the shadows, hiding, and watching her thoughts sailing past.

Juliette began to deliberately think about nothing but muffins and tea, and tried to recite in her mind half remembered school book texts. She made a valiant attempt to keep her mind busy with random recollections. The eyes moved and shifted, slinking quietly, and then scampering off in another direction and vanishing for a moment, only to reappear elsewhere. It felt like they were trying to discover something. A pair of eyes searching for something of great curiosity.

Juliette turning to Storm Wizard spoke in low tone, “We should go right now.” Ember purred.

“Yes maybe we should”, said Storm Wizard, disturbed by the change in tone of her voice.

Old Biddy Mable agreed and so they began to stand up. So nervous was Juliette, and so alarmed by that was Storm Wizard, and the rest, that nobody even thought to pay for their tea. Nor had they even had a chance to relish it much, for their minds were otherwise occupied.

Although she wasn’t presently considering these things consciously, Juliette thought that the Tea House existed in some place “between here and there”, which is where Biddy Mable had described it to be, as though it were a place that existed only partially in time and space, and that if you looked for it without knowing where it was you could never find it. For it really wasn’t actually anywhere in particular, she guessed. It was some magically hidden place, perhaps, that only showed up at certain times, and if you knew the secret of how to get to it then you could find it, but otherwise you never would. She remembered how she and her friends were invited there by Biddy Mable’s incantation, down the into the stone of the arched doorway, and then down the inner earth Stoneway that passed through the Realms of Minvar.

On the edges of dark vales and high passes of the inner-world Earth Kingdom they had journeyed to the Tea House, past a river of molten magma, which Ben called “the veins of the World”, crossing over a tall narrow bridge made of metal that seemed to be forged from the very roots of the mountains. Crossing the bridge Ben noticed pulsing lights that flickered with images of people, places and things, flitting along the metal railings of the bridge, almost like thoughts flashing across one's mind. It was passing strange, and made him wonder just what sort of world it was that they were passing through. They walked along the shore of a slow moving river of glowing orange magma, and then along the edge a tall cold canyon gorge that was as silent as a tomb. Morgana named the gorge “The Jaws of the Shadow King”, as the place gave her a wicked chill, and scribbled notes about it on a map she was making. Through the halls of a pure crystal cavern they walked until they came to a deep blue river roaring into a dark cave edged by white foam. Once they caught a glimpse of a far distant place beyond the roots of the mountains, and much deeper into the Earth. But this the Minvarians saw only as though they peered through a dark and brooding earth-storm, like a swirling haze of black smoke. It seemed as though a great range of mountains were in gigantic collision, grinding into a colossal shelve of dark elemental stone, cracking it into magnificent slabs the size of mountains, as white hot magma ripped through the jagged edges from one end to the other. The entire mass bored downward into other deeper, darker mass against which flashes of lightening blazed blue-white through what seemed the very core of the world. And upon those massive flashes of lightning, Ben imagined for a single incomprehensible moment that he saw a grinning face, fleeting, shimmering, with monstrous ferocity, brutality and power. But those bolts were very far away beyond the roots of the world, and so they walked on and passed by, only dimly comprehending the magnitude of that scene. Ben never mentioned to anyone what he'd seen, except to Morgana sometime later, so bizarre and terrifying it seemed.

And then they turned a corner and that distant scene was no longer in their line of sight as they entered a golden laced corridor that lead along an upward slope into a palatial balcony overlooking a smooth chasm of glowing metal walls, lit by bubbling pools of magma along the dark and distant bottom. And so it went, and it seemed to them to be a very long journey through the inner earth, and yet all the same it seemed much too brief, and like they’d seen it all in but a few steps. And through all this journey only Ben, Morgana, and Juliette saw the Stoneway clearly, but to the others who were not disciples of Minvar, they saw little but darkness, and wandered helplessly through freezing tunnels that seemed to lead into greater darkness. They all felt the sensation of passing through the earth as though through deep and heavy water, but each person’s vision was influenced by the depth of their understanding.

Finally they entered into a bright and happy glow, with a sudden opening of a door in the side of a cavern wall. They had entered the gorgeous and elegant Tea House of Weeleena, the Flower Bride, a Princess among the Fey. Sitting at a wide round table in the most elegant setting you could imagine, they saw old Biddy Mable. All of this Juliette was remembering in detail as they walked up the stairs. But most intensely she felt that the Tea House, despite being neither here nor there, was very real. In fact, it felt in some strange way as though it might have been the most “real” place she had ever been. A place that by being between here and there, meant it was anywhere, and everywhere, always and forever. Somehow that thought gave her comfort.

And then Juliette began to consider the Ladybug, Isabella. She recalled that Biddy Mable was vague about who she was, but said she had “irons in many fires”. She lingered on the implications of what that might mean, but overall Juliette reflected on the fact that she did not get a good feeling about that woman with the strange black headdress, and bright orange and black dotted gown. She didn’t like how the Lady singled out Storm Wizard and had taken him to her own table to interact privately with him. She wondered what they spoke of. She might have even felt a bit of jealousy in so far as the Lady had chosen Storm Wizard over her to speak to. It was almost as if she had known him in some way. And Juliette felt that the Lady was very powerful, and had been so for quite some time, and someone you need to be careful with. One would not want to get on her bad side, she thought.

And the eyes peered more deeply… why, they wanted to know, was she called “Ladybug”? Was she secretly a ladybug, somehow? And to this Juliette really did not know the answer. Around and around this question they peered, from this side and that side, from above and below. They padded around the question, trying to get at “what was the Ladybug?”. Maybe she was like a lady on the outside, but a bug on in the inside, Juliette wondered? Or perhaps there was a concrete reason, or maybe her name was a kind of metaphor, or perhaps it was simply the way she liked to dress. And her man, whom her thoughts lit upon briefly, seemed almost a wholly other kind of being than Isabella. Stern, uncompromising, solemn, strong, accurate and dangerous. And so very handsome. But her thoughts wandered from him, and returned to Isabella. Who was that woman?

The eyes seemed to shift around, prying for answers. And Juliette tried hard not to think about the answers. But the eyes stealthily maneuvered to the doors in her mind, and gently opening them, looked inside, and then quietly closed them again. Juliette realized suddenly with some alarm and some pride that it was only her advanced skill that allowed her to even notice that the eyes were there at all, for she knew she would never have been keen enough to detect them whatsoever at an earlier time in her life.

Biddy Mable, having stood up, pointed to a small archway in which there squatted a short round blue door with a brass handle, closed, not far from where they were sitting. And the blue door was where Biddy Mable was taking them.

As the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ stood up from their table the friends began to move toward the blue door, and the most jittery of the lot was Juliette, by far. But no one seemed to notice that, nor even their departure, except perhaps the patrons at one or two of the closest tables. At a nearby table sat two workmen wearing burlap robes, and elaborately adorned Blue-Black Warriors sat at another table talking among themselves and took no notice of the friends as they made their way in a line after Biddy Mable. Storm Wizard, however, began to take notice that he did not recognize the language of any of those people at the tables around them. At any of the tables. The workmen were speaking with strange sounding whirling clicks.

“Click-click - - Whirl-whirl-click. Whirl-click. Whirl-click.”, one was saying, as the other seemed to laugh as he thumped the table softly with his hand, the other grinning widely.

At another table there were two Aristocrat-Warriors speaking with odd low toned buzzing noises that gave the impression of secrecy, while fingering the silver hilts of their swords.

“zzzz”, “zzzzzz”, “zzzzzz-buzzz-zzzzzzz”, said one, as they turned their heads to meet Storm Wizard’s gaze.

Meanwhile Juliette walked behind Biddy Mable, looking at the walls as though she found something of great interest in them. In fact, had she looked more closely, she would have indeed, for the walls were made of very unusual stones, gems and metals fused and polished to form very strange designs and patterns. Had one the skill in ancient languages they might have discerned the Earth Script written in the elder tongue of the earth lords, songs of the earth. But her mind was occupied deliberately by muffins and tea and the recounting of school book texts, and so she was not paying attention to her surroundings as was Morgana, who followed behind her looking at the walls in silent awe. Ben came next, and he too was astounded by the nature of the stonework that formed the palatial chamber of the Tea House, but had no inkling of the script there in, as he was only a second circle disciple and had yet to learn of such things. Brian, limping, was helped along by Daniel, neither of whom knew of such things as the nature of stones, but merely passed by with their eyes affixed to the Blue-Black Warriors, and their only consideration was making it to the blue door without getting into another brawl.

Thinking that it might look conspicuous to have all six of them walking directly toward the blue door, Storm Wizard made his way along an alternate path. And so as the party walked in a line toward the blue door, and he took a route past the table of Aristocrat-Warriors toward an open archway along the north wall, not far from the entranceway into which Isabella had vanished. The sharp featured Warriors were wearing midnight-blue vests, had slick jet black hair that glinted, and carried silver hilted rapiers. Both were silent and stared at him with sideways gazes as he walked past their table toward the nearby archway, smaller than the others and not very far away from the blue door. He pointedly avoided looking in their direction, and made his way to the archway. The archway revealed a long flight of stairs going downward and curving off to the right. Upon the walls of the spiraling tunnel’s purple and yellow mosaic there were set brass lanterns at intervals of twelve feet, and the stairs were made of polished white marble that vanished around the curve downward toward further mysteries than Storm Wizard intended to explore that day.

Having satisfied his curiosity, he made his way back toward the blue door, and as he walked passed their table the Aristocrat-Warriors stood up and stared at him with fixed expressions, and a menacing glower in their eyes. Making his way to the blue door Storm Wizard put his hand to the brass doorknob as Biddy Mable seemed to be fiddling around with her bag paying far too little attention to the happenings in his opinion. It was very ornate, cool to the grasp, and it would not budge in the least for him. Biddy Mable, nervous at the standing up of the Warriors, fumbled with a leather bag, producing in her trembling hand a small oddly shaped brass key.

“Hold on, hold on, I have a key.”, she said, and proceeded to put it in the lock.

Storm Wizard, ignoring her, continued passed and made is way to another doorway beyond the table where the two farmers were sitting making their clicking-whirling conversation. They were entertaining themselves over cups of steaming tea and bowls of green broth. They seemed to take no notice of Storm Wizard as he made his way toward the black door with the oval bronze knob. The Warriors at the first table did. And they made a rapid bee-line toward the black door. These two men moved very quickly, and yet without appearing to force haste in anyway. Seeing this, Storm Wizard calculated that the Warriors would soon be flanked with himself on one side, and his friends on the other, but this calculation was quite wrong, and he reconsidered the idea hastily revising his plan upon second thought.

“What in the name of Minvar’s belly button does he think he’s doing!?”, cursed Juliette to herself.

The Warriors came at such a speed toward the black door as to make any possibility of Storm Wizard’s arriving there first quite improbable. And so he stopped walking in that direction, and instead turned around without further ado made his way back toward Biddy Mable who had by that time opened the blue door, and was ushering the young people up a narrow flight of stairs that vanished around the spiral curve in the wall.

What was most interesting about the stairs, they noticed right away, was that they seemed to get smaller and smaller the further up they went.

“Aw it’s just perspective”, thought Storm Wizard.

“There’s something magical about those stairs”, thought Juliette. And she had the feeling that if she went up the stairs she would get smaller and smaller too. And as she thought that Ember stopped purring for a moment to give a little “meow”.

When Storm Wizard saw that Biddy Mable had opened the blue door and that the others were being ushered up the stairs, he turned and went to them. As soon as he did so the two Warriors stopped, and cocked eyebrows watching him as he vanished up the stairs, buzzing one to another. The blue door closed with a thud, and that was the last the two Warriors saw of the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’.

However, the farmers who had been sitting at the other table had also stood up and made their way to the blue door, and before it closed they also ducked inside. When they did, Biddy Mable greeted them, saying, “Oh Thank you for coming on such short notice, my friends.” And everyone followed Biddy Mable up the stairs.

As they ascended, the stairs grew smaller and smaller, and yet appeared to get larger and larger at the same time, which seemed very strange. At the top of the stairs they came at long last to a small wooden door, and when the opened it they found that they were all standing in the entrance of a tiny door, no bigger than an ant hole. Around them climbed huge stone walls far into the sky, the most gigantic they’d ever seen, formed by the hill-sized stone blocks of the tower's parapet where they'd had their most recent battle. Far above twinkled the stars in the black velvet sky, and the moon passed lazily between two silvered clouds. Gigantic ivy vines crowded with enormous leaves swayed in the wind amid huge branches. Beyond the doorway appeared to them to be an enormous stone plain, dimpled by dirt hills, giant dry leaves, huge fallen twigs like tilted towers, and a mayriad of giant insects of various kinds bustling and buzzing about in every direction, some crawling, some flying. The wind caused the leaves overhead to wave in enormous arcs which created a sea of fantastic shadows which waxed and waned in the moonlight around them. The ground ahead was mossy, or filled with clumps of dirt forming small hillocks through which they could see winding pathways, and one such trail went from the doorway directly into the jungle of fauna before them. Nearby they saw a herd of aphids migrating in a series of lines. It was then that one of the two farmers spoke.

“My name, dear friends, is Tinkin, and this is my brother Kintan. Biddy Mable has asked us to be your guides. We can take you on the backs of the aphids and ride them beyond The Edge and down The Great Ivy Way.”

Everyone gulped.

“But how will we get big again?”, demanded Storm Wizard.

“Well, we’re not so knowledgeable about that, I’m sorry”, said Tinkin.

“Biddy Mable”, asked Juliette, “How will we get big again!?”

“Don’t you worry dear, it will all work out”, said Biddy Mable. “You just stay on the back of the aphids, and don’t let them go astray.” As she gave them this instruction the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ climbed onto the backs of the aphids. There were ropes and a kind of wicker saddles fashioned onto the aphids, giving them the appearance of a kind of wagon, and two people could fit on each aphid. Sets of twine-like reigns attached to the aphids antenna gave them a certain amount of control over the direction the aphid would take, hopefully.

“If you don’t make us normal sized, then Ember won’t be normal sized, and he might not like that”, Juliette reminded Mable with a certain edge in her voice as she climbed up.

“Don’t worry dear, it will all work out. You’ll see. Now listen carefully to what I tell you. The road down the Great Ivy Way can be a dangerous one. You must be careful and stay on the main branch whatever you do and stick close to the other aphids. You can go on the sides if you must, but you must try to stay on the top if at all possible. When you get to the bottom send word back with Tintak here. Now I will return back downstairs, and cover your tracks as best I can. Good luck!”, said Biddy Mable, and with that the wooden door shut, and she was gone. Ember gave a little meow.

“We better stay on the main road”, she said to her Aphid as the guides, Tinkin and Kintin saddled up the lead aphid wagon and got going. Juliette tried to steer as politely as possible. She found that the aphids made twittery noises when the antenna were tugged, and on the whole they seemed rather difficult to keep on the trail. They certainly had a tendency to wander off toward any kind of food that appeared on the stem along the way, and would stop and munch on mossy green mounds, or head off toward a leafy looking outcropping whenever they passed one. So it took quite a bit of concentration to keep them moving forward in a line.

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