Monday, July 26, 2010

Character Alignments: Subtlety Rules

"Alignment has been a staple of many role playing games since the industry's beginnings. It's been the subject of countless essays in fanzines and blog posts. Most people either love it or hate it; some could take it or leave it. I myself have gone from one extreme to another over the years, using it as a weapon against my players in my early-and-inexperienced years as a GM, then later completely banning it from my games for a few years, and finally embracing a balance that allows it to influence the game without getting in the players' way."

REF: RPG Character Alignments

I'm also of the mind to keep Alignment as a Character Guide, rather than a rules-centric system. I do have rules around Alignment, but they're not designed to be obvious in-play. My basic philosophy about Alignment is that deeds have consequences to the Character's Alignment, rather than the other way around. So if Beth the Druidess of Oswaldia is self-declared as Lawful Good, sobeit. She can declare her Alignment at the start of the game. I take it as "her intended Alignment". However, I will not be enforcing her to play Lawful Good. She can decide to do Chaotic things. The result will be that her character goes from Lawful Good to Chaotic Good as her actions mount up a compelling reason to conclude that she is in fact Chaotic Good, rather than Lawful.

So, what do I use Alignment for? Alignment influences a number of sub-surface aspects of the game. Foremost, it can influence how the Elkron of Elthos view the Character. There is an Elkron that is the embodiment of each Alignment (12 mixed Alignments, 4 "pure Alignments").

If Beth is Lawful Good, a worshipper of Minvar, and then commits Chaotic Evil acts, over time her connection to Minvar will fade, as Minvar is Lawful Good and expects her devotees to be the same. The miracles she calls on Minvar for will lessen, and eventually cease. A Chaotic Elkron, such as Omri, may solicit her to abandon Minvar altogether, and join the forces of Chaos, which to them is expressed as "The Cause of Freedom". If Beth does convert then she will continue on her merry way, without Minvar's association, and possibly with Minvar's enmity. And so on.

When Beth encounters a Lawful Good weapon, she won't necessarily able to use it effectively, or it might even counter her purposes. And so on.

There are a lot of ways that Alignment can come into play that are not anything like "Your Character is Lawful Good, so she can not do that action." To my mind, the proper use of Alignment in RPGs is a matter of some subtlety. Granted, the original rules for Alignment did not facilitate that type of usage directly, but those GMs who liked the concept of Alignment, but not the rules themselves, were always free to change them. And so I worked out something that I think is suitable for my world.

Another attribute of Alignment in my world is that most Characters are neutral. It takes a lot to embark on the path toward one particular Alignment, mostly because it requires consistency. And many players do not play their characters with the kind of consistency that leads to a specific Alignment, even if they desire to do so. It is by design that this is the case for Elthos. I have it in mind that Alignment beyond the norm (neutral) is difficult to achieve, and so it takes a good deal of effort to move along the Alignment Axis in any direction constantly. The progress is offset, quite frequently, by the contrary decisions Characters make along the way.

To be a Paladin of a particular Alignment is difficult because it is fairly easy to fall off of an Alignment path. However, the further one goes along the line of a particular Alignment, the more likely it is that Elkron will notice them, and either take issue with the Character, or reward them. Sometimes the Elkron award Powers to Characters who show a propensity for a specific Alignment.

I do have a system for awarding Alignment points. Basically, there are overt actions which correspond with the metaphysical Law-Chaos axis. Murder is Chaotic. Giving Alms is Lawful. Building a town is Lawful. Burning down a library is Chaotic. And so on. Then, on the Good-Evil, or moral axis, the question is one of Motivation FOR the action. Motives can be things like Friendship, Honor, Justice, etc. Thus, for example, Beth might one day steal money from a rich man in order to feed an impoverished family of poor folk. In this case the action is Chaotic (theft), but the motive is good (charity). And so points can be allotted on this basis to the Character's Alignment (measured as a coordinate on the Alignment Grid) through this mechanism.

To go far along any axis line, in Elthos, is difficult, and the further you go, the more difficult it becomes to go further still. Only really devoted heroes make it particularly far in any given direction. And as they do, they mount Alignment specific enemies and allies along the way. This has worked reasonably well for me over the years. I first implemented the Elthos Alignment system in the mid 1980s during California Campaigns. The Players seemed to find it unobtrusive, interesting, and even compelling. So I refined and polished it and put it on the shelf. It's a keeper.

I'm wondering: What do you folks think of Alignment in RPGs generally? Do you use Alignment in your games, and if so, how does it work for you? What success or failures have you seen in relation to Alignment? If not, why not?


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

It's Alive (again)! (elthos web application news)

Ok this post is about the trials and travails of hosting Elthos RPG Web Application out there in the horrible "real world".

First off the hosting company migrated my project to a "new platform" in mid April. Fine. Except: they broke the site in numerous ways that made it all but impossible to work on, or even get to, for quite some time. You have no idea what I've been through with this. Good thing I don't have any users on the system at this time. Whew. Because otherwise I'd have been S.O.L. It took until two days ago (July 19) for them to get the site back online. That was April-July. Wow. That's like totally crappy service! Amaaaazing.

But anyway, after much gnashing of teeth it is online again. Superior! I can now go back to what I was working on. My World.

And now for the good news. I really like the Elthos RPG Web Application. I mean like A LOT. Why? Because it does quite a lot for me. The coolest thing, I think, that I realised today, is that it stores my world information in a nice tidy place so I don't lose stuff. Instead my stuff accumulates over time. In a nice easily accessible-from-anywhere location online. That's pretty sweet. So I can be on go, and see something that gives me cool game-world idea and through the website I can update my world. I can upload photos of places I see along the way from my phone, if I want, and add them to my world, too. That's just freakin cool, as far as I'm concerned.

The other things I like:

1. The math is simple so that even though the computer does the math, with a little effort I could easily do the math too. But the computer is faster, and makes fewer mistakes than I do, so still the computer is a plus on that.

2. The Web Application lets me print out my stuff in quick, but convenient (though not very fancy looking) format. So I can print-n-run to the game, and I know I have everything I need.

3. The Elthos Rules can be played pretty much on a picnic table with minimal equipment or books. That's a plus.

4. The rules are simple enough so that I can be reasonably sure how to build scenarios that balance without struggling with a zillion gotcha-rules. It makes improv-GMing much easier.

5. And it's must faster to generate monsters and NPCs using the Adventure Group Generator. The nice thing is that it gens not only the NPCs randomly, but equips them based on their race or class as well. So minimal post-gen work is needed. It doesn't, for example, assign spells or miracles to the mystical classes.

6. It's kind of fun to use, to. Oh, and if I do the data entry, it also keeps a nice historical record of what has transpired during the campaigns, and what each character did, and even records stuff that lets me determine the alignment of actions taken and adjust the character's alignment accordingly - automagically. It's a neat feature, though I suspect not everyone will use it. It's not necessary, but it's still pretty neat. And for my World of Elthos, Alignment makes a difference, so it works for me.

So anyway, enough about how great this is... the game sessions continue at pace, and we are making good progress through the Game Testing Phase (one of them, anyway). So that's great too. I'm pretty thoroughly psyched.

The bad news: I can not for the life of me figure out at this point whether or not I should throw the doors open to the world and let the Application out into the "wild", or if I should (and must?) get a patent, and build up a legal framework by which I can continue to control it going forward.

There are Pros and Cons on both sides, and I'm having a devil of a time working my way through the details via research and conversation with those who may know something helpful. It's a slow process.

But in the meantime, things are going well. The master is pleased.


Friday, July 09, 2010

The River of Death

The ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ stood in a ten foot wide open gap between the inner tower and the outer wall. Before them were two doors, one near and leading into the tower, and the other was the arched tunnel through which they originally entered from the courtyard before the walled manor. They were furiously trying to decide what to do. They wanted to speak with Thurwulv and calm him down, but they feared that with a man of his sort it would not be possible.

Juliette was meanwhile focusing on her new vision from the “Stone of Seeing”. She was able to sense through things, feeling people and things more than seeing them with her normal vision. Focusing more intensely she suddenly spyed a doorway that she hadn’t noticed before. It was a short squat wide doorway along the outer wall between the first door and the second. It seemed like a doorway, and yet not. It was made of stones. And yet she sensed that it was in fact a doorway. A hidden one. She gave the spiral etched stone to Morgana for her to take a look as well. Morgana also saw the hidden door, and she put her hand into it as well. Her hand vanished into the liquid swirls that had seemed to be stones. Indeed, it was a passageway.

Then Morgana, curious, put her face through the doorway, into the stones which melted away like shimmering liquid. Inside she saw a world which she found utterly indescribable, except to say that it was a room in a hall with two doors, one blue and one red. Other than that she could not find the words to express what she saw there. The room was covered in mystic symbols carved into the stones, in such a profusion of patterns as would have made a butterfly’s wing blush. The symbols were moving, some slowly, and some rather rapidly, in arcs across the walls and floor and ceiling, every which way. She could not imagine how one would ever walk into such a room. Nor how they would get to the other side to open either of the doors. But they had other things of importance to discuss, and so she pulled her head back out and simply mentioned that there was a room with two doors. She also noted that she did not sense that the passage way went through the wall of the tower directly outside, but instead she felt that it went on to someplace quite 'other'.

They decided the best thing to do would be to go to the portcullis and lower the gate so that it would stand between Thurwulv and his men, and themselves. In this way they could talk with Thurwulf and perhaps mollify him.

Brian, Daniel, Morgana, Storm Wizard, Juliette and Laraby were ready to move. Morgana mentioned that Thurwulv, whom she could feel through the wall of the tower, had gone to the second floor where there were some other men. The ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ ran for the portcullis and finding the door locked they got Laraby to try his skill to open it. Out came his little box of tools and the lock snapped open. Storm Wizard entered, and when everyone else was outside the portcullis on the landing at the top of the stairs into the courtyard, he threw the lever and down came the portcullis gate. Storm Wizard then flew up and over the outer wall and landed with the others. He looked quite proud of himself until I thought of something.

"I probably should have broken the Portcullis lever", he said aloud but more to himself than anyone in particular.

Juliette stood in front with Brian and Daniel at her sides. Storm Wizard and Morgana stood behind her, and Laraby stood on the stairs, to the rear. Out came the men running full tilt. There were four of them, dressed for deadly combat. Iron studs dotted the dark leather vests as their swords glinted in the harsh sunlight. Black hats at a rakish angle, and cruel grins flashing, they came running down the tunnel, only to be stopped by the portcullis.

One turned aside and pulled the lever to open the gate. The gears creaked and groaned and the portcullus gate slowly openned. But there was not enough time for the proud band of young soldiers.

Immediately upon determining that these men had no inclination to discuss matters and meant them bodily harm, the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ went into ation. It was but a few moments before the four men were in critical condition or dead, even before the gate lifted. For in that brief amount of time two lightning arrows had flashed through the gridwork of the openning gate, Minvar’s Wrath crushed one beneath a falling stone from the ceiling, and a dragon stomp kick had disabled the third, leaving him gasping for breath against the tunnel wall. The remaining one standing, looked around with both fear and wrath fighting for supremacy of his soul. In a final blaze of fury and anxiety he lunged at Juliette, for once in his lifetime, with a flick of his wrist and a sudden jab he managed to prick her in the heart heart with the point of his sword.

Down went Juliette in a flutter. Morgana immediately fell toward her as Brian and Daniel exacted a sudden and final vengeance on the hapless, vicious warrior. Into her pockets she reached her hands, searching for the medicines that the Holy Aphid had given her before they left the Temple there. Onto her fingers oozed a green paste which she applied to the red wound. Then she took a twig the Holy Aphid had given her, and put it in Juliette’s mouth. She then took the Tarot Card of Death, and with a hopeful prayer, turned it upside down and placed it over the green paste where her unbeating heart was. And then she took the sacred “Seeing Stone” and placed it on top of the Card of Death, upside down, and prayed fervently. It was as though a sheen enveloped Juliette’s body, and she was held in a state of stasis , her body unchanging. Yet, the stone being on the wound focused her spirit to stay with her body, and she felt then that she could, if she looked sideways, see her surroundings. Her family and friends were there and helping her. She held on to hope.

“We must take her either to the Monastary of the Golden Sheaf, or to the Aphid Temple. We must do this quickly”, said Morgana emphatically. It was decided that Laraby would take Juliette and the others to the Monastary, and that Storm Wizard would stay behind to guard their retreat.

And so Storm Wizard, as the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ got on their way, flew upward to see what he might spy out. And he found Thurwulv, with his white hair, redish skin, and wry smile, standing firmly atop the inner tower, staring with a mocking tone at Storm Wizard, who remained out of range of Thurwulv’s throwing blades.

“Good. Very Good”, said Thurwulv with a grin.

“I’m glad you think so”, said Storm Wizard in reply.

“You killed my man, Mr. Montague. He was one of my best men”, said Thurwulv with a civil, yet menacing tone.

“Well, we didn’t actually kill him. He died protecting his lover, Morgana. You do know about that, don’t you?”

“Well, he never said anything to me about it”, replied Thurwulv with a look of surprise on his face.

“Yes, and he died saving her life from the Dark Bird of Night”, said Storm Wizard, still flying in a slow arc out of range.

“What Dark Bird of Night is this? I have not heard anything of it.”

“Well, never mind that then. My point is that we did not kill Mr. Montague”, said Storm Wizard emphasizing the word “we”.

“From where I stand, I saw you fighting up on the Tower and I saw Montague fall from there. I must Avenge my friend’s death. It is my duty.”

“Then avenge it on the Black Bird of Death”, retorted Storm Wizard.

“Well, it seems that you lost one”, said Thurwulv with his wry grin, “and I lost one.”

“So we’re finished then?”

“For now. But I have a feeling this is not the last time we shall meet”, said Thurwulv as he backed into the tower’s doorway into the parapet. And then he was gone.

Storm Wizard flew after the party, keeping an eye out behind him. And off through the mountains they went. Laraby worked up a rig that served as a bier upon which they carried Juliette in state. Her soft brown hair entwined with flowers and sweet scented herbs.

When the bier arrived at the Lumberjack’s camp there was a great reaction. The men were all aggrieved that the darling girl, Juliette, should have lost her young life on Black Hill. It added among them a new depth of loathing for that terrible place.

“Again, it always happens, but why Juliette!? She was so innocent and good”, they lamented. “You are lucky to have even come back from there at all, friends. You’re the first to return from there so far. All the others vanished and were never heard of again”, went the tale.

And so they left there, and went on to the Green Dragon Inn, where Lucia was distraught over the death of Juliette. She made many prayers over her, and entwined new herbs into her dress and kissed her on the forehead with many tears. Everyone at the bar drank in somber silence, until one sang a dirge-song about the brave and honest woman, who was a blessing to the land, and all the people she met, great or small.

Staying there but a short time for a meal and a short rest, they marched onward through the snow. As it happened, they found out that all the time they had spent with the Aphids was as if it was no time at all outside the old ruins. It was still winter after all, and Storm Wizard had been proven right – in that strange world of Weeleena’s time may well have simply stayed in the pleasant season, for that was it’s nature. It was certain that time had a strange way of ebbing and flowing in that place. When they looked outward to the forest it seemed time was very fast, and the seasons spinning by. But when they got close to any large being, such as Thurwulv’s foot, it seemed that time moved in slow motion.

They came upon a lonesome stretch of dirt paths and tall outcroppings where they had once met the 'Little Ones' in the cave. This is where they had gotten lost originally and from here had wandered unwittingly into the Black Forest. They were, once again, unsure of the way to the Golden Monastery. So they turned to Laraby, whom they felt had proven his worth in such matters before, and he determined that they should take the Southern pathway, which they did.

Then they came to old Biddy Mable’s shack in the hills. She was so overcome with grief over Juliette’s death that she wept full sore for a long time. And she cried out to the heavens for all her sorrow, and said that Juliette had been her friend. It was something she had not said of anyone in a long, long time.

They then rushed on to Perdu Hill, on which the gallows swing in the cold dark wind. They passed over the hill and descended into the cemetery. They followed a windy little trail between the graves, around little hills and prominences of rock capped by moss. They’d been on the road for two days and were quite tired by then. And they began to feel lost in the cemetery because of all the windy path that was so hard to follow, even for Laraby, who was especially good at that sort of thing.

“Why hello there”, cried Mr. Ebol the caretaker who had been working on a new grave.

“You’ve come just in time. You can put her right in here! It’s all fresh and ready”, said Mr. Ebol with evident cheer. "I just finished it, don't you know!"

“No, thanks. We want to take her for her Rites at the Monastary of the Golden Sheaf, you know.”

“Oh that! What do you kids know about anything anyway?!”, said Mr. Ebol suddenly irritable, but walking along a particular path leading the way as he gesticulated with hand over head.

They came out on the far side of the cemetery, and as a flock of crows flew up into the glowering sky, they emerged into the fields before the Monastery, with its golden dome. It was a pleasant site for sore eyes, to be sure.

The men in the fields came quickly when they saw that a bier was being carried. They were all friends of Juliette, fellow monks of Minvar. Penelope the Abbess was summoned and she arrived swiftly. Her countenance was grave.

“Bring her to the Womb of Minvar”, said Penelope, and they laid here there upon a stone slab.

“We will know in three days if she shall return to us, or pass on away from us”, said Penelope as she worked on applying new herbs and flowers to Juliette’s hair. “We must leave her now”, she said and shut the door so that the room went pitch black and silent as space. There lay Juliette, her spirit near her body, in the cold darkness of the Womb of Minvar.

This she could sense when she looked sideways. However, when she looked straight ahead then she saw something quite different indeed. She was standing on the edge of a black river, the icy water up to her ankles. She could not quite walk backwards onto the shore. Mist was everywhere. There were dead trees in the mist. The river flowed a ways off downstream to a water falls, over which it vanished with a roar. Beyond it was darkness profound.

She decided to stay where she was. But then she saw a boat on the water. It was a small boat. A paper boat. It looked like a small origami boat floating near her ankles on the water. She reached down to pick it up, and it then bobbed away on the water. When she stood up again, the boat bobbed back toward her ankle. She noticed that the boat was bobbing around over a rock just under the surface of the water. On the smooth surface of the stone was engraved the same inverted double spiral pattern as the one on her “Seeing Stone”. Over this the boat kept a steady vigil. On the third try she touched the tiny boat, and instantly found herself on it’s deck.

It swayed largely on the current of the river, and began to float toward the water falls, from beyond which came the sound of a great gong, which sounded three times, very slowly. Juliette grew afraid. She felt that going over the waterfalls was a bad idea. She looked around at the boat for some way to steer it when she noticed that it was beautifully crafted with all kinds of designs and patterns, and engravings of mythical beasts such as dragons and unicorns. It was an amazing vessel. She saw there at the helm a tiller and went to steer the boat with it, but she found that there were six stations for oarsmen that were empty. The oars lay on their benches. Without the oarsmen she could not steer the boat.

Meanwhile, out in the “real world” Storm Wizard was speaking earnestly with Penelope as the faithful Abbess prepared tinctures and gems for the work she would do to help Juliette arrive back in the land of the living.

“We went, you see, the Realm of the Insect King, and met the Holy Aphid in his temple, and we discovered that the Red Locusts of the East are saying that there is soon to come a great swarm called the Grand United Army. It will”, he said, “kill everything in it’s path. The Locust Ambassador claimed it would come soon. But we do not know, given the strangeness of time there, if that is in three weeks or ten years.”

Storm Wizard then outlined the plans that the Aphids and the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ had agreed upon. It was a masterful plan, she said. “Yes, the need is urgent”, agreed Penelope in amazement at their adventure. “However, I must help Juliette now. I will send an Abbot with you. He shall help. His name is Clarence. He will help you to raise money for your venture, and hire the men you need.”

And so Storm Wizard was introduced to Abbot Clarence and they left the Monastery immediately with Clarence in the lead. Once he learned of the tale, he estimated based on his knowledge of time and the Insect Kingdom (which was not inconsiderable), that they had until the end of the summer to effect their plan. It was a tight schedule. And he did not like the fact that the mountain agreed upon was far beyond the reach of where anyone in Glendale had ever ventured to before. In the Eastern Desert, beyond the Black Forest, which none of them had ever seen.

Meanwhile, Penelope had placed six candles and six stones around Juliette’s body. Juliette could sense these from her peripheral vision, and then slowly the lights showed up along the banks of the dark river. She could see that the stones under the lights each had a pattern. A scorpion by the water falls, then a sword on the other side of the river, then a sun, and a heron, then a salmon, and finally a half man half fish.

It was mystifying indeed. And then, to her surprise, there appeared on each stone a man dressed in a toga. They walked through the water toward her boat. Each was very handsome, with different colors of hair and eyes, but all strong and courageous. When the men entered the boat they were completely dry. They took positions at each oar, and then the closest one with blond hair and cool blue eyes, looked back at her, silently inquiring, “where do we take you, my lady?”

“Take me to the Sun”, said she.

And so the glistening men rowed the boat across the river, while Juliette steered the boat at the till, which took a great deal of effort as the current in the center was strong. Eventually the boat beached upon the shore where the Golden Sun was shining, a face upon a golden shield leaning against the rock. The face was that of a lion, both fierce and yet kind at the same time. It was strange. She stood before the golden Sun and said, “I am not ready to die. My friends are helping me. I still have hope.”

And the Sun-Lion smiled.

Previous Episode: Down to the Bottom
Next Episode: Escape from Death - Part 1

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Down To The Bottom

In the Great Hall of the Temple of the Aphids, deep within a stone block located on the western rim of an old ruined tower on Black Hill, the few remaining Princes’ of the Aphids gathered with great foreboding at the bidding of the old Holy Aphid. In came two yellow Aphids, two red Aphids, two black Aphids and two green Aphids, the last being Kintin and Tinkin, our heroes’ guides through the Insect Kingdom.

There was a long discussion back and forth among them as to what they should do regarding the threat of the Locust Lord. Soon, he had declared, there would be a famine in the east that would drive the Grasshoppers into a tiny place, which would then initiate the transformation into The Grand United Army of the Red Locusts. If the old Holy Aphid would not advise the King of the Insects that the Ants had stolen their food, and should be recompensed their loss, then the Red Locusts would surely swarm, and destroy the Glendale Region. This of course meant that the Holy Aphid was being asked to lie to the King in order to save the Kingdom. The Holy Aphid was granted three days in which to decide. And so the Locust Ambassador departed, and the Holy Aphid summoned the last of the Aphid Princes to the Great Hall to council and advise him.

The debate among the Aphids took quite some time, as Aphids are slow to deliberate, especially on matters of great importance. They invited the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ to join the debate as they happened to be unique visitors from the realm of men to the tiny world of the Insect Kingdom, and might be able to offer unique assistance, or advice. Unfortunately, the advice they could offer involved feats of engineering that only humans could master, and that, they decided, would require the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ to return to their own world and make an attempt to solicit the aid of their own people. The plan they settled on was to direct the Locusts through the desert by tempting them with food in a spiral pattern at the right times of day so that the Grand United Army might spend it’s time circling the desert and in the end devour themselves. It should be noted that the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ were really simply a bunch of farm children, but to the Insects they seemed veritable Royalty from another world. While the children were not all so sure that they could muster the forces necessary to enact such a grand plan, their part being to bring large amounts of lumber to a certain desert mountain, which would serve as the Locusts Last Stand, into which they would, in the final phase of the plan, collide together, cannibalize each other, and then burn in a huge bond fire. An offering as it were to the Elkron of Fire. It seemed fitting.

In addition, the Black Aphids wanted to attempt to assassinate the Locust Prince, in the hopes that by failing to return from his ambassadorial mission, the Grand United Army might not come at all. This idea was frowned upon, as the others felt it would in all likelihood make no difference as the Locusts would have many more Ambassadors to send, out of the billions of ranks of their Grand United Army. This, thought Ben without saying so much, might not have been the case, as the death of the Locust Prince might have precipitated a dreadful calamity among the Locusts… a war of succession would have broken out, and this might well have eliminated the majority of the threat. Ben considered this in light of the point that the Locusts might have but few Princes among their ranks, and so the possibility existed that their fierce competitive nature as Red Locusts could ignite a conflaguration among their ranks. But Ben thought it too far fetched an idea, and didn’t do more than take note of it in his Journal, and mention it later to Morgana. She thought it might be a good idea, but didn’t know Locusts well enough to be sure.

In addition, none of them felt very confident that they would be able to defeat a Warrior Prince such as the Locust Ambassador, with his shining cooper armor, and brutal countenance. After all, Aphids are farmers by nature, not warriors. Even the black Aphids shuddered at the thought of having to battle the Locust Prince themselves, which was another reason why they agreed to invite the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’. The Black Aphids had hoped that the members of that party might be brave enough, and skilled enough, to defeat their foe. This however, was not suggested by anyone, and the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ were among those who thought the effort would prove useless in the end, anyway. And so the conversation went on into the wee hours.

Several times during the discussion everyone noticed shudders in the stone, and dust falling from the ceiling.

“Is this place subject to earthquakes?” asked Juliette.

“No, we do not have earthquakes here”, whispered Tinkin. “Those tremors are most likely the result of a battle within the tower. They are not infrequent, you may well believe. By the sound of it, I would say this is a fiercer one than most.”

Then attention returned to the subject at hand. What to do about the Locust Ambassador. The old Wise Aphid eventually had heard everyone’s opinions, contemplated the suggestions offered, and came to no distinct conclusion. He decided that his best course would be to go to the King of the Insects immediately, and tell him what the Locust Ambassador had said. Based on the King’s reaction the Wise One would advise the King then.

The ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ offered to take him on that distant journey once they had grown large again, but the Wise One knew that this process was not only fraught with perils, but would in all likelihood take longer than the mode of transport he had in mind.

“Prepare the Dragon Fly Chariot!”, he commanded. And two attendants scurried out of the room to do so.

The Wise One then gave leave for Kintin and Tinkin to take the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ down the Great Ivy Way far, far down to the bottom of the tower, where they had hopes that they would return to their normal size. And so everyone made their good byes and the Princes’ of the Aphids departed to their various distant castles, while Tinkin and Kintin prepared for the dangerous journey ahead. Provisions were secured, the Aphids mounted with their wickerwork saddles, and everyone gathered to wish the adventurer’s a safe journey homeward. The Holy Aphid, now in his humanish form as a withered old man with a long gray beard, offered them his blessings, and all of the Aphids waved their antennae and sang a song in their whirling clicking language. It was quite beautiful sounding.

Having climbed aboard the backs of the transporting Aphids, with Kintin and Tinkin leading, they set out in the early morning at first light. Along the side of the outer wall they traveled downward for a short ways, and then cut a horizontal path along a crack in stone, and then turned to climb straight upward until they got to the top of the stone block that was part of the ruined tower’s inner parapet. They had a glorious view of the Black Forest below, and the air was crisp and clear. Along the top of the stone they traveled until the came to the same bridge they’d crossed earlier to gain entrance to the Aphid Temple. Now they crossed back the other way. Looking over the edge of the twig that formed their bridge, far below them they could dimly see the huge centipede wriggling along a shadow at the bottom of the crack between the stones. It was headed away from them, they were relieved to see, toward some dark shape that appeared to be another large insect, perhaps a spider, or some gigantic beetle. They crossed without incident, and made their way along the top of the grey stone until they came to the first of the leaves that wound their way upward to the main stem of the Great Ivy Way. They kept their eyes alert for any sign of giant mosquitoes, as this was the region in which they had met the last pulsing-eyed monstrosity. None were to be seen.

Upward they climbed until they were swaying in the air on the top of the wide green stem. This was the highest point on the tower they would achieve and so they decided to stop and have breakfast before embarking on the long trek down the Great Ivy. It was a beautiful view.

As it happened from that spot Storm Wizard and Juliette noticed that along the outer wall of the tower, not far below them, there was a kind of cave in which there sat a stone, probably about the actual size of a walnut, which at their current tiny-size was much larger than a house to the 'Steel Wool Sheeps'). The enormous cave appeared to be man made, as it had an arched opening lined by stones, and a level polished floor on which the stone sat. The stone itself appeared to be polished, and from where they were they could barely see that it had some sort of engraved spiral design etched onto the top of it. It looked similar to the stones that they had seen outside of Hamfest. It was all rather mystifying. Why would there be such an alcove with a stone in it on the outside of a tower so high above the ground? None of them could imagine why, and so, unable to get to the stone from where they were, they continued downward.

They passed a large leaf on the north side on which they could see a multitude of Aphids had gathered in concentric circles. They were dancing. It was explained to them that this was the Om Pansophia of the Aphids, a place of higher learning, and celebration. There were thousands of philosophers gathered together to discuss the nature of the universe, and dance in harmony to the Orphic Music of the Celestial Spheres.

Passing by this, in their hurry, they continued downward. On the south side they passed another leaf, on which they saw small brown clumps of dirt that formed a veritable city in the center of the swaying leaf.

“That is the city of the Tiny Ones”, mentioned Kintin in passing.

“The ‘Tiny Ones’?”, said Juliette incredulously.

“I believe you may call them ‘Mites’”, explained Tinkin. And sure enough scuttling all around the leaf were tiny insects no bigger than Juliette’s pinky finger, which meant that they were very very tiny insects indeed! They were brown armored plated little things with ant-like legs and short stubby antennae. There must have been millions of them swarming over the city, into and out of their tiny brown hovels. This was not a leaf that any of the travelers wished to visit, they decided, and agreed that it would be best to get to the bottom of the Great Ivy Way as soon as possible, and so they continued. Only Ben looked back, longing to learn more. Who knows what fantastic teachings the “Tiny Ones” might have? The others were content to continue on their way in the hopes that at the bottom they would indeed turn back to their normal size as old Biddy Mabel had promised. Then they could set about their very urgent business of convincing someone in town of their fabulous story, and the dire warning they bore. They did not know when the Locust Swarm might come across the Western Desert. They feared the worst.

Further down the wide green stem they came upon another leaf to the west side that had five huge lady bugs on it. They were each the size of a house compared to the Aphids they were riding, and so they made for a dreadful sight as they lifted the Aphids they had corralled onto the leaf high in the air with their black mandibles and devoured them while they squirmed and shrieked in mortal terror.

Such a common site among the Aphids was this that Tinkin and his brother Kintin only paused for a few moments to say a prayer, and then forged ahead, ever downward. Juliette and Morgana were horrified, Ben somber, Brian and Daniel amused, and Storm Wizard simply had his mind on other things at the time and barely any notice at all.

Eventually they came to a leaf upon which they found none other than the Locust Ambassador sitting in a lotus position, with his sword laid in its scabbard across his lap. In the swaying breeze only his antennae twitched occasionally as his copper armor and metallic skin glinted in the sun. Springing up suddenly the Locust Warrior leapt a huge distance onto an adjoining leaf on which a black ant was gathering Aphids for some assignment elsewhere on the vine. Landing directly on the Ants’ back, the Locust drove his sword clean through and killed the Soldier as suddenly as that. Then, with a curt bow to the Aphids, he leapt back to the leaf on which he’d been sitting and went directly back into his lotus position sanking swiftly into a deep red meditation. There was some debate as to what to do. Should they go down and challenge the creature? They decided against it. They moved on.

As they made their way from that leaf downward along the wide green stem a small battalion of black ants marched rapidly passed them en route to the leaf on which the Locust Ambassador was meditating. They marched in battle formation, and attempted to surround and attack the Locust. Before they could manage to surround it, however, it leapt into the air and landed on a distant leaf. The ants, who have poor vision, but great sense of smell, were baffled. They could not sense where the Locust Ambassador had leapt to. And so they scuttled around on the leaf in confusion. The ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ took note of this occurrence, but decided to continue downward as quickly as possible. They felt it would be too dangerous to get involved in an insect war. And they were probably right about that.

Further down the main stem the intrepid adventurers came upon a leaf that was entirely empty, but underneath it hung an oblong grey hive crawling with black wasps. They flew in and out of the openings on their myriad of missions.

One black wasp flew directly over head and began to hover over a nearby leaf on which a small gaggle of Aphids were farming plant-sap. Onto the back of one a black wasp descended, and with a quick jab stabbed it in the back, inserting a small black ball into it’s translucent body. The ball, Juliette could see, immediately began to wriggle, and out poked small pointy legs and a jagged snout.

“What in the name of the Holy Elkron is THAT?”, demanded Juliette horrified and incensed.

“That is a black wasp egg”, replied Tinkin matter-of-factly. “In a few hours the poor Aphid will suffer a harrowing death, being eaten alive from within. From his miserable carcass will emerge a new Wasp-Warrior of the Ladybug Imperium”, he concluded grimly.

Again the black wasp landed on another Aphid and did the same. And again. By the time it had planted its hideous seed into the fifth Aphid Juliette was already on her way, coaxing her terrified Aphid mount onto the leaf where the Aphids writhed in pain and terror. Leaping down from the saddle while the others combated the Wasp, she reached her hand into the still fresh hole in the Aphid’s back, and with a strong prayer to Minvar, she withdrew the small translucent green egg in which wriggled a very small black fiend with jagged legs wiggling and sharp teeth gnashing. Sensing the pure and fiendish malice in its tiny jet eyes, she crushed the egg in her two hands with a shudder, and moved onto the next Aphid.

In the end she was able to save three of the five Aphids. The other two had wasp pupae that were too close to important internal organs to remove safely. Nevertheless, Juliette tried her best, and by the time she was done the dark blood of five black wasp pupae splattered her cloths. Meanwhile Storm Wizard had neatly dispatched of the black wasp by means of a spell that rendered the creature senseless. It fell to the leaf with a light thud, and the aphids gathered around it and pushed the thing over the edge so that it fell far down to the forest floor below. With a few prayers and good byes the adventurer’s returned to the main stem and continued on their way.

Once back on the main stem, the party made quick progress the rest of the way down. It was well towards the end of the day by then, and as they approached the towering blades of grass at the base of the tower they began feel a strange sensation. Things around them began to seem smaller than they were, and then smaller still, until as they stepped off the backs of their Aphid mounts, they found themselves standing at their normal human sizes looking downward at Tinkin and Kintin, and Ben who remained on the back of his Aphid.

“I’ve decided to stay with the Aphids!”, he shouted upward as his compatriots began to grow.
“We will need a liaison among the Insects for when you make arrangements to help against the Locusts! And besides, there’s so much that we didn’t have time to learn – I prefer to stay behind at the Aphid Temple”, he concluded in a determined voice.

“Farewell”, said Storm Wizard without sentiment.

“Good bye”, said Juliette, “we will try to get in touch with you as soon as we can!”

“Good bye dear friend”, said Morgana, who had grown rather fond of Ben, as he had always lent a sympathetic word, or tried to find something interesting or humorous for her to take her mind off of her sorrows. Still, Mr. Montague weighed on her mind and memory.

Now that they had grown tall, they found themselves in the wide open segment of the tower between the inner circular wall and the outer circular wall. Above them was the open sky. And high above them was that strange little alcove in which they’d seen the polished stone.

“Well, I shall return momentarily”, said Storm Wizard as he moved his hands with strange gestures, and intoned a deep song, the words of which no one else could understand. Up into the air he rose, and then flying as if born to it, he directed his flight to the hole with the stone. Taking the stone was easy enough. It had a redish hue, and a small spiral design etched into it.

He then discerned the sounds of combat coming from over the edge of the tower’s parapet. Flying a bit higher up so he could peer over the edge of the parapet Storm Wizard saw the same red skinned man with the white hair they’d seen the day before. It reminded him that time flowed a bit differently in the tiny-world of the Insects. Was this the same battle they’d felt during the Council of the Aphid Princes’, or a new battle? How much time had passed since they entered the tiny-world? These were questions that would have to wait.

He flew a little bit higher up so as to see who it was that the Red Man was fighting, and to his great surprise, there against the wall crouched their lost guide Laraby! The two men launched at one another with the fury of raging bulls. They were fighting open handed, and with techniques that rivaled anything Storm Wizard had ever seen. Blows by both fists and feet came fast and furious from both men. Each blow expertly blocked by a leg, an arm, or an evasion. Laraby seemed to be just as expert as the Red Man at this kind of fighting, and the two of them dealt blows that would have floored a normal person. But for each blow there was a block and a counter blow. The battle raged until in one instant the Red Man gained the upper hand and dealt a truly devastating Dragon Fist to Laraby’s solar plexus. Down went the tall lanky fellow into a crumpled ball, gasping for breath. The Red Man stepped forward to level a final death blow. This was too much for Storm Wizard, and he landed on the edge of the parapet behind the Red Man, and with a quick chant and the flicker of his fingers a beam of stunning luminocity blazed toward him, but whatever effect it should have had, it had none at all. The fellow deflected the spell by dint of his own mystic shielding.

The Red Man turned backwards and backed himself against the doorway that lead into the tower.

“Hi”, said Storm Wizard.

The Red Man sprang forward with a Flying Dragon Stomp kick. Fortunately, Storm Wizard was wearing the triangular amulet that had been given to him by Isabella’s Guard. The ferocious kick missed it’s mark, and the Red Man went flying into a wall with a thud. Storm Wizard took the moment to cast his spell again, and this time it hit squarely into the Red Man’s chest and he collapsed into a heap there.

At that moment Laraby stood up with a groan. Looking around he took note of the situation, and spoke.

“Hi John. Am I glad to see you.”

“Hi Laraby. Fancy meeting you here. Anyway, we have about one minute before that man wakes up again.”

“I see”, said Laraby.

As they discussed wither or not to throw the Red Man over the edge, the downed fellow woke up again and stood up.

“Who are you!?” he demanded of Storm Wizard.

“I ask the questions here”, said Storm Wizard in tart reply.

“I don’t think so!” retorted the Red Man, and kicked Laraby again, knocking him to the ground. He then turned on Storm Wizard, who flew up and away out of range. The Red Man flashed out a knife and threw it at Storm Wizard’s throat. It missed by mere inches, and sailed past and over the edge of the outer tower.

Storm Wizard quickly flew down and grabbed Laraby who was gasping for breath, and held onto him as best he could, toppling them both over the edge of the tower. With all his strength of magic Storm Wizard was barely able maintain his flying power enough to keep them both from hurtling down to their deaths. Instead they landed with a crash, but both were no more injured than one might be after falling off a chair. They stood up. Laraby, still breathless, managed a garbled “Thank you”, as Juliette and Morgana attended to his injuries. They called upon the Elkron of the Earth, the Great Mother, Minvar, to heal the man. And this, by luck or grace, changed his countenance so that he then appeared after a few moments to be wholly healed.

Handing the strange engraved stone to Juliette, and turning to Laraby, Storm Wizard looked with a rather baffled eye upon the man he just rescued.

From above they then heard the Red Man his face contorted with rage, yelling down at them, cursing wildly, and then saw him vanish back from the edge of the tower and disappear.

“Laraby”, said Storm Wizard, “we didn’t expect to see you again. We haven’t much time to talk just now, and I should add that I don’t mind having rescued you… but please explain, briefly– Who was that man, and where did you disappear to when we entered this place?”

“Oh yes, well that. That man is Thurwulv, I believe. He is the leader of the Black Wulf Gang, and as far as I can tell, a skilled and cunning criminal. He seems to believe that I had something to do with the murder of one of his henchmen. A many by the name of Montague, I think”, he said rather perplexed.

“As for where I vanished to earlier… I’m very sorry about that. I can understand your frustration”, he replied adjusting his wire rimmed glasses, “but as you were heading up that stairway I noticed something very odd… a stone with a design engraved into it which I’ve noticed in various places around Glendale. It’s of such great significance to my research I had to investigate. I intended to be only a minute behind you, but by the time I went to see where you were, you folks had already vanished into the tower. I couldn’t find the way down to the tower entrance without entering the ruins… and I simply didn’t think that was quite such a good idea, given the dead wolf I found laying in front of that doorway. So I decided to try to find another way in. Then I saw your battle on the top of the parapet, the fall of that man to the tower’s base, and from that point forward I determined that no matter what I would find my way to you. By the time I made my way into the tower, and found the stairs leading to the parapet it had been some time, and when I got to the top, instead of finding you, I found our foe. He immediately attacked me, and we were engaged in that battle when you found me. For which I thank you very considerably. I do not know that I could have defeated him. His Kung Fu is very strong.”

Meanwhile, Juliette had been inspecting the stone with the spiral engraving. It felt very powerful. As she looked at it her vision began to change. She felt that the stone gave her a kind of deeper insight, and she noticed that she could see, or rather sense or feel, but not quite “see”, through things. Through the ground, and through the walls of the tower her senses seemed to stretch. Not terribly far, but quite distinctly. In fact, she could feel the Red Man heading down the spiral stairs inside the wall of the tower next to them.

“It is a Vision Stone”, she thought to herself. These were rare wonders which gave enhanced sight to those lucky enough to be able to unlock their secrets. Not much was known of them as they were ancient, and the majority of their secrets lost in the sands of time.

Previous Episode: The Encroaching Doom - Part 3
Next Episode: The River of Death