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.

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