Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Homeward Bound – Part 1

Everyone was alive, some just barely, and two, Brian and Ferdinando, were deliriously poisoned by spider venom. The ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ looked below them as they sailed away from the battle on the legs of the ladybug that Lady Isabella had summoned to their aid. Far below them the Insect War raged on. The flashing black and blue striped Wasps of the Tiger Moon Squadron were annihilating Mosquitoes of the Crimson Heart one after another in a series of high speed blitzes, piercing their opponents before they had a chance to apply their hypnotic mind-grip on their fierce adversaries. Meanwhile the Ant Army converged from all sides on Rohar the Silver Locust Prince. Fiercely the battle raged on, and Ants could be seen hurled through the air in every direction by Rohar's vehement defense; limbs, antennae, heads and thoraxes scattered the ground around the Silver Warrior. As the ladybug flew beyond the brambles and grass blades, the stalwart Prince was last seen vanishing under a seething mound of black and red Ant Warriors, blood running from a thousand wounds.

Isabella looked relieved as they flew away from the battle as fast as possible. Her arms were around Ferdinando, but her eyes were upon Storm Wizard, who took no notice of her, but instead watched the battle rage below with great interest.

“We must get Emmanuel back to human civilization as quickly as possible,” he shouted to Juliette over the roar of the winds gusting around them.

“Perhaps we can get through the pathways of the Plant Kingdom again,” rejoined Juliette hopefully.

“Well, I for one wish to return to normal size! I tire of being assaulted by spiders, mosquitoes and mites!” shouted Storm Wizard. Everyone was in hearty agreement with that. But it was possible, said Juliette, that they might make faster time back home at their current size if that would help them to speed through the mysterious flickering green fire of the Plant Kingdom's 'Roots and Leaves Pathway', as Isabella called it.

“Besides,” she shouted, “I wonder what Emmanuel would look like to us if we were at full size? I wonder if we would be able to see his tiny face and human features, or if he would look to us like a normal locust.”

“Well, I’m kind of thinking that he’s going to grow large along with us,” pointed out Storm Wizard, clinging to the shiny black spines of the ladybug leg as they flew high over the gigantic grass blades. Looking down to the ground far below gave poor Brian a dreadful fright, and he heaved up what was left of his breakfast as the discussion went on, to Morgana's sudden displeasure, as she was holding him.

“Poor Brian,” said Daniel to Morgana, who nodded in agreement with a frown.

“But it would be so much easier if we could put him in a glass jar first!” insisted Juliette. “After all, it would suffice, I think, to bring him back to the Manors to show the Aristocrats a Locust Man, even if he were small. And besides, he’ll be a lot easier to control than at human size. I’m sure he will definitely be itching to kill us all if he can get himself loose, and it would be better if he were tiny if that should happen,” shouted Juliette, her long silky brown hair flying about her head.

“Yes, but remember, we’re asking the townsmen to help us fight off the threat of the Locust Plague, and it would be a lot more convincing to see him as a huge terrifying monster than a tiny locust man in a glass jar bound up in spider silk, don’t you think?” retorted Storm Wizard.

“Uhuh,” conceded Juliette with a nod.

“I agree with Storm Wizard," yelled Ben from another leg. "The towns people are much more likely to help us, the more threatening Emmanuel appears to them, I should think.”

Meanwhile, Emmanuel, bound in ropes and spider silk, struggled vehemently to escape his bonds. He would have, they were sure, belted out a huge, mind-crushing Thunder-Roar, had his mouth not also been bound tight and stuffed with webbing. The thought of that happening at their current height gave Juliette pause. She eyed the savage warrior with dismay, and wondered if he would indeed break his bonds.

As the discussion concluded they found that Isabella was directing the ladybug to land beneath a huge old Black Walnut tree in the middle of a grassy glade. In between several gigantic roots there was an open patch of ground surrounded by moss, in the center of which there was buried in the dirt a half of a black walnut shell, the open side facing them. It formed a shaded round dome into which they could all quite easily fit, as compared to them at their tiny size it was rather a large edifice.

“This is one of the entranceways into the Plant Kingdom,” said Isabella. “Through this portal we can safely flit along the ‘Roots and Leaves Pathway’ and return to your village very quickly. There is an exit portal that is not far from the town of Hamfest, near to where Old Biddy Mabel lives.”

They agreed that this was the best plan, and so decided to take the pathway before growing to their normal size. As they walked toward the walnut shell they had every intension of returning home as soon as possible. This, however, was not to be. A thunderous voice rang out from the green shaded sward behind them from somewhere among the looming grass blades.

“Halt!” thundered the voice. Turning around Storm Wizard saw that the booming voice emanated from a sturdy looking Black Ant Warrior, his black armor crested with the insignia of the Legion of the Black Ant Army. He held a large and gleaming black sword in his right hand.

“You there! Stop where you are!” he shouted.

They stopped.

“What seems to be the trouble, officer?” asked Storm Wizard of the stern looking Ant Man.

“That man,” he said pointing to the Emmanuel, who was bound quite handily in ropes and spider webs, and being carried along on a pole by Laraby and Daniel, “is under arrest.”

“Yes, that’s why we tied him up,” replied Storm Wizard.

“Yes, well, we’ll take over from here. Thank you,” said the Ant Man.

Juliette and Storm Wizard both stammered, and Storm Wizard managed to blurt out, “But he’s a material witness!”

“We know, that’s why we’re taking him to the Insect King,” replied the Ant Man without hesitation.

“We’re taking him as a witness to a different trial,” retorted Storm Wizard, who was growing increasingly impatient.

“Well, that may be true,’ said the Ant Man, “however it is not germane.”

“Sure it is. We need him,” said Juliette. “We need him, however, can have him back when we’re finished with him," she offered.

“You can even come with us, if you like,” added Storm Wizard hopefully. “So you can make sure he doesn’t escape, or we don’t escape with him, or whatever else it is you're worried might happen.”

“My orders are to bring him back immediately,” said the Ant Man curtly.

There was a long silence.

“But we need him,” protested Juliette. “See you later,” she said then, and with a certain primness to her sudden pivoting on her heels, began to walk toward the Walnut.

“How difficult would it be for us to hop into the walnut and get away?” whispered Storm Wizard to Lady Isabella while grabbing Juliette's arm by the elbo.

“Not very,” reported Lady Isabella. “However it doesn’t mean he couldn’t follow us, though,” she added thoughtfully. The Ant men, she knew from long experience, were dogged and tireless, and believed very whole heartedly in the concept of the “long arm of the law”.

“Yes, but ... we could then get big ... and ... “ whispered Storm Wizard thinking aloud.

“Yes, that’s true. But remember, you have seen me big as well,” reminded Lady Isabella.

“The question is, can *he* grow big?” whispered Storm Wizard.

“Well, any of the Nobles among the Insect Kingdom can grow big, if they have that power,” whispered Lady Isabella while watching the Ant Man out of the corner of her eye. He for his part was standing a bit of a ways off still, waiting to hear what the adventurers would decide. His own reaction would depend entire upon their decision. And so he waited patiently.

“And... he’s a Noble among the Ants?” whispered Juliette, having not yet fully understood the nature of the Insect Kingdom.

“Indeed. Only the Nobles can take a humanoid form and speak your language,” whispered Isabella in reply. They all considered the implications of this statement, and turned to look at the writhing Emmanuel who was still struggling mightily to escape. The idea of a human sized Red Locust Ambassador gave them all pause.

Juliette, frustrated and dismayed, was very tempted at that time to leap into the walnut and be gone. She very much wished to get home, and to be rid of the complications that were keeping her from doing so. However, Storm Wizard was still contemplating the ramifications of all that had been said.

“It wouldn’t do us very much good to get the Red Locust Ambassador back to the townsfolk if in the process we lose the alliance with the Ant men, would it? After all, the entire plan relies on our cooperation with the Ant Men,” he whispered to Juliette who he sensed was on the verge of leaping into the walnut.

“Oh... well, ... yes, that’s a good point, I suppose,” she conceded unhappily.

“Are you familiar with the details of the King’s Plan?” asked Storm Wizard of the Ant Man.

“No, I’m not,” the Ant Man replied, still at a distance.

“Part of the King’s plan is that the Locust Ambassador comes with us,” said Juliette.

“You seem like decent people,” replied the Ant Man, “but I have my orders.”

“We only need him for a short while,” said Juliette.

“I’m sure that the King may be willing to release him into your custody afterwards, but my orders are very specific. I must return with him immediately, and without delay,” replied the Ant Man, himself beginning to lose patience.

“Ok, fine. But we’re coming with you.”

“That’s fine,” said the Ant Man. He whistled, and a battalion of Army Ants came out from behind the grass blades. The ants had been all around them hidden in the foliage.

And so the Ants returned Emmanuel, bound in ropes and spider silk, to the Temple of the Aphids high up on Black Hill Tower, and the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ returned there with them. The King, as it happened, was not present, however his representative was there in his stead. He was a tall handsome man with two antennae, wide smooth dark insect eyes, and a glowing green chest plate. He also had long narrow wings. Juliette and Storm Wizard surmised that he must have been a Noble of the Firefly people. As the participants of the council met and began to discuss the matters at hand, Brian and Ferdinando were taken to the infirmary and given treatments that soon would heal their wounds and cure them of the poisonous delirium.

The old Wise One of the Aphids presided over the council in the Great Hall, deep at the center of the Aphid Temple. It seemed to Juliette that he looked rather weepy and unhappy, and she commented on this to Storm Wizard. The young man spoke up an asked, “Why are you so weepy and unhappy, wise old Aphid?”

“We have been disgraced,” said the Old Holy Aphid, “by the way the matter of the Locust Ambassador was handled. Attacking him in the Temple... it was a disgraceful bit of treachery after all, whatever the cause. He was quite right about that. One doesn't treat an Ambassador this way for any reason. There are protocols that must be upheld or all of civilization will crumble. And so, I am sorry for that, because I was too weak willed to prevent it. I have disgraced our people by my poor conduct.” And all the little aphids round about the hall gave out a little cries of shame, and shuffled their feet, and looked rather miserable.

“You weren’t the one being treacherous,” said Storm Wizard. “We were.”

“I do not wish to burden you with our sorrows,” replied the Wise Old Aphid, “and you should think nothing of it. The sorrows of the aphid people are many, and they should not be heaved upon others to bear. If we appear unhappy to you, please forgive us, and let it not trouble your hearts. You did what was best for you and your kind, and for that no one should blame you.”

Juliette bowed to the old wise aphid, and so did the other members of the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’. Seeing the old wise aphid so sad reminded her that ever since they’d left the spider cave it seemed that Morgana was also quite a bit sadder than usual, even for her. The fact suddenly came to her full attention, and so Juliette, as an aside, asked Morgana quietly what was the matter.

“I just can’t understand why we had to leave Mr. Montague behind in the spider cave,” she said tearfully.

“What?!” exclaimed Julittet a little too loud for that august and somber company. She went back to whispering. “What do you mean?”

“But the wedding was so beautiful,” Morgana continued, half to herself, as if still in a dream.

“The … wedding?!” exclaimed Juliette a little too loud once again. She went back to whispering again. “What wedding?! What do you mean! You don’t mean ... you married Mr. Montague in the spider cave, do you?!”

“Yes I did. And it was the most beautiful wedding I could ever imagine,” she replied and then burst out into tears. Juliette, perplexed beyond belief, held Morgana and let her cry quietly on her shoulder.

Meanwhile, Storm Wizard was negotiating with the Firefly Prince.

“So, Sir, I am lead to understand that you are the King’s representative in this matter. I believe therefore that you must be familiar with the King’s plan regarding the Mountain of Zim and the Great Wall of Fire, is that right?”, he asked.

“Indeed, I am familiar with your plan, yes,” replied the Statesman.

“Well, it seems to me, that the Insects can not execute this plan alone. You will need we humans to carry the lumber to that place in sufficient time for the plan to work, do you not agree?”

Suddenly there was a commotion. Into the wide echoing hall of stone was carried Rohar, the Silver Locust Prince, bound and trussed onto a pole by the Ant Men, and placed on a beam directly across from his brother, the Red Locust Ambassador. Both of them writhed with enormous efforts to break their bonds. The wooden beams shook and bent under the strain. Juliette tried to void eye contact with Rohar. He was absolutely glowering.

“How dare you leave me in the middle of battle against my enemies! I was helping you, and this is how you repay my loyalty! Emmanual was right – you are betrayers!”

“You were helping us to escape,” said Storm Wizard.

“Indeed I was!” spat Rohar.

“Well, we escaped! So ... thanks!” said Storm Wizard. Rohar gazed at him in such a way as one might have thought the rocks in the hall would soon melt under such a withering glare. Storm Wizard smiled in the hopes that Rohar would see it his way, somehow, but it was not meant to be.

“It is no matter,” said the Firefly Magistrate. “Take them away to the dungeon.” And without further ado the Ants hauled the writhing Princes of the Locust people out of the Great Hall.

“As I was saying,” said Storm Wizard, “you need the help of the humans to haul the lumber needed for the Great Wall of Fire to the mountain of Zim..."

“We do not need the help of the humans!” interrupted one of the Ant Warriors, clanging his armor with his mailed fist. “We have never needed the help of the humans. We have been here much longer than you have, and we have our own ways of dealing with the matters within our own Kingdom! You may rest assured about that!” he concluded, to the general applause of the Ant Men who had crowded into the Hall.

“Oh, I see. So have you suddenly gained the power to cut down a gigantic trees of the forest and carry them far off to Mount Zim in time to ignite it before the arrival of Locust’s Grand United Army?” asked Juliette incredulously. “I was unaware that ants could perform this feat.”

Storm Wizard added mockingly that such a thing was impossible for the insects, but easily done by the humans.

“Please, good people. There is no need to argue,” spoke the Firefly Magistrate, his chest glowing a brighter green than before. “We do not need the humans to cut down the trees of the Black Forest. We have another way of dealing with the threat of the Grand United Army, and it does not require your assistance any further. You see, you have already performed all of the tasks necessary to eliminate the threat.”

The ‘Steel Wool Sheeps” stood dumfounded in silence. The Firefly Magistrate went on, more calmly now.

“You see, now that we have imprisoned Rohar and Emmanuel, the Locusts have lost any hope of uniting under the flag of the Locust’s Grand United Army. They will descend into chaos as soon as they enter the desert, and they shall devour themselves in a billion petty squabbles for power and sovereignty without their Noble Princes to unite and lead them. The Locusts shall be destroyed by their own insatiable hunger and lust for power. And so it shall be, my friends, as the King has foreseen it.”

“But are Rohar and Emanuel the only Nobles among the Locusts who can lead them?”

“No, they are not,” replied the Magistrate, “however, we believe they are the only two of that particular horde, and so it will not go well for them, and the horde will devour itself as soon as it rises into the air.”

“And here we were dismissing the assassination plan,” said Storm Wizard with an note of irony.

“Well, no, the assassination plan would not have worked,” replied the Old Wise Aphid breaking his reverie. “You see, at that time we did not know of Rohar, nor have him in our custody. Had Emmanuel been slain Rohar would have returned across the desert and lead the Locusts here with a terrible vengeance. I fear that nothing at all would have survived in the entire region had that happened.”

The ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ again stood dumfounded in silence.

“And so,” the Magistrate went on, “you have been instrumental, to no small degree, in helping us to capture the two Princes of the Locust people, and for that the King wishes to express his gratitude.” The Ant Men all bowed toward the humans as well, for their own livelihoods and property, and very lives, had been saved by the efforts of the 'Steel Wool Sheeps'.

The Firefly Magistrate's keen eyes then alighted upon the sword that Laraby was carrying at his side in the black lacquered scabbard.

“That sword,” said he, “where did you get it?”

Laraby looked at the sword, and then the Magistrate, and then the sword, not sure what he should say. Storm Wizard spoke up and announced, “I gave it to him.” And Laraby agreed, and said “He gave it to me.”

“And were did *you* get it?” asked the Magistrate with a grave tone in his voice.

“From a worthy advesary,” replied Storm Wizard confidently.

“It has the markings of the Locust Princes upon it. Are you aware of that?” asked the Magistrate.

“I am now,” replied Storm Wizard. “Do you have need of it for some reason?”

“Well it is part of the Regalia of the Lords of the Locusts. I do not have a need for it specifically, no... and given the facts as they stand and the great service you have rendered so recently, I’m inclined to ask no further questions about it.”

“Ok then,” replied Storm Wizard with a smile toward Laraby, who then unclenched his grip on the hilt of the Noble weapon, and relaxed with a twinkling of joy in his eyes. It was, after all, by far the best sword he’d ever had the privileged to bear.

“Did you obtain anything else, by chance from the Locusts?”

“Not that I can think of,” replied Storm Wizard searching hard through his memory. “Well there was the curious copper armor of the Red Ambassador, which we could not figure out how to remove.”

“No, that’s not what we’re interested in. You didn’t happen to obtain any parchments from either of them?”

“No, we did not,” said Storm Wizard.

“Guards, go to the dungeon and search the prisoners. I want them picked clean. We must have those parchments!” said the Magistrate, and with that two guards bowed and left the Hall.

“The King wishes to reward you for your services,” said the Firefly Magistrate to the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’. A deep and wide chest made of bright green jade carved with flowers and intricate spiral designs was brought forward and placed on the table before them, and two Ant Men opened the lid of the chest.

“We understand that you value this sort of thing,” said the Magistrate.

Inside the chest were silvery grains.

“What are these?”

“Seeds,” said the Magistrate. “Very good seeds. The Holy One of the Aphids has recommended them for you. They are called Seeds of the Silver Moon.”

“Better than the black seeds that the witch gave us from the dragon chest?”

“Black seeds from the dragon chest?” repeated the Magistrate. He looked at the Holy One of the Aphids pensively, and the Old Holy One gave him a slight nod.

“You may find these seeds more useful than you think,” said the Magistrate finally.

“Indeed,” said Juliette, “that reminds me. We still have yet to find out what the fruit of the black seeds will turn out to be. I am particularly eager to discover it.”

And so their minds all turned once again toward home. It felt like many years now since they’d been away from their family and friends, and it felt like they had gone terribly far away in all that long time. The longing for home suddenly welled up in Juliette’s heart, and with that Ember, her magical little kitten, who was still nestled away within the folds of her cloak, woke up and began to purr quietly on her breast.

And with that, the Magistrate said that he must be off to report to the King, and with a bow, exited the Great Hall with his retainers, and was gone.

“Well, old Wise Aphid, do you think their plan regarding the Locusts will actually work after all?” asked Storm Wizard.

“It would be a great shame if it does not,” he replied soberly. “A great shame indeed.”

Previous Episode: Insect War - Part 3
Interlude: The Terrible Alter
Next Episode: Homeward Bound - Part 2

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