Dug Pifton had a lot of things for which he was very fortunate. He had a mother and a father who wanted what was best for him, even if he didn’t always understand that. He had a pleasant home, even if the carpets did smell funny and the roof leaked from time to time. He had friends, even though they weren’t always the best friends. And he had an apprenticeship at Skymoore’s Druid Circle, for which he knew he had to be very grateful even though he didn’t like it much.
There was one thing that Dug Pifton did not have. A sense of belonging, of direction, of being a part of something meaningful. Perhaps that was more than one thing. Either way, he did not have it.
He expected he’d find it at the Skymoore Druid Circle – the invisible, extradimensional compound where druids studied, worked, and communed. He’d always had a fondness for animals, especially the birds, who almost seemed to accept Dug as one of their own; so, when Nestor Pinkly arranged for him to study at the Druid Circle, Dug thought at last, my destiny has come.
Now he hoped that it had not.
The Circle was surrounded by a great wall of wood and foliage, which separated the campus from a seemingly infinite colorful forest beyond. It was impossible to actually leave the compound, however, as the gates that were built into the wall only lead back to Skymoore. It felt like a very beautiful prison, even though it was a not at all a prison, but Dug supposed all schools felt that way. And at least he got paid for his work here.
So why did he dislike it so?
Dug was pondering this one day, sitting atop the Lepher Building, where polymorphic studies and training took place, when he was taken out of his thoughts by an overeager elbow to the ribcage.
Fulor, Dug’s jaunty dwarven classmate, was gesticulating at something down below. A halfling girl who might’ve been about their age, with soft red hair and thick lips that were scrunched tightly as she poured over some book. She was wearing the deep blue robes of a senior apprentice, but they looked one size too big, offering a liberal view of her chest as she leaned over book. This, no doubt, was what had Fulor so excited.
“Isn’t she hot?” he said, too loudly.
Dug turned deep red. “S-she’s pretty,” he mumbled.
Fulor rolled his eyes and shook the shoulder of Leath, their laconic elven friend. Leath looked up from his milkshake (almond milk. It was against the rules to consume animal products within the Circle) to check out the person of interest. The elf grinned perversely.
“If I could just get some alone time with her…” Fulor grunted and made an obscene gesture. Dug just looked up at the wall. “I mean, damn, do you see those things?” Leath laughed and made a disgusting slurping noise. “Come on, Dug, what’s wrong?”
“Th-that’s….that’s disrespectful, is all. We don’t even know her.”
Fulor rolled his eyes dramatically. “What in the hells is wrong with you, Pifton? It’s just how guys talk.”
“Well…I-I don’t like the ways guys talk.”
Fulor snorted and stood up. “You’re such a poof, Pifton!”
“A foppish poof,” Leath agreed.
“This is why you’ll never get any,” Fulor said. “Girls like that talk. Nobody likes a fairy.”
Dug had a hard time imagining anyone liked that kind of talk, but he bowed his head in shame all the same. Fulor was right, after all – girls didn’t pay Dug Pifton much attention. Leath and Fulor left him alone there on the roof, making vulgar remarks all the way down.
Dug looked at the girl, who was very pretty, and felt sad.
After an afternoon working at the petting zoo, where Dug transformed into a variety of animals at the visitors’ requests – something which Dug found both humiliating and uniquely enjoyable – the druid-in-training set out to spend his remaining daylight with the birds who roosted in the abandoned boathouse on the edge of Skymoore.
The docks were empty this time of day. The traveling merchants had already gone back down to the surface since there were no inns in Skymoore, so there was little reason to visit the docks unless you wanted to visit Odd & Ends (which hardly anyone did), get something notarized, or buy a postcard. So Dug whistled a tune to himself, enjoying the peace and quiet, when the ground suddenly disappeared just before his feet.
Dug scrambled back in panic, and continued to do so as the edge of Skymoore crumble around him, sending abandoned food stalls and crates of goods tumbling toward the ground a mile below. He fumbled his way to a vacant home and opened the door only to be hit by a wall of bats that swarmed out the building.
The bats blinked out of existence once they’d pushed him back out to the street. Dug tried the next house, and the door opened with ease; he ran inside and closed the door behind him, because Aftermaj rarely affects interiors. At least, that was the plan. But as soon as Dug stepped into the home, he found it was no longer a home at all, but a door suspended high in the air above nothing. Dug Pifton fell. And screamed.
Below him was…Skymoore? Goldsoil Farms, so far as he could tell, though the proportions looked off. It was too large from too far away. But he didn’t really have the mental power to process confusion, as his faculties were mostly overtaken with the sensation of biting, cutting cold. And screaming.
He flailed hopelessly as he plummeted, his apprentice robes flapping in the air and twisting him about, but doing nothing to slow his lethal descent. Something entered his view – a black cloud emanating from Skymoore, hurtling towards him.
Only it wasn’t a cloud. He couldn’t hear the flapping of wings over the roar of the wind, but soon enough he could make out the shapes of individual ravens flying toward him. As they drew nearer, it became apparent that these were larger than regular birds. Much larger. As the flock moved elegantly as one massive whole, piloting themselves directly over Dug, a passing talon grabbed him by the back of the robe.
The whiplash knocked him unconscious.
When he awoke, Dug was in sheer blackness. Then, something moved, and he found himself in sheer, sharp whiteness.
He was in a nest. It was made of branches, of stems, and of straw. If he had to guess, Dug would have supposed the nest was as large as his home.
The nest was in a cave of sorts. The walls were made of dirt. There was a hole in the ceiling, through which the cave received light.
In the nest were four ravens. Two of them were babies, a little smaller than he. One of them was about his size. One of them was over twenty feet tall, with eyes as big as Dug’s head. It was terrifying. Dug closed his eyes quickly.
“He still out?” one of the ravens asked.
One of the ravens…asked? Dug talked to birds all the time. They didn’t make a habit of talking back.
“Seems so,” another replied. “Why’s he so tiny?”
A speck of dust floated gently down the cavern.
“I grow impatient,” another said. Presumably the largest one, judging from the depth of its voice. “I can appreciate wanting to play with your food, and yet…I hunger.”
It was accompanied by many other specks, trailing just behind it.
“So think about something else,” the first raven suggested. “Like the Rhombihexahedron.”
The first speck of dust landed just beneath Dug’s nose. Quickly joined by another. And another.
“It’s almost complete,” Huge Raven said. “It shouldn’t be long at all now. His kind will pay for their indiscretions. Their cruelty.”
Dug resisted the sneeze, but not for long. All eyes were on him as he rolled to his feet, and the middle-sized bird, which was as large as Dug, charged him with wings flapping and talons flailing. Dug ducked out of the way of a scratch and a peck.
He searched for something to defend himself with, and he found it: a spark of life remaining in a twisted stem in the nest. He latched onto that spark, and willed it to grow, revitalizing the stem and extending it rapidly, until it constricted the bird like a snake.
“Stand down!” Dug said, “or I’ll do the same to the rest of you.”
Huge Raven laughed – yes, laughed – a sinister laugh. “You think someone so tiny could bind me?”
In truth, Dug did not, for there was no more life in the nest. And when he said “yes, I do,” he said it with as little conviction as he felt. His voice squeaked. Huge Raven laughed again.
Poof. Poof poof poofity poof.
Before Huge Raven could speak again, there were several succinct explosions from the top of the cave, which flooded the space with a white smoke. The massive bird began flapping its wings wildly and squawking, sending the smoke swirling about them. A blue rope was lowered from the hole in the ceiling until it was at Dug’s level.
He grabbed onto it as tightly as he could, and was thrashed around by Huge Raven’s flapping. Fortunately the rope was pulled back up, so he didn’t have to worry about making the lengthy climb. Huge Raven made a few snaps at him, but Dug’s rescuers set off more smoke bombs.
When he reached the top, Dug was a little alarmed by his supposed saviors. Mostly because they were giants. One, wearing a trench coat and glasses, stood much taller than the other, a plump, bespectacled woman, but they both stood much, much taller than Dug. The woman was holding a giant spool; the source of the rope.
“Th-thanks for saving me,” Dug said.
“Can’t hear you,” the woman bellowed. “Is it okay if I pick you up?” Dug nodded uncertainly.
The woman had a mole just beside her nose that was almost the size of one of Dug’s hands. Her eyes were as large as his head. “Why are you so little?” she asked.
Why is everything so big? He stayed quiet.
“I’m Orla,” Orla said. “This is Knot.”
Dug looked around from atop Orla’s palm, to find he was on top of a mountain. Or…was he? It was a very grassy mountain and – wait, Sustenance Manor? Was he in Goldsoil Farms?
“I…” his voice got quiet “…shrunk. Shrank? I’m small.”
“Well yeah,” Orla said. “But why?”
“After- aftermaj,” Dug guessed. That stuff was only temporary, right? “Why did you save me?”
“We’re ornithologists,” Orla whispered. “We track the movements of birds. Study their habits. Learn their secrets. Some of the birds – all different types – have started making underground nests like this in town, connected by a series of tunnels. We’re not sure why, but we were looking into it when we saw you. Can’t say we find many hostages.”
“They were saying something about…”
“The birds were talking?”
Dug nodded. “S-something about…Rhomo…hydra. Rhombex….”
“But they were talking? What language? Common? Eldritch? Druidic?”
“Human, I think. Maybe common. I just…understood.”
“Knot, this kid could be the secret to understanding what’s going on. If he’s not crazy. You okay with taking him in?”
The taller man nodded.
“Kid, you’re going to save Skymoore. But first, let’s see what we can do about un-shrinking you.”
“O-okay,” Dug said, feeling, as he often did, like he didn’t have much choice in the matter.