Eleanor Pifton, Dug’s mother, was the owner of Taffy Toffee Tungsten, Skymoore’s only combination candy shop/rare metal emporium. Seawater taffy had been a staple of the town back when it was on the surface, and it remained popular among traveling merchants to this day.
The morning of Dug’s aftermaj incident, he had been at home stretching toffee – first via the crank-powered stretching machine, then by hand, to get shape and consistency just right. Now, in the workroom of Nestor Pinkly’s tiny home, it was Dug Pifton being stretched– first by the hands of Dovetail, Nestor’s automaton assistant, then by a machine powered by the gnome bouncing on a mini-trampoline – until he regained his original size and shape.
“Huzzah!” Nestor said when the work was complete. “How do you feel?”
Dug felt dizzy, sore, sick, confused, damp (from some kind of potion Dovetail had dipped him in to facilitate the stretching), sticky (from a jar of syrup Dovetail had dipped him in after misunderstanding directions), and wobbly. “F-fine,” he said.
“Great!” Nestor replied. “You look more than fine!”
“You look two-derful,” said Dovetail, who thought that “wonderful” was “one-derful” and that a “derful” was some kind of measurement of physical fitness.
“Okay,” Dug said.
Out in the gnome’s small kitchen, Orla and Knot sat at the dinner table. Orla (who was a halfling, Dug realized now that he was grown) was finishing a glass of chocolate milk. Knot was finishing his fourth. Slurping sounds could be heard from within his trench coat, from which he produced a fifth glass. His stomach burped.
“Thank you for your help, Mr. Pinkly,” Orla said. “I know you haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with the Ornithologists, but-”
“And I still don’t,” Nestor reminded her, crossing his arms. “I think that birds should be allowed their privacy. But Dug here is a friend of mine, and Nestor Pinkly always helps his friends.”
“Thanks again,” Dug mumbled.
“Please hear me out,” Orla insisted. “My name is Orla Silverspit, and my laconic companion is Knot Threenomes. We have reason to believe that Skymoore is in danger, and in order to save it we will need someone with your expertise, someone with our expertise, and,” she pointed to Dug, “someone with his.”
“What about my Esther teeth?” Dovetail asked, their speech fraying at the ends.
“My expertise?” Dovetail asked. “Do you need my expertise?”
“I…maybe, I don’t know. What is your expertise?”
“I can listen to orders very well! Well, not very well. But I can stretch people out and speak fourteen languages and sit on pots and pans.”
“We’ll see,” Orla said. “Well, Nestor?”
The gnome nodded. “Anything for Skymoore.”
“I’d hoped you’ say that. We need your brain.” Nestor clutched his head defensively. “ Not like that. Dug overheard the birds talking about something. Some kind of artifact, it sounded like.”
“The, uh. The Rondohedron. The R-Rodeoplex. Rhombihex…”
“The Rhombihexahedron!” Nestor cried. “Was that it?” Dug nodded. The gnome stroked his beard. “This is very bad. Very, very bad. Very, very, very bad even. Possibly even very-”
“Four or more bads, got it,” Orla said. “What is it?”
“It’s an artifact shaped like a rhombihexahedron.”
Dovetail chimed in. “A rhombihexahedron is a nonconvex uniform polyhedron, which means its faces are shaped like stars. The shape that some call stars, I mean, not an incandescent plasma sphere.”
“Right! But it’s not just any Rhombihexahedron. It allows the holder to see the world three-dimensionally, and to project a field which allows others to do the same. Theoretically, it could project a field large enough to envelop the whole city.”
Dug’s head started to hurt. “Which means?”
Nestor took a deep breath. “We’re three-dimensional beings, and we experience a three-dimensional world, but we see in only two dimensions, so we typically only see one side of an object at any given time. A fourth-dimensional being could see three-dimensionally, meaning they would see all sides of an object at once. They could see every object in this kitchen even if it was obscured by another object, and they could even see inside of hollow objects, all without moving.”
“Okay,” Dug said. “Why is that bad?”
“Well because we are not fourth-dimensional beings, our brains would overheat and we would die.”
“Okay,” Dug said, suddenly feeling very faint. “Why would birds want that?”
“Birds are fourth-dimensional beings,” Orla stated matter-of-factly. “And they hate humans.”
“Perhaps because we won’t leave them alone,” Nestor suggested.
“They don’t hate me,” Dug said.
Orla gave him a strange look. “They tried to kill you today.”
“Yeah…” he said. “But they didn’t seem all that hateful about it.”
She rolled her eyes. “Is there anything else you can tell us?”
Nestor hummed pensively. Dug racked his brain. “They said…it was almost ready. It was incomplete.”
“Ah, that’s right,” Nestor said. “The Rhombihexahedron is made of many smaller pieces, each of which is useless on their own.”
Orla and Knot exchanged a glance. Knot nodded wisely. “Alright then, we have something to go on,” the halfling said. “Thank you for help, Nestor.”
“You don’t need any further assistance?” Dovetail asked.
Orla shook her head. “We’ve got it from here. Come on, Dug. We still need our translator.”
“O-okay,” Dug said. “Th-thank you, Nestor.”
“Anytime, Dug! I hope the apprenticeship is going well!”
Dug forced a frown into a smile, and nodded.
For the next few hours, Dug sat on a bench down the street from the Sun Stage. Here, it was common for performers of all kind to practice their talents, in hopes of earning tips or, ideally, the attention of a patron or producer of one of the theater’s many shows.
Across from the bench, Orla Silverspit juggled. She was quite good at it. She could juggle standing on one leg, she could juggle with one hand behind her back, and she could do this neat trick where she spun around and caught all the balls without looking. Dug had tried juggling once and, like most things, he wasn’t very good at it, so he got embarrassed and gave up. Orla had once been not very good, and she had once, twice, thrice embarrassed herself. But she did not give up.
Between performances, Orla spoke to Dug.
“So kid. You learn how to talk to birds at druid school?”
Dug shook his head. “We mostly learn to manipulate natural forces and suppress arcane magic. Talking to animals is…well it’s very difficult. I can do some magic, mostly with plants. And I can change into some animals. I’m very advanced for my level, apparently. But I’ve never spoken to an animal before.”
“I wish I could talk to birds,” Orla said. “I get tired of talking to people sometimes.”
Dug smiled. “Yeah. Me too.”
“How long have you been an ornithologist?” Dug asked after another act.
“That’s classified,” she said. “But it’s been some time.”
“So, what do you guys…do?”
“We watch birds. Sometimes we interpret their songs, which often carry the secrets of criminal organizations, and sell that information to the city guard. Sometimes we notice a change in their patterns, and we discover that they are up to no good, as they are now. But mostly, we just watch birds, and learn their ways.”
“Could I join?” Dug asked. “I haven’t really liked druids so far. My only real job prospects are animal translating, gardening, and magic suppression.”
“Maybe,” Orla said, and went back to juggling.
A distinctly unnoteworthy individual bumped into Orla, knocking her down and sending her balls flying every which way. The person didn’t even apologize. He or she simply hurried on his or her way to the Sun Stage without turning to help.
When Dug asked Orla if she was okay, she buried her face and fled from the crowd that had gathered. After running a significant distance, the halfling turned to Dug and grinned. “Got what we came for,” she said, removing her now-broken glasses.
“We came for something?”
“You thought we were just hanging out there for fun? That guy had a message…it’s an ornithologist thing, you wouldn’t understand.”
“But I want to!” Dug said. “You guys seem interesting.”
Shortly thereafter, the two met up with Knot, who gave Orla a new pair of glasses. He handed Orla a thin slip of paper, which she studied thoroughly.
“We think we’ve got a location on a piece of the artifact,” Orla said. “A bird was seen carrying something of its description to the Artic Aviary. This is where you come in, Dug.”
“Right,” Dug said. “Wh-why do I come in, again?”
“Because you can talk to them. You’re our diplomat.”
The Arctic Aviary was one of five large enclosures that had long ago been crafted by wizards and druids for the purpose of housing messenger birds. Four diamond pillars made up the frame, each of them sloping at the top and meeting the others to form a rectangular base and dome roof. These diamonds served as conduit for magic, which formed a translucent barrier the color of sky. Birds were allowed to pass in and out of the barrier only with the permission of a Birdkeeper, but humans could come and go as they pleased during visiting hours.
In accordance with its name, the aviary’s interior was all hills and snow, garnished with thin trees sparsely coated in orange leaves. Dug brought a parka from home, but the frigid air still took some getting used to.
A bird perched on the first tree Dug came across. It was a Puffy Pescarin Pecpeck, a fluffy white-and-blue bird that originated in the surface’s Frostlands. It tilted its head and eyed Dug curiously.
“Uh, h-hello,” Dug managed between chattering teeth. He felt rather foolish. And cold. Mostly cold.
The bird said nothing, only tilted its head in the other direction. Had Dug imagined the conversation earlier? Was it a trick of the aftermaj? Did all birds speak the same language?
“C-can y-you understand m-m-m.”
The bird said nothing. It flapped its way to another branch, and continued to look at Dug. Flecks of snow began to fall upon his face. “No,” he said. “Of course you can’t. Because you’re a bird. And I’m a human with an overactive imagination and no talent and no friends, so why would you want to talk to me? I haven’t even brought any bread to share, so I’m of no use to you. I’m of no use to the ornithologists, either. Or to Nestor. Or to Skymoore. And I’m here, cold, talking to a bird who can’t understand me, making a fool of myself as always. Maybe all I’ll ever be is a fool, a fool who gets pet at a petting zoo and-”
“Sorry to interrupt,” another Puffy Pescarin Pecpeck said as it landed on the first branch, “but I feel as though you’re being a bit hard on yourself.”
“You can understand me?”
“Of course I can understand you. All birds understand everyone. We’re just choosey about who we respond to.”
“So that’s why this one’s not responding?”
“Oh no,” the PPP said, “Tik’s just mute. And an idiot.”
“Oh. So why me?” Dug asked.
“Hard to say,” the PPP said. “Just feels right I ‘spose. Anyway, boss wants to talk to ya before anyone else does. Oh. I guess that means I’m not ‘sposed to be talkin’ to ya now, but I didn’t know how to get your attention. Promise not to tell him?”
“Okay,” Dug said.
Further into the aviary, a varied flock was assembled around a large nest of white and grey twigs on the floor. They all looked with reverence to the center of the nest, where an old and wizened bird (Dug assumed) sat on a very large egg. They had a scar across one of their eyes, which was closed.
“Hail and well met, my dude,” the bird said. “A thousand blessings upon you, and may you be welcome within our prison. So like. What’s the haps?”
“Well, my name is Dug Pifton,” Dug Pifton said, “and I was wondering, well, first of all, what is your name, mister…or miss…?”
The bird tilted its head. “I am called neither Mister nor Miss.”
“No, but like, are you a boy or a girl?”
The bird tilted its head.
Dug took a deep breath and did his best to explain the concepts of sex and gender, and how his people had a tendency to ascribe certain notions unto people based on certain physical traits. The bird seemed to get it. “Well we have egg-havers and egg-givers,” the bird said. “and we have families and we have clans and we have bros. But mostly, we’re just birds, chickadee. I am called Kwit.”
Dug was impressed; maybe there was a reason he liked birds so much.
“There is only one clear division amongst our kind,” Kwit went on. “There are those foul fowls who eat the phowelberries, and who never migrate from Skymoore because they delight in its gross-ass taste, and then there is our kind, the civilized and sophisticated avian who journey outward when the time comes, in search of adventure, splendor, and dope new eats.”
Dug frowned. “Are the other birds really so bad?”
“Totes McGotes,” Kwit affirmed. “The wretched featherbrains communicate criminal messages with their song, target passersby with their excrement, and at this very moment are planning to kill almost every living creature in Skymoore. That’s what brings you here, isn’t it?”
“H-how did you know that?” Dug asked.
“We have eyes and ears all over the city, silly,” another bird said.
“Now let’s not waste any more time,” Kwit suggested. “You need to hide this.” The small bird shifted slightly, revealing a small triangle resting on the surface of the egg. It was yellow, translucent, and about the size of Dug’s palm. “A piece of the Rhombihexahedron,” Kwit explained.
A crossbow bolt whizzed over Dug’s head just then. Then another sailed past his shoulder, tearing his parka and cracking the large egg. The birds fled in terror. Kwit stayed where he was.
Despite his best instincts, Dug turned toward the source of the projectiles to see that holes had been punched through the barrier. Orla and Knot stood there, holding sleek, black hand crossbows. “Get away from them, Dug!” Orla called.
“You don’t understand!” Dug cried, but another bolt hurtled toward Kwit. Dug thrust his hand outward, and the air compressed around the bolt, plucking it from the air like an invisible hand. He threw it through the aviary’s barrier, and bits of magic scattered like shattered glass before dissipating. Dug took the triangle before making his escape with the birds.
“You brought them to us,” a light blue bird accused when they were a safe distance from the aviary, tucked behind a toolshed in the agriculture district.
“Most unkind, homie,” Kwit agreed as he landed on the boy’s shoulder. Most other birds had flown far away from Dug.
“I didn’t want to,” he said. “I mean, that’s not what was supposed to…”
“Oh, you didn’t want to! How wonderful! That makes me feel a lot better about you bringing their kind to our home. The Berry Breaths aren’t right about much, but maybe they have the right idea about humans.”
“Now now, Pili,” Kwit said. “No one was hurt. Mr. Pifton was foolish, but he’s still cool with us.”
The world became dim for a moment.
“No,” Kwit said.
“Not now,” Pili said.
“What?” Dug said.
First he heard it: wings. Then he saw it. As dense and as soft as a cloud, spotted with all the colors of the rainbow. It flew past the sun again, and for a moment Dug could make out individual shapes – hundreds of birds, he guessed. Leading the flock was a raven, larger than any bird Dug had ever seen.
It was headed straight for them.