Dug fell flat on his back as the flock hit him like a rushing river flowing past, through, and over him as he was caught in their current. He staggered to his feet and away from the toolshed just in time to be struck again. This time he twirled away from the center, and was merely grazed by the talons of passing birds.
They moved through the air like a vibrant swarm of insects – such perfect unison that they appeared as one, fluid creature. Any other time, Dug would be struck by their beauty. Now, as they made an elegant turn toward him, Dug was wondering how he could possibly stop them.Kwit and Pili launched off Dug’s shoulder and toward the approaching flock. As they picked up speed, the birds were engulfed in green light, which grew brighter and brighter as they accelerated. The swarm scattered before the pair reached it, splitting into two as it regrouped so that it could pursue both glowing birds at once.
One bird did not regroup, however. It was a raven, dark as night, and the biggest bird Dug had ever personally observed. It should have been less threatening now that Dug was the larger of the two, but its passive eyes and outstretched talons were as scary now as then.
The apprentice druid conjured a sharp updraft, sending the bird directly overhead, its foot grazing his scalp. He watched the raven as it prepared for its next attack, when it did something he didn’t anticipate.
Not only that, all the other birds had vanished, too. He was alone, in a field, next to a toolshed. It was quiet, save for the distant flapping of a hundred wings.
Then without warning, the sounds were immediate, and a swarm of birds flew directly past him, coming seemingly from nowhere, before flickering out of existence once more. Both swarms, and the two birds they pursued, continued to appear and reappear as they engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse Dug couldn’t comprehend.
Next thing he knew, the raven appeared directly before Dug, knocking him down before he could even consider a reaction. As soon as he stood, he was blindsided once more. As this unseen assault continued, it was all Dug could do to remain standing, as the raven slashed and slammed and pecked him into a mess of pain and fatigue.
Desperate, Dug took a deep breath and held the yellow triangle of the Rhombihexahedron before him. This time the raven slowed as it charged Dug, unsure what the boy was planning, but too excited by the artifact to give it much thought. Dug exhaled, chilling his breath into an icy mist, burning his throat and freezing the raven, who quickly retreated with frost falling from its wings.
Dug grinned triumphantly to himself, placing the triangle back into his parka…
…only to be struck suddenly by the entire flock of birds, who grabbed onto him and began pulling him away in a terrifying swarm of feathers and sharp edges. He was able to wrestle out of their grip only by abandoning his parka. Dug hit the ground painfully. The birds made away with their prize.
A group of swallows emerged from thin air, holding a peculiar object attached to several string strings. It was a jagged polygon of many angles and sides, with six star-shaped faces. It was, of course, the Rhombihexahedron. They set it down gently as Dug watched on helplessly. One of the stars was missing a point. A finch gently slotted the triangle into place.
There was a soft hum as the polygon glittered faintly. The hairs on Dug’s arm stood on end as a field of magic emanated from the Rhombihexahedron. The world stretched around him. Shifted. He could see the toolshed and what was behind it all at once, which was difficult to process. He could even see the grass beneath the Rhombihexahedron.
He could also see the birds. All the birds. He could see now that they weren’t disappearing, they were just…moving. Hiding in the pockets between the third and fourth dimensions. Like if a two-dimensional figure were to turn on its side. He could see Pili, who laid on the ground with a cut across their breast, and he could see Kwit, also injured, but still glowing, hurtling toward the artifact.
Dug, meanwhile, writhed as he underwent the worst migraine that he’d ever imagined, tenfold. His brain burned as it tried to make sense of that which opposed its concept of special reality. Then came an icy stab of pain as the world snapped back into place, and everything made sense once more.
The druid collected himself just in time to see Kwit flying right for him, carrying the yellow triangle once more. Kwit dropped it into Dug’s palm. Dug felt dizzy.
“Get it together, young man,” Kwit said. “Things are still hella bad.”
“Bwuh,” Dug said.
“Just run!” Kwit said. “Tarkid approaches!”
The raven – Tarkid, presumably – was flying toward them now, flanked by a small entourage of red sparrows carrying the Rhombihexahedron. Dug did as Kwit asked, running as if his life depended on it, first without any particular goal in mind, and then with a plan.
Just outside Skymoore’s agricultural district was the pristine pink edifice of Ingrid’s Immaculate Metalworks. Dug had briefly apprenticed there. He didn’t learn much, but he did learn one thing with certainty: Ingrid Nittlepick kept the cleanest shop in town.
Ingrid’s new apprentice was a bored halfling who greeted Dug halfheartedly as they scrubbed away at an armor display. Dug told them he’d take a look around, then walked right to a window and held up the triangle.
Outside, the raven and its companions raced toward Ingrid’s Immaculate Metalworks.
“There’s still more to be done,” said Kwit, who was perched on Dug’s shoulder. Pili was tucked into his druid robes. “The Rhombihexahedron is unstable. Once it was assembled, there was no stopping it. Only delaying.”
Dug nodded, and the raven’s approach continued.
While Dug was under the artifact’s effects, he noticed something In the bits between all the agony. Something about the toolshed. Something was off. It didn’t look the way it should. At the time, he was in too much pain to really care, but afterward it dawned on him.
“So, uh, are you just gonna stand there?” the apprentice asked.
The raven continued its approach.
He saw a collection of dust and dirt just hovering in midair outside the shed, near where the window should have been. At the time it was hardly the only confusing thing so he thought nothing of it. But now he got it.
Fourth dimensional beings…
Dug ducked for cover as an explosion of feathers and glass showered the shop with debris. Tarkid lay unconscious among the wreckage. The sparrows flew away, squawking in shock and awe. Dug picked up the Rhombihexahedron.
“Wh-what did you do?!” the halfling asked. “Sh-she’ll fire me!”
“Sorry,” Dug said, truthfully, for he knew the halfling spoke the truth. “I would help you clean up, but I have to save Skymoore.” He and the birds bolted out of Ingrid’s Immaculate Metalworks, pursued by string of expletives.
“This is still very bad,” Kwit said, clutching Dug’s shoulder painfully. “If the artifact activates again –”
And then, of course, it did. This time the magic and the headache both came in pulses. One moment he saw the world in two dimensions, the next in three. It was a disorienting, nauseating feeling (he threw up twice), but it was also helpful. Being able to see around buildings helped Dug get across town faster than he normally would, and avoid as many people as possible (the few he did run into either vomited, passed out, or ran away screaming). All the while, Dug’s druidic magic suppressed the artifact, so its field of influence never extended more than a few feet beyond him.
His destination was a wooden vault door built into a brick wall deep in the literal labyrinth of the government district. He told Pili and Kwit the combination to its giant lock. Dug was too out of it to see how they managed to turn the thing, but they did. The Skymoore Druid Circle lay beyond.
It was late in the day, and the campus was nearly empty. Those who hadn’t gone home were in classes, or they were studying, or they were working. For intermediaries between man and nature, druids could be an astonishingly indoorsy bunch.
As the birds shut the door behind him, the Rhombihexahedron shuddered and let out a powerful pulse which surged through the Circle. A woman who was sketching flowers collapsed in surprise. A young man fainted. A few others called out to Dug in surprise or anger.
Dug slotted the yellow triangle back into the artifact, and its spell stabilized. No more pulsating, just a constant stream of magic. Dug fell to his knees in pain. He was doing his best to suppress the field from going far outside him, but he couldn’t keep it in the box.
The world was shifted, and he could see beyond the Circle’s wall. He saw trees of all colors, similar to ones he knew, but different enough to make them alien. Just outside the wall, he saw a squirrel chittering to itself as it contemplated which tree to check for nuts. He saw a deer with a third eye cautiously eyeing some predator for which Dug had no name.
His head began to hurt. His brain began to swell.
People began to gather round and stare as Dug took a knee. As birds from the forest and the Circle Aviary and the King’s Garden began to perch on his shoulders and arms and head.
It was clear now to Dug what had to happen. Somehow, even with all his energy focused on containing the spell, with his teeth clenched and his mind screaming in pain, the birds knew it, too. He knew he might die, but maybe he could save Skymoore, and the circle, too.
It hurt to hold on. He thought about letting go once, twice, thrice. But he did not give up.
He began to fly. Not him, exactly. The birds. The lifted him off the ground and over the wall. When he cleared the wall, he cleared his mind. He could still see in four dimensions, but the pain subsided. The swelling stopped. A sea of color and life unlike anything he’d ever seen stretched before him.
Back in the Circle, the druids murmured with amazement and interest, but they did nothing about it. A few minutes later, they went back inside.
Dug did not know where he was going. As usual, he didn’t really have a clue what was happening. But he had a sense of direction – forward – and he was part of something meaningful – a collection of birds and one human saving the city from mass head explosions. He didn’t know if he belonged yet, but two out of three isn’t bad, and it was a lot more than he’d had in the morning.
Flying away from the Circle and toward some new, great unknown might have scared Dug, but he didn’t once think about going back.