Chapter Four of The Mighty. Because why not?
WYATT LANDED ON a small wooden platform with a yelp. He rolled and scowled up at the dark silhouette that stared down from the open hatch. The rising sun surrounded the dark warrior in a brilliantly red halo, transforming her into an angel. A dark angel, Wyatt thought.
Without warning she dropped through the hole, clawed feet coming right for his face. Wyatt shrieked and reflexively rolled to the side. The platform disappeared from beneath him and he floundered through six feet of air, coming to rest in a heap upon a dirt floor. He moaned and rolled to his back.
“Oh my, Rozen,” said a new voice, smooth and vibrant. “Don’t damage the poor thing. Tsk tsk.”
Rozen hissed, jumped down, and jerked Wyatt to his feet. Wyatt made a dramatic show of shaking his head and brushing dust from his soiled clothing. He glared at Rozen for a moment before turning to the two new creatures that stood before him.
Wyatt had to rub his eyes. The two figures were nearly identical, roughly four feet tall and nearly just as wide. Their torsos were round and their limbs thick and muscled, covered with plain brown woolen robes. Round heads sat atop broad shoulders with no discernible necks. Their skin was pale, smooth, and completely hairless. Wide mouths smiled beneath flat noses that flared beneath beady eyes. Their eyes… They were much too small for their bulbous heads, but it was their color that perturbed Wyatt, or rather, their lack of color. They were completely white, void of color or pupil. Unblinking white orbs stared at him, or at least he thought they stared back. He shuddered.
“A little clumsy, ain’t he, Darling?” said the seemingly male creature who had greeted them at the hatch.
“And a little soft of body as well, Dear,” said the female. Her large ears were studded with an array of metal piercings, chains, and colorful gems. It was all that differentiated the two strange creatures. Even their voices were eerily similar.
“Are you calling me fat?” Wyatt said, shaking away his stupor.
“Darling, fetch him a spare habit, he’s covered in filth.”
“Of course, Dear. We don’t want filth at our table. Tsk tsk.” The female strode off, her earrings jingling with each heavy step.
“Where am-” Wyatt froze as he glanced to his left. Vertigo clawed at his throat and brought him to all fours.
His fingers gripped the edge of the large platform as his eyes raked the monstrous cavern set before him. Round platforms of dirt, stone, and wood littered the space in all directions and at all heights. Thick columns of stone supported the structures, and a myriad of rope ladders and bridges spider webbed between them. Wyatt could not see the walls of the cavern, nor the bottom. The curved stone ceiling arced above him, thick spires of stone joining to the topmost platforms.
Every platform was littered with furniture and alive with activity. Wyatt fell to his stomach and examined the platform directly below. A fire burned at its center, heating a large black pot that smelled richly of stew. Chests and wooden crates littered the edges of the platform and two piles of straw denoted beds. A pair of wooden stools flanked a table at which two round bodies sat, oblivious to the stunned boy twenty-five feet above.
He slowly climbed to his knees and forced his lungs to accept a breath of air. Every platform he could see held the same scene; a crude campsite and a pair of round creatures. It’s an underground city of mole people, Wyatt thought as he rose to his feet and turned from the precipitous drop.
“It appears the human is a bit frightened by heights,” said the male, followed by a jovial laugh.
“I am not scared,” Wyatt protested. “Just surprised is all. I’m not afraid of anything.” He slowly inched away from the edge as he spoke.
The circular platform on which he stood was larger than the others, nearly a hundred feet across, but decorated with the same crude accoutrements. A cast iron pot over the central fire sent up curls of meat scented steam. Wyatt’s stomach grumbled and the residual vertigo vanished.
“Are you mole people?” he said.
The round creature guffawed heartily. “You’re not from Hagion, are ya, human?” He didn’t wait for a response. “Nay, we’re no moles, Mother be good. My name’s Gareck and that there is Mareck.” The female gave a wave from the far side of the platform then returned to pawing through a wooden crate. “We are the Children. And this,” he said, gesturing to the vast expanse around them, “is Métra.”
“May… trah?” Wyatt said. “Wait. Mareck and Gareck? Children? Are you twins? You don’t look like kids. And this place… What’s Hagion?” His mind was racing.
Gareck waved a pudgy, six-fingered hand in Wyatt’s face to silence him. Six fingers, he thought, and webbed, and clawed. Mareck came over and handed him a brown robe, shaking him from his trance.
“Lose them strange mucked up clothes, human, and put this on. Breakfast will be in just a moment.”
Wyatt looked down at the robe and back again at the odd couple. They smiled widely and walked away.
“Dear, what a strange creature,” Mareck whispered.
“Aye, the strangest, Darling,” Gareck replied.
Wyatt stared after them awhile, but the thick aroma of stew brought him to attention. He glanced around hesitantly and took another step from the dizzying precipice. He wasn’t scared, just wary of falling. Besides, one couldn’t be afraid of heights when underground, could they? He took another step.
Mareck and Gareck were fussing over the pot of stew and Rozen sat in a chair off to the side, picking over her arrows. Satisfied that no eyes were on him, he tore off his shirt and pants, and quickly slid the brown habit over his head, leaving his white briefs on. The scratchy robe smelled of lilac and fresh dew. The bottom hem ended just above his knees and the middle billowed out around him. It was meant for a creature far shorter and wider than he. A thin rope was fastened to the back of the habit which he tightly wrapped around his waist and tied. It did little to tame the excess fabric billowing around his torso. He gave the bottom a futile tug, shrugged and joined the group at the table.
Rozen looked up and laughed. “You now look the part of a fool, human,” she said and returned to mending her arrows.
“Oh shush, Rozen,” Mareck said. “At least he looks a bit cleaner now.”
“Right nice you look,” said Gareck, giving Wyatt a stiff slap on the back. His hand felt like stone and the force nearly tilted him into the fire. “As sharp as any human can hope to,” he added.
The trio laughed together. Wyatt smiled back, placed a hand behind his head, lifted a foot onto a stool and posed provocatively. Mareck and Gareck laughed all the more. Rozen did not.
“Aye, he’s a funny one, this human,” Gareck sputtered as he wiped away tears from his blank eyes.
“That he is, Dear,” agreed Mareck. “Please, sit down.”
Pleased with himself, Wyatt slid onto a stool. His knees scraped against the underside of the ornately carved table. It was oddly comfortable, the wood smooth and warm.
“My name’s Wyatt,” he said. “Not human.”
“Not a human? Then what are you, creature?” said Gareck with a wicked smile.
“Oh, don’t listen to him, Wyatt,” Mareck interjected. “My Dear is only making fun.”
“Aye, that I am. Welcome to our home, Wyatt the human.”
“Thank you,” exclaimed Wyatt, a great grin plastered on his face.
Mareck nodded and smiled. She had a softer face than Gareck and it made Wyatt feel at peace, despite the blank eyes that disguised her stare.
“I hope you’re hungry, Wyatt,” she said.
“Oh, I am. Starving.” His stomach grumbled loudly in agreement.
“Lovely, just lovely,” she said. “Rozen, come to the table and lose that hood, there is naught to hide from here.”
Rozen hissed, but not in the same way she had done in the forest. She undid the clasp at her neck and let the cowled cloak fall away as she sat opposite Wyatt. Wyatt couldn’t help but gawk. Her skin was the color of night and equally as flawless. Prominent cheek bones led into a sharp jaw and pointed chin. Her eyes flashed gold and seemed capable of seeing all. Everything about her face was sharp and focused, angular and strong, but it was her hair that Wyatt stared at. A long braid tumbled from the top of her head and coiled on the table. The brightness was stunning. Each strand radiated a different color; shades of orange, yellow, red, silver, and gold created a living force. Her hair looked like a twisted cord of flames. Her hair is on fire, Wyatt thought, no, it IS fire. She was beautiful in the deadliest manner.
“Enjoy what you see, human?” she spat at him. Her thin lips peeled back as she spoke, revealing two perfect rows of pointed teeth. Wyatt was certain they could cleave the flesh from his bones with little effort.
“Uh, no, I mean, um,” he said. “What are you? Not a mole, obviously.” He offered a smile and feigned a laugh. He just couldn’t help himself. Her fierce golden eyes narrowed, making him feel more naked than he was.
Mareck set bowls of steaming brown stew in front of the pair and two more for Gareck and herself, breaking Rozen’s golden stare. They settled in at opposite ends of the table.
“Rozen, the hu- Wyatt is just curious,” Gareck said.
She wordlessly lifted the bowl to her lips.
“Don’t let Rozen unsettle you, Wyatt. I can answer your question,” Mareck said before taking a sip of her stew as well.
Wyatt looked to Rozen who shot a glance at Mareck, but said nothing. Rozen’s knees rose past the table’s edge. She was squatting more than she was sitting and it made her look surprisingly childish, despite the spear leaned at her side and her golden eyes that were weapons unto themselves.
“Rozen is a Draygan, a people from Purorus,” Mareck continued, steam pouring from her wide mouth. Her numerous teeth were blunt and rounded like a line of tombstones.
Wyatt hazarded a taste of his stew, but quickly withdrew and nearly dropped the bowl as the liquid scalded his lip and seared his tongue. He looked about in wonder as his company devoured the fiery liquid without hesitation.
“Wait,” he said, his mind catching up to his ears. “She’s a dragon?” Wyatt could not hide his excitement. A real dragon?
Rozen slammed her bowl down, wielding her golden stare as an assassin would a pair of gold daggers, aimed at Wyatt’s skull. “Draygan,” she said. “We are the people of dragons.”
Her sharp teeth flashed with every word, deadly and beautiful at the same time, but Wyatt found his mind wandering. Everything in the cavern carried a slight orange hue, much like the forest, yet he saw no fluttering orange orbs. No candles, no torches. The fires can’t possibly produce enough light…
Rozen pounded the table, drawing his attention back to the shadowy warrior crouched across the table from him.
“Sorry,” he said with an apologetic shrug. “I have ADD.” He received only blank stares and silence. “Uh, so, you can breathe fire? That’s awesome. Though I always imagined dragons a little diff-” Rozen hissed loudly. Angry? “Oh, sorry. Of dragons… right… I just really wanted to see a dragon. They are so cool.”
“If a dragon breathes fire, how can it be cool?” Mareck asked.
“Don’t be silly, Darling,” said Gareck. “Dragons don’t breathe fire.”
Rozen formed her hands into fists.
“So, there are dragons?” said Wyatt, wide eyed.
“Oh, yes, but you shan’t wish to meet one,” Mareck said. “Not as a human.”
Gareck laughed and even Rozen’s stern expression cracked for just a moment. Wyatt frowned, but shifted it into a wide grin at the thought of dragons. Could this place get any cooler?
“What of you, Wyatt? It is strange to find one so foreign to the ways of our realm. You must have traveled from a very distant land to be so…”
“Foolish,” Rozen finished. Mareck frowned at her, but the Draygan had returned to her stew.
“Oh,” said Wyatt, straightening. “I’m from Ridge Summit.” Three blank expressions stared back at him. “New York?” More stares. “The United States… Planet Earth…”
Mareck and Gareck exchanged confused looks. Gareck scratched at his ear with a thick claw.
“Well, how is it that you happened upon the Shadow Forest?” Gareck said at long last.
“And strung up by the false fruit,” Rozen added with a venomous smile.
Wyatt looked around the table. Their eyes were all glued to him, awaiting his response. A million sparks burned me here, he thought of saying. Or, magic green vines consumed me. His fingers found the pendant stashed beneath his scratchy brown habit. Before he knew what he was doing, the pendant was out and swinging from his fingers.
“With this,” he said.
Gareck and Mareck simultaneously fell to their knees and pressed their round heads to the dirt. Rozen stood up so fast her stool tumbled backwards. Her brilliant golden eyes went wide and she uttered a single word; “Druid.” Wyatt could not identify the underlying emotion.
“We had no idea,” said Mareck, speaking into the soil.
“Please forgive us, Master,” said Gareck. “Mother be praised, they have returned.”
Wyatt looked around, stunned. Druid? He looked at the pendant. It was no different than it had ever been.
“Um, what’s a Druid?” he said slowly.
Mareck and Gareck stood and exchanged confused looks. Wyatt could only shrug and flash his lopsided grin.
“You carry the symbol of a Druid,” Gareck said.
Wyatt looked at the pendant again as if expecting to see something new. Symbol? A piece of wood clutching a green stone?
“Oh my, we have been so…” Mareck said, wringing her hands. “Please, forgive us, Master. We had no idea.”
“Truly,” Gareck said. “We knew the Druids would return, but…”
“We thought not in our lifetime,” Mareck finished. “We should have been more prepared. Tsk tsk.”
Wyatt could feel his eyes bulge and fought to restore dignity to his expression. “Uh, it’s OK… You can, uh, sit down.”
“Very well,” Gareck said with a nod and the Children returned to their stools.
“See, Rozen,” Mareck said in a whisper. “One should never doubt the Mother.”
“The Mother?” Wyatt said.
“Aye, the Mother has sent you to us,” Gareck said.
“Oh… uh… yeah, of course… Druid… yeah…” Wyatt was having trouble getting his thoughts in line.
“Tell us, Master. Is it the Regency that has prompted your return?”
Mareck nodded at her mate. “What else would it be? The Regency drove the Druids from Hagion long ago and have brought naught but corruption and death. Clearly, we have suffered enough penance. And good riddance to them, I say. Tsk tsk.”
“Regency? Uh…” Wyatt said.
Rozen grunted. “See? He’s no Druid. False stories.” She turned away.
Wyatt bristled. “No… I am… well… yeah, a Druid.” He looked at the pendant still clasped in his hand. He studied the green stone for a moment before tucking it back beneath his habit. It felt warm against his bare chest. “I… I’m just… well, learning still…” He forced a smile.
“Learning?” said Gareck.
“It has been many generations since the Druids disappeared.” Mareck said. “The Master is clearly young and not of this world.”
“Hmmm, I suppose you have the right of it, Darling.”
“But I am a Druid,” Wyatt protested. Whatever that means.
“Of course,” Gareck said with a nod. “It is only we expected…”
“Tsk tsk, Dear. What is it that we expected? Many would claim the Druids do not even exist and here is one at our table.”
Gareck looked to Mareck and smiled. He nodded sharply. “Very good, Darling. Of course.” He turned to Wyatt. “Forgive us, Master, and welcome to our humble hovel, our hole in the ground, as it were.”
“Thanks,” Wyatt said. “So, uh-”
A loud shout came from a lower platform and arrested the conversation. It was just as well, Wyatt thought. He had no idea what to say. I’m a Druid? What on Earth does that mean? He wasn’t even certain it was a positive title, but couldn’t help but to rise to the obvious reverence the Children had bestowed on him.
Gareck trundled to the edge of the platform. “What news of you, Tarez?”
Wyatt could not hear the response, but Gareck’s reaction was clear. The round man straightened and turned, his cheerful expression exchanged for a scowl. He nodded at Rozen and gestured his heavy hand toward the hatch. Rozen sprinted around the table and leapt to the hatch, her long fire braid trailing behind her.
“What is it, Dear?” Mareck said.
Gareck smiled, but even Wyatt could tell it was forced. “Naught to worry about, Darling. Just a scouting band, I’m sure.”
“We have already given for the season,” Mareck said. “Is there no end to their greed?”
Rozen dropped back onto the platform, her face ashen and contorted. Her golden eyes were wide and jumpy.
“The Regency, they breach the hill’s crest,” she said frantically.
Gareck grunted. “Off to the storage tunnels for you, young Draygan. There are empty casks in the far-”
Rozen exhaled loudly, spittle spraying between clenched teeth. All eyes went to the trembling Draygan. “No,” she said. “They come from all sides.”
“All sides…” Mareck said.
Wyatt could hear Rozen’s quickened breath. “Not scouts, an entire… A full Regency attack force. Hundreds…”
Mareck scowled. “It can’t be… How could they…”
“It makes no difference. You must hide, Rozen. We won’t allow them search of the storage tunnels. We’ve done it a dozen times before.”
Rozen shook her head. “I saw Shamans and Wights in their midst.”
Gareck cut Wyatt off with a sharp grunt. Mareck pounded the table. “My Dear,” she said. “We must not let them find her here. You know what they will do to her… and to the-”
“I know,” he said sharply. “We can hide her.”
“From a Wight? We cannot.”
Gareck looked to Rozen. The Draygan had donned her cloak and drawn the cowl over her head. Gareck frowned. “What do you suggest?”
Mareck fixed her blank gaze on him, but said nothing.
Gareck bristled. “No, we cannot. It would be suicide during the season of Birth. It is still swollen from the rains.”
“Birth season?” Wyatt’s inquiry fell on deaf ears.
“We must,” Mareck said.
Gareck looked to Rozen. “Please,” came a whisper from the shadows of her hood.
“Dear,” Mareck said and nodded at Wyatt. “The Druid.”
Gareck looked to Wyatt as well. A sly smile split his wide face. “Of course, Mother be praised, the Druid. Master Wyatt, we have need of your power.”
Rozen cut in before Wyatt could summon a response. “He is a babe. He knows naught of our world. He is no true Druid. There are no-”
Wyatt stood and scowled incredulously. “Just because I don’t know about your screwy world doesn’t mean I’m not a Druid.”
Gareck waved a thick hand and stepped before Wyatt. “Master, do you wield the Mother’s gift? Her power?”
“Uh, I, er,” Wyatt stammered. Power? Did he mean magic? “Of course, I have the, uh, Mother’s power. I am a Druid, after all.” He stood tall, trying to look impressive. He just couldn’t help himself.
Gareck bowed and turned to grab Rozen by the arms. The drastic difference in size made Wyatt grin. “The Master will help us flee, don’t you fret, Rozen.”
The Draygan remained still and silent. Mareck appeared at Wyatt’s side and placed a clawed hand on his back. “Many thanks, Master,” she said. “Your arrival is nothing short of miraculous. Mother be praised.”
Wyatt grinned sheepishly.
“My Darling has the right of it,” Gareck said and turned to Mareck. “Best grab the diggers, Darling.”
Mareck nodded and fetched a pair of giant hammers from amongst the chests and crates. Each was the size of an infant, a flat maul on one side and a thick spike on the other. Mareck shouldered them as if they weighed nothing. She nodded.
“Uh, what… uh, where…” Wyatt’s thoughts were evading him. His head was beginning to hurt.
Gareck flashed a toothy grin. “The Torrents, Master Wyatt. We shall ride the Torrents.”
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