With their Faces painted and voices loud, they hushed the forest songs as they trampled down the shadows. There was violence — a stick jabbing hard and fast — and before the forest knew what had happened, feathers and blood and a small broken body lying dead on the ground.
The humans had come: nothing would be the same again. In the shade of the trees they found the Quelladellafons, timid, trusting and slow on their feet. The flightless Quelladellafons fell where they stood. Next the human strangers spied the red-crested Frossalids. In short order the forest floor was thick with crimson feathers.
The Striggs, though, were cautious birds. Also unable to fly, they scattered through the undergrowth to watch from afar as the invaders crashed and lumbered, killing all before them. While the sun was up the humans were busy, so the Striggs made themselves scarce. Only after dark did they dare venture out to seek food, study the stars and linger beneath the moonlight.
But the human creatures were tireless. At night they lit fire sticks that burned like small suns, chasing away even the moon and the stars. For the Striggs it was a desperate situation: the only way was down.
In the beginning they hid in small holes. Then they dug deeper. Their tunnels became bigger, longer and more elaborate. Eventually they were living underground for whole seasons at a time. As the human creatures ravaged the land the Striggs went down, down under the ground, turning their beaks from the sun, from the moon and the stars to make a home safe from the dangers above.
And it’s there, as you may have heard it whispered, that they still remain. Far below, in a place of stone and darkness; far below in a place called Striggworld.
Ellee Meddo was a long way from home. She wasn’t lost exactly — she knew well enough how to get back to the village — but she wandered rather aimlessly. Her father was sick. She’d been with him, talking, trying to make him comfortable. Finally, when he was asleep, she’d slipped away into the labyrinth of tunnels and caves that formed her dark, subterranean world.
Somewhere in her mind was a hazy story of a lost tunnel beyond the safe zone, where unusual gemstones were said to grow from the walls, ripe for the plucking. It was just a fanciful playground tale, but right now she welcomed the distraction.
From Ellee’s brow came a soft beam. Its source was lampyriss, a concoction of tar, tiny luminous creatures and a special rock dust called feldspar. This sticky light source nestled in a small, distinctive dimple, found on every Strigg forehead. There it was secure until its glow gradually faded over the course of a Strigg day, or set, that was measured in units they called echoes.
Ellee scuffled along, absent-mindedly poking at the rock walls with a small hammer. The tunnel was sloping now, so she scooted down on her trugg, her stubby, tough tail feathers. The skidding and bumping shook her from her thoughts. How long had she been gone from the village? And where exactly was she?
Her headlight revealed the tunnel’s end, and she juddered to a halt just as the floor gave way to a drop of a metre or so. She knew this place. Below was a chamber pierced by a deep hole known as the Sandshaft, leading to the main route back to the village. This chamber was meant to be out of bounds, beyond the borders of the safe zone, but she’d explored here once before with her brother, daring him to follow on one of her secret expeditions.
Lowering herself down into the chamber, Ellee picked her way around the open Sandshaft over to the opposite wall. There were no ripe gemstones here, she was sure, so she slid to the floor and rummaged in her bag for a piece of morra, the Striggs’ staple food, made from cave mushrooms, dried and pressed together into a dense cake. Her beak scraped at the morsel and she found herself muttering as she ate: ‘I should . . . probably . . . be getting home . . .’ The sound bounced back at her from across the cave.
Gathering up her bag, Ellee brushed through the dust and found an unusual stone poking from the floor where it met the wall. The strong claws at her wingtip jiggled and pulled, and up it came: a perfectly carved stone rod. With a grinding sound, the wall she was leaning against began to move. Dust fell onto Ellee’s face as she scrambled up in fright. The apparently solid cave wall was in fact a thick slab, which had now pivoted open. A brisk breeze ruffled her feathers.
With her bag across her shoulder, Ellee sniffed at the surprising new atmosphere — cool and dank, with an unusual tang. This had to be investigated. Beyond the opened slab, she found herself in a rising tunnel. The walls were smooth, the edges of the floor curving up to meet it. This was no naturally formed passage. It had been made, carved out by skilled masons.
Ellee shivered. Her eyes searched hopefully for a glint of jewel or a flash of crystal, but the walls were bare and only gravel crunched beneath her feet. The tunnel grew steeper as she climbed further and further up, her body leaning into the breeze. She could hear her own breath being carried away, back towards the Sandshaft. Maybe she should be getting back to the village; this place felt creepy.
But she kept climbing until at last she saw something ahead in the gloom. Another tunnel? Ellee’s headlight was past its best, the lampyriss fading, and it was difficult to see. A few steps more, just to check, and then she’d definitely turn back.
She really had been gone far too long. She bent her head as she pushed up the steepening slope, but when she straightened to catch her breath, she gasped. Before her, hanging from the ceiling of what appeared to be an adjoining cave, was the most enormous, shimmering, vividly luminous ruby a Strigg could ever imagine. And this giant carbuncle, pulsing with light, was just one small step away.
The footing seemed firm enough: gravel, deeply piled and apparently solid. Ellee leaned forward on tiptoe, reaching for the ruby — and froze. From somewhere ahead, a bone-chilling wail of desperation rose up on the dank air:
‘Heeeelp pleeeease heeeelp . . .’
Every fibre in her body tightened. Her breath stopped in her throat. She was motionless, balanced on one foot, her wing still stretching for the carbuncle. Turn and run back to Striggworld as fast as you can! But the jewel had entranced Ellee. She was so close, just a feather’s width away. On one wobbling leg she lunged, managing to brush her wingtip across the ruby before the gravel pile collapsed beneath her. For a moment it seemed as if she were suspended in mid-air.
And then she dropped.
The floor had fallen away into a steep stone chute slick with moisture. Surrounded by a torrent of moving gravel chips, Ellee was sliding on her stomach, wings stretched out ahead, her bag flapping around behind her. She tried to dig her toes and wingtips into the avalanche and nearly stopped, but her smooth feathers worked against her and the force of gravity kept her moving.
Clattering and skittering, she spun sideways and then onto her back. The torrent of gravel bounced and roared alongside her as she became aware of a noise somewhere ahead. This was bad. Really bad. The noise she now heard was thousands of small stones, dropping into water. A smell hit her too: cold and strange and chemical. She turned on her trugg, trying once more to right herself before being ejected from the chute. Ellee braced herself.
A wall of bricks flashed by. With a sickening crunch, she cannoned into a figure crouching on a narrow ledge. In the next moment they were both falling towards whatever lay below. It was water — stagnant well water. Wrapped in its cold embrace, Ellee experienced a strange moment of calm before the jolt of her survival instincts. Her headlight still shone in the murk, but the chilling pressure was pulling her down.
Kicking out with her large, powerful feet, she drove herself upwards. Something brushed against her. A flailing arm? Without thinking, Ellee turned and dived until she found the limp body, grabbed a limb and swam desperately for the surface.
With a great wheeze she sucked in a lungful of cold air. Through stinging eyes, she saw she had emerged into another space. This wasn’t the well she’d fallen into. Somehow, in the inky darkness, Ellee had managed to swim up into a submerged tunnel, a service staircase that spiralled around the main well shaft.
She dragged herself out of the water and hauled the apparently lifeless body onto the steps beside her. Shock took over as she recognised just what, or who, she had rescued. It was a Toppa! A Toppa child. A reflex of pulsing energy grew stronger inside the boy, a physical rhythm.
Something, or someone, was making him move. His eyes were scratchy and sore. Rank water gurgled in his nostrils and shut out sound from his ears. The rhythm continued. Bitter black water heaved up from his stomach. His body wrenched and fought for air. Back and forth he jerked, expelling and inhaling, until the life flame, almost extinguished, flickered once more.
As his senses returned, he became aware of light. A solid form rocked above him. There was pressure on his chest and the form came into focus. It was a creature, jumping up and down on top of him. Clawed feet . . . feathers . . . breathing hard and fast.
Almost as soon as she’d come to, Ellee had pulled off her sopping wet bag and started pumping the Toppa boy’s chest. He had lain there, eyes closed, no sign of breathing, but she had sensed some last reserve of life. She knew he’d swallowed the bad water, and, if the boy were to live, she’d have to force it out of him.
Kneeling beside him, Ellee had stroked his head and traced the shape of his face with her claws. Prising open his mouth to clear it, she took in his small, soft beak and his featherless body, wrapped in wet fabric. Her head at his chest, she listened and sensed a flutter. How could she apply enough force to expel the water?
Ellee stood astride the small boy, then jumped up and brought both her feet together on his chest and stomach. By rocking left then right, she built up a rhythm and started to feel the Toppa’s chest respond. He wheezed and the muscles across his stomach tightened. Ellee kept her footwork going — left, right, left, right, almost a pedalling motion. The child’s body shuddered, and black water spurted from his mouth.
There was more to come so she continued, pushing with her feet, left and right, left and right.
The wet creature with claw-tipped wings was a nightmare vision. The boy managed to twist around, and it jumped from his body, but he could crawl up only one step before cowering, awaiting the expected attack.
‘Don’t, don’t hurt me, please!’
Hearing the child’s plea Ellee instantly thought of her brother. He knew this distinctive song of the Toppa tribes. He and Snuzz and the other elders had studied it. It was a song that Raffy Gide, the great Strigg explorer, had mastered on his legendary adventures Uptop.
‘Please . . . don’t hurt me . . .’
Ellee could see the boy’s song shape in her mind and searched for a memory of its meaning. He was in shock, shivering and shaking. She moved towards him again, but he shrank back. Slowly, she crouched, opening out her arm-like wing with its clawed tip.
‘Up,’ she said, pointing to the spiral stairway. She croaked the word awkwardly, its movement strange against her tongue.
The dazed boy reached out. ‘Yes, up. Please.’
Ellee pulled him to his feet, grabbed her bag, and led him up the stairs to look for a way out.