I looked down at the little demanding hatchling, her voice much louder than her size would suggest.
“BRRPT! BRRPT!” She continued to demand, screaming for her needs to get met.
I smiled as I gently stroked her wet head, already feeling warm, loving emotions flow through me.
In this moment, it was all worth it. From Lun’Kat’s lair, through the wilderness with the elves, the shimagu, and now back at home, keeping the egg warm and safe had been worth every second, every hit I took while I chose to shield the egg - Auri - instead of me.
I had some minor alarm bells going off in the back of my head. Quite frankly, while the elves had been great at giving me an education on how to raise all sorts of creatures, I wasn’t prepared in the slightest. I didn’t have a home base arranged, I didn’t have a bed prepared - not for myself, let alone Auri! - I didn’t have a wide selection of foods.
Heck, the most important piece of the puzzle - knowing what I was hatching - was also missing! She [Long-Range Identify]’d as a [Hatchling], pure white of course, which meant she was highly intelligent. I wouldn’t be able to harm her without triggering [Oath]’s penalty. She’d [Identify] as an [Artisan] or something when she grew up, and not as a monster.
Which, long term, was great! She wasn’t going to be a bird brain. I’d gotten strong evidence that companions could communicate on a deeper level with each other, and a smart bird would be a much better conversationalist.
… if she could ever figure out a word beside “brpt”.
Short term? I wasn’t thrilled. Not knowing what she was made figuring out what to feed her tricky.
The only thing that stopped panic from entirely overwhelming me was Wolfy. He was an expert on companions, and was on loan from Bossman. He’d mentioned going to get food, and the dude could move when he wanted to.
Moon - just the white wolf of the Moonmoon pair - came loping over a moment later, grinning the happy wolf grin with a basket in her mouth. I was suddenly reminded of Cordamo and Sasha.
Moonmoon were still wolves. They still had the instinct to hunt and kill, and it was woven into their very nature just as it was a part of Cordamo’s nature. I couldn’t blame them for that, anymore than I could blame myself for walking on two legs and devouring mangos whenever I saw them.
At the same time, I had to protect Auri. “Oops, I wasn’t careful enough and a wolf ate her” wouldn’t bring her back. I had insane healing, but that was predicated on my patient being alive enough to get healed. Chomp snap gulp was a dead bird, and my healing wouldn’t work there.
Not unless, like, she was eaten whole and surviving inside. Then I could slice Moonmoon up, grab Auri from the inside, then heal both of them up. Hurray for formative childhood trauma!
I wrapped Auri in [Mantle of the Stars], leaving holes for her to breathe. With the amount of noise the ugly grey hatchling was making, she needed the air.
“Good boy, Moony.” I petted the wolf in question as he arrived, dropping the basket at my feet. Moon looked happy at the scritches, his tongue lolling out.
“Can you scout around and guard?” I asked her, and she barked an affirmative. Or, at least, I assumed it was one.
I felt good. Managed to get Moon away from Auri - just in case - without viciously insulting her or anything. A small social win!
There was no time to waste. Wolfy had mentioned that minutes were critical in the early stage.
I expanded the shield to a full half-dome with some air holes, then I flipped open the basket that Moon had brought.
I blinked at the two coins on top of a few handfuls of unshucked wheat. How had Wolfy managed to find unshucked wheat in town, and bought it so fast? And what was with the money?
That wasn’t important.
I sat down cross-legged, holding Auri in one hand, and picking out a single grain of wheat with the other. I started to bring it to her head, then froze.
The grain was bigger than her eye, and babies weren’t known for their good judgement, or their ability to chew things and not choke.
Auri was oblivious to my musings, and she saw the seed near her head. She grabbed onto the wheat with her beak, trying to wrestle the food away from me.
It’d be adorable if it wasn’t so dangerous. Sure, with my System-enhanced body, Auri had no chance of success, but the seed could easily choke the life out of her, snuff her out before her life had even begun.
No, I needed some way of mashing the seeds into a -
Bless Wolfy. I might’ve been able to do it with my fingers, thinking about it, but the coins made it easier.
I held Auri with one hand away from me. The poor hungry baby bird was trying to get the little grain I was holding, entirely oblivious to the dangers of choking.
“BRRPT! BRRRPT!” She objected to being pulled away from the grain, straining against my hand to try and escape. I could feel her tiny little wings beating frantically inside my hand. She was so small, it was hard to contain her properly. There wasn’t a way to make a choke - her entire body was tiny - and if I squeezed too hard?
POP went the Auri.
Working quickly, I put a few grains between the two coins, and ground them together, turning the wheat into a really shitty flour.
I loved the hideous little ball of mess I was holding, but I was not going to regurgitate food for her. Nope. Nuh-uhn. Only if all else failed.
The other Moon, dark as night, showed up with a basket. I gave him a glance, then refocused on what I was currently doing.
I needed to pay attention to this. Any mistake here could spell disaster, either for Auri, or for our chance to bond.
I carefully tipped some of the “flour” into Auri’s open beak. It got all over, but importantly, some went down the hatch.
“Brrpt! BRRRPPT!!” She kept demanding more though. No surprise.
I flickered my shield, changing it from a half-dome - “full shield mode” - to an Auri-only holed sphere - “Auri protection bubble”. Moon trotted over with his basket, and put it down.
“Good boy.” I quickly gave him a scratch. Needed to pay attention to Auri, who was quite loudly demanding my tender care. “Can you find Wolfy and see if he needs you for anything else?”
I swear Moon tried to salute, then bounded off in that lupine way. The other Moon half-tackled him as he found his best friend, and the two tussled for half a second before remembering that, oops, they had jobs to do.
I changed the shield back to full shield mode.
I flipped the basket open with my foot while I ground up a new set of wheat grains for Auri to eat.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. This would be so much easier if she wasn’t screaming in my ear non-stop like a broken klaxon.
I opened my eyes and checked on my loot.
My eyes widened as I saw holy mangos mixed in with a few other fruits, and a waterskin. I paused a moment, then refocused.
Baby bird. Needs food.
I dumped another mess of flour over Auri, wishing for a bowl. Then I could catch the spilled flour - it was in the majority - and retry it with Auri.
The baskets I had were no good for that. Too many nooks and crannies.
All the flour was incredibly dry though, and every living thing needed water.
I hesitated a moment.
Right? I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t drink water. Even Lun’Kat seemed to have a great big pool of bathing/drinking water, and while the System seemed to allow creatures to bypass some biological needs at times, everything started with the System locked. The only thing giving me a moment’s pause was the explosion of fire that’d erupted when Auri hatched, along with the huge amount of heat needed to hatch her.
Well, that’s what [Hatchling Rearing] was for I guess. I grabbed the waterskin and gently brought it near Auri’s demanding beak.
The skill didn’t twig one way or another, and I half-shrugged to myself, tipping the waterskin over to give Auri a small drink.
My idea of a “small drink” was still a bit too much for the bird, who went silent as she tried to handle all the water. A disturbing gurgling noise came from her, as water splashed all around.
I frantically - carefully, if I made a mistake I could accidentally kill Auri, even before my System buffs came into play - held Auri upside down, helping the poor bird with her water woes.
Quickly enough she recovered.
“BRPT! BRPT! BRRRRRRRRRPT!” …and resumed demanding that I FEED HER! And flip her back up the right way.
I carefully rotated her back, and figured I’d try feeding her something else.
I grabbed a handful of blueberries - not the mango - and carefully juggled it and Auri.
I was a bit of a mess. I needed one hand to hold the berries, one to catch the juice, and one to hold Auri. That was one hand too many.
Inspiration struck. I flickered my shield, and made a complicated construct.
The full shield dome was still up, but part of it snaked over to where Auri and I were sitting down. I formed the end into a little funnel, right over my hand where Auri was.
I moved Auri out of the way.
I could try to feed the blueberries directly to Auri, but that seemed like a bad idea in a million ways. She was a baby. She didn’t have anything resembling common sense, and was entirely reliant on me to keep her safe and fed.
Which included making sure everything she ate was safe, and had no way of accidentally killing her or something. Blueberries were a perfect choking-sized fruit, and I didn’t trust myself to heimlich a baby bird successfully. Nor did I want to risk trying to heal Auri through whatever trauma would be needed to save her.
Like. “Hi Auri! I ripped out your throat minutes into meeting you!” wouldn’t be conducive towards a long and fruitful relationship.
I didn’t have a good way of turning the berries into juice, besides just popping them with my fingers. I didn’t even need stats to mash blueberries into a paste! I did have a modest amount of strength, but… they were blueberries.
“Brrpt! Brrrpt!” Auri was hurrying me along. Her crying was grating. I had to remind myself that she was a new, starving baby, and didn’t know any better.
I mashed a bunch on the edge of the funnel I’d made with [Mantle], letting the juices collect and start trickling down. I examined them closely, occasionally picking out a particularly large piece of mush that represented potential choking hazards, and as the trickles came together, I put Auri underneath.
She took a little sip of the juices, then practically glued herself to the funnel.
I made a mental note. Fruit juice - specifically blueberry - was a success!
It was possible that it was only the sweetness she was after, and it was actually terrible for her. I had to make some assumptions, and take some risks here. Birds often liked fruits. Auri liked the fruit. It was likely that whatever Auri was ate fruits.
My logic seemed sound.
I was quickly running out of blueberries though. Wolfy hadn’t sent a ton, opting for speed and a variety of things to send my way, versus quantity of any one thing. Like the wheat had been a bit of a bust.
Speaking of, didn’t birds need to eat rocks or something? For their gizzard?
I put that problem aside. I’d tackle it once I thought I could feed Auri successfully.
I looked at the fruit, and took a deep breath.
Time to make the Ultimate Sacrifice. Time to see if Auri and I were compatible on the deepest levels or not.
Time to see if Auri liked mangos.
A small part of me whispered that if Auri disliked mangos, there were more for me. I ruthlessly squashed that idea. If she didn’t like mangos, how close were we really? How well would we understand each other?
I grabbed the one mango, carefully positioned it over the funnel, and squeezed, putting all my strength into it, carefully controlling it with my dexterity.
The mango bulged and deformed as my fingers sank into it, precious, delicious ambrosia dripping down my fingers to the blueberry-stained funnel. It mixed with the first fruit, the blueberries tainting blessed perfection, before finishing its trip to Auri.
She went nuts.
“BRRPT! BRRPT! BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRPT!” She called out, half-gargling the mango juice.
YES! She liked mangos! More than that, it looked like she LOVED mangos!
“Auri, I see us having a long, long friendship together.” I smiled at her.
“Brrrrrrpt!” She seemed to agree - although translating bird was hard - gargling more mango juice as she tried to talk and drink at the same time.
Hmmm. She needed some lessons. I thought back to mom, and did my best to channel her.
“Now, no talking with your mouth full.” I used my best ‘motherly’ voice, cracking a smile.
[*ding!* [Hatchling Rearing] has leveled up! 88 -> 89!]
I’d be able to introduce mom to Auri soon! I couldn’t wait!
Oooh, maybe I’d wind her up a bit. “Hey Mom! I’m back! I had a fling with a hot dude, and now I’ve got a daughter!”
She’d flip. It’d be hilarious.
“Elaine! How’s it going?” Wolfy jogged over, Moonmoon at his heels. He drew short at the edge of my shield.
“Wolfy! Great! Thank you so much! She’s loving the fruits!”
He knocked on my shield, hefting a bag and a closed hand.
“Excellent! More supplies for you?” He somehow turned the statement into a question.
Also, he was looking at - oh damnit, I was still completely naked from when Auri hatched and burned everything.
“Tell me there’s a spare tunic in there.”
Wolfy nodded furiously.
“Also a spare tent and other camping supplies. Caught a bunch of insects on my way over.”
Wolfy sat down next to me as I snapped my shield back up. With a few jerks of his head, Moonmoon went off to do something. Probably keep our campsite secure.
Bah. The reality of needing to camp again was just hitting me. It was extra-insulting that I was camping right next to the city walls - I was in the cleared area around them. Warm beds and real roofs were just a few meters away.
But nooo, Auri had to hatch in a baptism of fire, and it was too dangerous to let her in town. If she pulled that stunt off again, a large part of town would burn down.
My comfort wasn’t worth risking everyone’s lives. Downside of this whole Sentinel business.
The mango juice ran out, and I quickly changed, putting Auri down for the first time ever. In a [Mantle of the Stars] shield, but still.
“Brrpt?!” I ignored Auri’s complaint.
Insects were a good idea from Wolfy, although I wasn’t looking forward to mashing them up for Auri.
Oh right, the coins!
I juggled the insects, Auri, coins, and funnel while Wolfy got busy setting up a campsite. Bless having minions. How did I ever survive on my own without them?
I crushed up the bugs Wolfy had gotten. Spiders, flies, and other such nuisances, then pulling a face, poured them down the funnel. Auri happily ate them all.
I really, really hoped that she’d grow up quickly. I didn’t mind bugs too much - heck, I’d eaten extra-large spiders for months to survive - but there was something different about grinding them up, then pouring the guts around.
Auri gobbled up the last bits of food.
“Brrrrrrpt.” She said, seemingly content. She then had a poop explosion, and pitched forward in her soiled egg, basically passing out to sleep.
Wolfy and I looked down, and I cracked a grin while he chuckled.
“Auri.” I said. “Her name’s Auri.”
“That’s a pretty name.”