In spite of the calming, warm sensation that washed across his consciousness from the runes of his home, Charles found that sleep was intermittent at best tonight. When he’d gone to bed early, he thought that his mind had settled and that it would be easy to claim a restful night. That had been true for a few hours, but then he began to feel a burst of energy in his body rile up. Even at his worst, Charles insisted on always getting at least eight hours of sleep when he was human, and the fact that his bird body seemed to fight him after only a handful of hours annoyed him to no end.

Hindsight told him that only on the days where he wasn’t nearly as well fed would he be asleep for longer. That was likely his body's way of conserving energy under a perceived period of lean times. ‘In the first place, how long do birds even sleep?’ He suddenly considered the question. He imagined that, naturally, most birds probably would need more sleep, given that they either had nothing better to do, or were specifically diurnal or nocturnal.

The problem, then, was that Charles’ was perfectly capable of functioning at either time, and his body seemed to be more than fit off of low amounts of sleep, provided that there was an abundance of Essence. That, then, technically would leave him with more options, but it wasn’t as though he knew what he needed to be doing most of the time. Thus far, survival was the only real goal he could accomplish, that would inevitably lead to his natural growth and… then to see what he could do from there.

“Alright, let’s take a walk and see about getting more sleep after.” Charles pushed himself up with his well developed legs. He went about flexing his body, his feathers puffing out and making the already large bird seem much larger. A low, satisfied hum left his throat as he finished stretching, taking special care with his legs and wings to ensure they were prepared. Satisfied with his preparations, Charles began to leave his nest and stride out into the forest towards the creek.

“It… is night time, right?” Charles froze in confusion as he greeted a strangely illuminated forest, doused in pale light that somehow seemed to come from everywhere at once. Charles warily stepped forward, double checking that there wasn’t, somehow, another celestial body in the sky. Expectedly, only the moon hung high overhead, but the light didn’t seem to come from above.

‘I have night vision, but this isn’t it. The peck is going on here?’ He contemplated before focusing more overhead in the sky between branches. For a minute, he only saw one moon, but then realized there were in fact more of them. At least three, in fact, and oddly the light coming from the extras was somehow paler and less vibrant than the one he’d been used to seeing. Moreover, he couldn’t tell for sure if there were more moons beyond these ones, given the state of overgrowth in the forest.

“Okay then.” He filed the information away for a later date to digest with a shake of his head. That wasn’t nearly the weirdest thing he could have come to expect. In any case, he could see perfectly fine in this light, just about at the level of sundown. It was surreal, though, given that it bathed everything in a silver light, regardless of whether or not there was a canopy over any given spot.

Steadily, Charles made his way through the underbrush, easily recognizing his trails for the compacted plants and the many marks he’d left on the trees nearby. He was surprised to see that the bark on said trees appeared to be getting bulkier around the locations he’d hit. Perhaps the trees were able to regrow such damage quickly.

So many things I don’t know,” he murmured to himself, glancing between the trees and, more importantly, past them for signs of anything that might be stalking him in the night. Or, on the other hand, for something he could stalk in the night.

The moment the thought occurred to him he began to shift the way he stepped and moved, trying to keep as silent as possible. He challenged himself to only look at his feet every few seconds and worked to memorize the position of debris on the ground without actively watching. The maneuvering slowed him quite a bit, but Charles wasn’t in any particular hurry. He was a bit hungry, but far from any kind of uncomfortable, and he could afford wasting several minutes on his project here.

After all, he figured it could never hurt to be sneakier.

He was far from perfect, though, occasionally he would misremember the position of a stick and snap it under foot. Other times he would forget exactly where he was putting his feet, crunching down on denser piles of leaves. A certain amount of sound was unavoidable, but unlike when he was human, his current feet could diffuse his weight over a much larger area. Just by that, he figured that a blade-beak wasn’t necessarily a stranger to stalking prey. He played to his instincts all the while, checking his movements against what his bird-brain was telling him to do. Between the two, he personally believed that he was experiencing marked improvements over his ability to move undetected.

He’d been so focused on his own footsteps that he nearly didn’t realize when he’d begun to approach the river. Charles began lightly admonishing himself for that, looking up and checking his surroundings just before he moved onto the banks of the river. Here, he could see far easier given the reduced canopy. The clearing on the banks of the river weren’t large, perhaps ten meters on either side, pebbles and soft, loamy earth squeezed between his toes.

This let him see the other beasts in the clearing beside the water, drinking their fill and relaxing. The five quadrupedal deer-like creatures drank from the river in shifts, two on lookout while three drank their fill. One of the lookouts was slowly searching the forest with brilliant emerald green eyes, and was larger than the others by a third. Huge antlers extended off to either side of the beasts head, some blend between a moose and a deer, such that Charles wondered how it could possibly move through the forest with any amount of ease. The others bore no such antlers, and he idly realized that each one must have stood at about two meters tall, save for the buck, which was at just barely under what Charles would guess was two and a half meters. They were bigger than he was, and as the buck turned his head towards him, he felt a very real fear.

Not simply because of the antlers, but because of the warm tingle of essence he felt as it faced towards him.

‘Ah, pecking egg-shells,’ Charles conjured a new curse word as he felt the buck stiffen, staring straight at him. He felt the essence rise slightly, but the burning sensation, the warning, did not come. In that moment, he and his instincts were in a perfect accord.

They didn’t move a single muscle.

The buck stared at him for several long seconds, the warm sensation of essence flowing over Charles feeling more like a blanket of wool than the deadly intent that he’d felt from the snake, or the anger of the badger. Finally, after what was altogether too long, the buck turned its attention away from him, the sensation of its essence still clinging to him, a warm, calming sensation that he realized was similar, but much stronger, to the feeling he’d had in his nest.

Silver fur shimmered in the pale light of the moons as the buck took its turn to gulp down some water. The other four deer glanced his way, but they didn’t seem to be able to see him like the buck had. Even so, Charles didn’t dare move a muscle. Each of the deer may not have had antlers, but he could see long, sharp hooves with a dagger-like spurr that rested just behind them. He imagined that would be similar to a stiletto, and very much wanted not to test their power.

Beyond that, though, he realized that they were simply gorgeous creatures. Their fur nearly shimmered in the light, deep green, a flowing mercurial silver, and a gossamer white, some patterned in between. It was remarkable to see it, and he thought, sadly, that if there were humans around, these things would be quite valuable, if only for their fur.

The buck rose once more, casting its gaze back towards Charles, this time lacking the flooding essence. It surprised him by dipping its head slightly before turning away, moving further into the forest.

‘Did it… did it just nod at me?’ He thought in shock to himself as his eyes followed the solid silver buck. ‘Gentleman Buck, I guess?’

Charles shook off the surprise of the notion and started forward well after they were clear of the area. As dangerous as that could have been, that was awesome! Charles figured he needed to get out more if that was something that could happen on a regular basis.

What would have happened if he tried to attack? He doubted he’d have been able to take them, heck, he didn’t even know how fast he was growing.

Reminded of that, Charles paused by the tree that he’d marked with his height, and let out a low squawk of disbelief when he noticed that he’d gained at least eight centimeters since the last time he’d checked it.

“Yikes, no wonder why everything aches all the time.” Charles muttered to himself. If it weren’t for his nest, he figured he’d be more than a little grouchy right now. Essence probably helped out with the healing process too, but he expected he’d have to be eating a lot more if it wasn’t for his home.

Speaking of which…

Charles snapped down at the fish that tried to sneak its way past him in the water, gleefully crunching down through bone and shearing it in half. He wasted no time in gulping down the first half, feeling his inner jaw slice into the fish and force it deeper into his throat. It was surprising to him that he was getting used to this so quickly, but it wasn’t too far from just being sushi. And so far, fish didn’t seem to be nearly as intelligent…

That thought made him pause uncomfortably. He really hoped they weren’t intelligent anyways. Not like he could just stop eating, but that wasn’t a bridge he wanted to cross until he had no other choice.

Though, he was well aware he’d have to adjust sooner or later. And, he had the perfect idea of who would be able to help him over that hurdle.

After finishing his light breakfast, Charles turned and trotted through the forest, doing his best to remain at least somewhat silent as he went. He was still not at all proficient at being stealthy while he moved fast, something he doubted would be fixed anytime soon. That was a level of expertise that would take a lot more effort to master. Instead, he practiced his acrobatics, eagerly jumping against the tree trunks, throwing himself through the air and gliding through the air several meters at a time. The wariness of what other beasts came out in the darkness kept him from moving at his fastest pace, but it did give him incentive to try to work on his general acuity.

His taloned feet clacked hard into the bark when he started, but slowly he managed to soften the impact. At first he dug deep furrows into the wood, but shortly he managed to control his jumps. Charles noted that it took more energy to do it this way, having to flex his legs even more to soften the blows and then to push from an even more squat position. Even so, just that simple effort changed the loud crashing motions into something that, while still somewhat audible, wouldn’t echo for a hundred meters through the forest.

Perhaps if he got faster, he’d be able to just run something down with a combination of darting across the forest floor and using the trees. It wouldn’t help something to know he was coming if he was faster than they could react.

‘Let’s take it one step at a time, though.’ He chuckled to himself, slowing down to take a breath. The forest didn’t really change too much from area to area; tangled shrubbery and branching, twining trees crowded the soft, rich earth underfoot. Beneath the boughs, sheltered amidst roots and feasting upon detritus, various fungi grew. Some he felt he recognized, the pale stalk and brown cap of what might have been edible. At the same time, though, he saw others that he couldn’t quite remember where he’d seen them. A hexagonal lattice mushroom grew forth on one spot, smelling sweet, and immediately putting him on the backfoot in terms of whether it was safe for consumption.

If there was one thing he felt fairly secure in his thoughts about, it was that if a mushroom wanted to smell good, it was probably deadly poisonous, or worse, parasitic.

Still, it was beautiful, though in another sense somewhat plain. Certainly it was a gorgeous forest, filled with vigorously growing plants, but he didn’t see much in the way of colorful flowers. Browns, greens, the occasional white of exposed wood beneath bark, and the limited splotches of color from the scarce berry bushes had begun to wear on him. It was still deeply relaxing to be here, and now he wouldn’t figure on trading this for any city-scape, but…

He was starting to get restless. Not just his human side, either, Charles noted, but his more instinctually driven side demanded that he patrol wider, see more. He didn’t feel the drive to leave the area, but he felt there was something more that he needed.

At that, Charles stopped walking, instead contemplating his deeper thoughts. It was true that he wanted to roam around and see things that seemed natural enough. But as he explored the sensation, he realized that it stemmed from something deeper, more primal. That might have caught him off guard before he’d begun to familiarize himself with his new set of instincts, but now he figured he could guess at what it was that he was doing.

“Hmm, I guess I’m mapping out a prospective territory?” Charles clicked his beak, turning his attention to the trees around him. This wasn’t entirely a problem, mostly because he’d been lax on examining his environment and getting a lay of the land. Frankly, he could very well have begun to explore earlier, but figuring out how essence could be used had taken priority. He still didn’t really know what he was dealing with, or how he was utilizing it, but that would have to be something he figured out over the long term. Or, better yet, he could find someone to teach him.

‘Which isn’t going to happen anytime soon,’ he sighed. Whatever happened in the future, he wasn’t even fully grown yet. Did truly intelligent creatures exist anywhere near here? Would people accept him, or would he just be someone’s pet at best.

He pulled his thoughts away from the topic, knowing that he couldn’t make any real guesses as to what the truth was as of yet. He hadn’t even seen any people yet.

Charles slashed the bark of a tree with his blade-feathered wings, leaving the scratches shallow enough to not potentially open up the tree to any harm. He kept his movements slower, fewer jumping repositions than before. As he went, he still tried to make a game of dodging over thorn bushes, only twice landing short of clearing them. Only when he’d been wandering for nearly a half hour did he get the sense that he was far enough to satisfy his bladebeak urges.

‘Wow, my territory is going to be huge.’ Charles blinked, knowing that he’d gone quite far from home by now. So far, the forest hadn’t changed in topography, but he didn’t especially know enough for it to help even if it had begun to change. If he had to guesstimate, he’d say this was roughly east of his nest, and the terrain might have been somewhat hillier than he’d gotten used to. Small creeks fed down through the growth, riddling the areas around them with hearty green moss.

Charles guessed that it fed into his river towards the west, but didn’t mind that currently. He began moving in a semi-circle southward, trying to keep his right side facing where he guessed his nest was. Even after changing position so much, though, he felt as though he could still tell where he was almost exactly in relation to his nest. If he were a person, he’d almost have certainly gotten turned around and confused several times..

“And yet, it feels like my sense of direction is impeccable… hah, or im-peck-able? Ah… the madness descends further.” He shook his head, seriously assessing the sense that he knew where he was going. Some types of birds were capable of some kind of broad perception of their location, generally due supposedly to the magnetic field of earth. It wouldn’t surprise him if he had something similar, but it was strange how it felt. Instead of having to keep track of his own position every step of the way, he was glad to know that he would generally know where he was pointing at all times.

“Wait… oh, pecking really?” Charles snorted in bemusement with the realization that he didn’t need to guess which way was north. If he could feel the magnetic field of the world, then telling the various directions wouldn’t be a question at all. With that, yes, he had indeed traveled east. That was sheer luck, though, trying to guess direction based off of the sun wasn’t a guarantee of anything. Earth rules for the celestial bodies did not apply. That much should have been obvious from the fact that there was more than one moon.

Still annoyed, he thwacked several trees as he passed them, the action still as satisfying as the first time he’d done it. It was definitely in the category of odd ways to mark a territory, but he wasn’t complaining. The alternatives he was aware of left much to be desired, after all.

He moved through the uneven terrain, gazing at the teeming forest with a blend between apprehension and appreciation. Even if the scenery was dense it was still a balm to his weary soul, but he had to admit that he was curious about what was beyond this forest. How far did it stretch, how much did this world have to offer?

Considering that, what would be his long term goals? He knew for certain that he would need to grow into his full size, but he wondered at what he would have been. Certainly, he doubted that the chosen of the deities, or demi-gods - whatever they were - would be anywhere near the power of a normal person. But did that mean that normal people could become powerful, or was it strictly the domain of those blessed? Essence was clearly one method that he, as a creature, could become more powerful. Could people do the same?

There were many questions that he needed answers to, but he knew that they’d have to wait. He wasn’t so naive to think that he could just walk up to someone and try to pantomime his questions. Beyond how ridiculously difficult that would be, he had no idea how someone would respond to a creature of his intelligence or form. In the first place, would anyone get anywhere near him? Hell, if it was back on earth, he’d have done everything in his power to stay away from a creature that looked like him.

Accelerated growth aside, Charles’ claws only got stronger, sharper, and longer as he grew. His feathers could flex between soft and razor sharp on a whim, something that he couldn’t rationally explain the mechanism behind. His eyes were honed, more than capable of picking out distant shapes far beyond what he could normally see, and he seemed to have stellar night vision. He was, thus far, nearly an obligate carnivore with a side of tubers, something he realized wouldn’t likely do him any favors with people. In the first place he didn’t know if it was normal to be able to become a blade-beak or if that was something special to him. His parents hadn’t completely freaked out and fled him, but that could well have only been because they recognized his essence.

As he considered all of this, he continued slicing tree bark, marking it, and, he noticed, reducing his overall essence stores by a small amount, but still more than he thought he should be. He slowed his steps before stopping in front of the next tree, brow furrowed as he thought on that.

On a hunch, he lashed out once more, slicing another tree, and then focused his senses on it.

‘Huh, okay. Guess that works for claiming territory.’ He blinked at the sight, realizing there were faint lines of essence writhing deep in the marks he’d left. It gradually leaked, but so little that it would take days, if not weeks to fully dissipate. Anything in the area would have to be paying attention, but with how many places he’d marked, he doubted anything would mistakenly wander into the area without knowing who it belonged to.

‘Useful, I think.’ Charles nodded to himself, curiosity satisfied, before continuing on. The rest of the night and into the morning was spent like that. The sun had crested the horizon, dew formed and evaporated in the time that he worked, only just reaching the southern point of his territory. A part of him wanted to go do anything else, but this was something he felt needed to be done. If unfinished, perhaps something would wander in seeking his home.

The thought was intolerable and left a heavy weight of anger in his gut. The force of certainty in that anger, self-righteous and brimming with indignation, drew concerns from him. Not everything to do with instincts would be good, he knew, but that seemed… excessive.

Blade-beaks were, apparently, very territorial.

Hours went by as he moved, finally reaching the western point of his territory. Not much changed, though the southern side of his territory evened out in terms of terrain. Much more water was present, letting dense mosses grow around trickling streams that joined together, adding their strength in the effort to eventually become rivers. Before long, though, he’d run across a larger river, one that he figured had crossed close to his home. That meant it moved from north-east to south-west, which matched what he knew about the trickling water sources.

“So, I’ve got a mountain, or a range of mountains, to the north-east,” murmured the bladebeak aloud, “If nothing else, that’s a reasonably stable source of water, I think.”

The other thing that occurred to him, even as he crossed the river, was that civilizations tended to congregate around water. If he ever needed to find people, he could always just follow the water. Perhaps when he was full grown he would bother, but doing so now just seemed… unwise.

Beyond that, though, he stumbled upon several other locations where there were old scent trails. Markings of claws and sometimes bits of fur snagged in a bush here or there, essence coated, let him know that other creatures called areas that intersected his own territory home. He wouldn’t do anything about that now, especially since they seemed to be much smaller in area and most were, frankly, not strong enough to concern him.

‘Thank you, random arrogant thought,’ Charles rolled his eyes, bringing up a mental checklist of things he would have to watch out for in the future.

Still, it was true, he supposed, that none of the creatures that he shared territory with really rated a response from him. Many were small creatures with essence signs so weak that they reminded him of the rodent-like creature the badger had stolen from him. That would be something he needed to deal with sooner or later, he had no desire to share territory with that bastard badger.

Charles onced more found himself grinding to a halt, having nearly finished the entire patrol by now. The sun hung high overhead, and he knew that if he wanted to, he could stop now. There was no question that his territory now was huge. He was breathing harder than usual, surprised at the fact that he seemed to be able to distance run at moderate speed very well, far more than he’d ever done as a human.

None of that was why he stopped, though. Instead, his focus fell entirely on the potent scent that came from a nearby tree, slightly within his territory and proceeding further in.

“Speak of the devil,” Charles glared at the offensive mark within his territory. A day ago, he probably wouldn’t have cared especially, but now it was different.

‘Now this is mine.’ He found his feet moving forward before his mind could catch up.

A grim kind of resolve settled in, overriding the small voice that said this was unwise. That this could be dangerous for him, that he should come back when he was grown.

‘If I flee, this won’t be mine,’ Charles reaffirmed the thought, beating back any other thought to the contrary.

Charles felt his instincts and mind join once more on a deeper level, fusing together so tightly that suddenly the only thing that existed was the challenge to his territory.

And no blade-beak would leave such a challenge unanswered...


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Michael Adams


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