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A note from Michael Adams

Hey all! Quick notice, I won't be posting tomorrow or the next day (Saturday and Sunday) as I've got stuff to do and am going to start slowly trying to settle us into the end schedule. 

If you know anyone who might like this story, give 'em a holler, and don't forget if you notice something that seems off, or you want clarification (so long as it's not going to be spoiler heavy) then feel free to drop a comment somewhere. Just know that if it's something plot related, it's unlikely to change unless it's actually a glaring issue of continuity or the ilk. 

Anywho, thanks all! Enjoy!

 




The days passed as Charles’ fell into a routine. Every morning he would bathe in the stream and carefully preen his feathers, satisfying his newfound instinctual need to do so. It surprised him how pleasant it felt, more so even then how it felt when he was clean as a human. After he bathed he would check his height against a tree, mindful of the fact that he was growing several centimeters every day. Already he dwarfed the first of his marks, though he couldn’t say with any surety that his growth could be considered normal.

In the first place, his mid morning foraging helped to shore up any vitamin deficiency he might have by consuming tubers, roots, and certain other plants that he’d belatedly noticed were consumed by other creatures. With his greater skill in stealth, he’d watched as a deer - unlike the ones he’d seen before, instead with thin brown coats with spots all across their flanks and a pair of stiletto-like growths on the sides of their hooves - ate from specific berries and mushrooms. He’d very carefully noted which ones, and beyond that, noted which ones it avoided entirely.

Unlike what he expected, there were plenty that appeared to be perfectly edible. He would still be wary of them, eating only a miniscule amount to confirm if they were truly edible or not, but an increase in food would only be celebrated. Caution and wisdom warned that simply seeing something else eat something did not inherently mean it was safe for him to eat; plenty of animals on Earth ended up being perfectly capable of eating things that would outright kill another species. It did look promising though, and after testing the berries, he’d decided that they were, probably, safe for consumption.

They were blackberries, at least in taste, albeit bigger and with a larger seed that he made sure to spit out with his narrow tongue. He’d yet to try any of the other foods, though, deciding that a slow and steady approach would be best in terms of food.

After foraging, he would flex his legs, practicing his basic footwork to move and dodge illusory enemies. He imagined as well as he could a battle with an upsized snake with its rapid strikes and ability to project itself. Another was to remain agile against a skilled Ironback Badger, performing hit-and-run tactics until it wore itself out.

The one enemy he had no answer for was, admittedly, the one he was most afraid of meeting. Humans, or another sapient species, were an entire magnitude of threat over what he was dealing with now. Depending on technological advancement, they’d be armed with guns, and no amount of head-on fighting ability would amount to all that much. Though, he did know that certain species of large bird were deceptively hard to kill with bullets. Emu’s could be shot several times and walk it off, something that Australia had abundant experience with after having veritably declared war on them - and lost... Well, more like gave up.

It was amusing to consider the possibility of surviving gunshots, but the fact was that he had no idea what to expect. Essence was incredible, but on that same note he couldn’t be sure what he might find. The runes in his nest also indicated that magic existed on some level, though Charles didn’t know if that worked off of essence alone, or if perhaps mana existed as well. Were there more forms of energy than essence? If so, how many?

Those were questions that Charles doubted he could get an answer to until he experienced them himself. Even if another person was around he couldn’t know if they would be able to communicate. Could he speak their language? Maybe if he were a parrot, but then in the first place he didn’t know if he could even comprehend someone.

On that note, he was absolutely incapable of speech. He’d tried, and the mangled noises that came from his throat had sounded more like demon-speech than any kind of English.

In the afternoons and a few hours beyond, he would patrol and hunt, doing both at the same time. The marks he’d left in the trees had gradually grown more distinct in a way, essence laden like beacons and, if he focused, actually seemed to form a loose sort of demarcating line between distant sites. He hadn’t run across any example of another creature doing this, but it felt correct in his mind, and so he continued doing it.

That said, after two weeks of this, he’d realized that there was something not quite right about the essence. He’d realized it after not one, but two Ironback Badgers moved into his territory. Not simply moved in, but rather that they’d stomped about, huffing and throwing essence into the air, a blatant display that he recognized now as a challenge to the territory. Why they came at him, he didn’t know, perhaps they were relatives to the one he’d already eaten.

Which, he most definitely didn’t end up feeling bad about, considering how badgers seemed to universally be titanic assholes. He’d left the first one alone until it attacked him during his morning bathing. Ignoring them wasn’t a good idea, he’d realized, considering that they would then take it on themselves to get rid of him. The battle didn’t last long, though, specifically because Charles’ had managed to drown it. Oddly enough, the essence surge did the same thing as last time, albeit he didn’t pass out from the quantity. He could more accurately gauge where in his body it went, streaming down into his marrow, bones, and then organs. A small amount of it suffused his muscles as the organs seemed to finish soaking in the energy to capacity.

The second one was a straight up fight, having come only three days after the first invader. This fight was much more challenging, but unlike during his duel, his instincts had begun to be forged in line with more rational thought. It was a long battle, but he’d come out of it with only bumps and bruises from where he’d gotten stuck on the badger's back and it rolled on top of him several times. Inglorious, yes, but the essence burst washed his body in a warm glow that drove away any shame he might have had.

Most of that energy moved into his muscles, kneading them and seemingly straightening them. They became more robust, multiplied, and somehow were more enduring. To Charles, that detail was the most important. There were multiple types of muscles in the body, skeletal, smooth, and cardiac, and they specialized further from there, skeletal muscles were generally either fast or slow. They weren’t, to his limited knowledge, perfect terms, but to his understanding a fast muscle was responsible for the explosive power of a punch, whereas slow muscles were capable of much more drawn out exertion, such as walking.

Yet, somehow, his skeletal muscles were getting better at doing both, and more than that, doing them at the same time. Whether that extended to the smooth muscles of his organs or cardiac muscles, he couldn’t say for sure, but it clearly expanded on his explosive capacity.

Of course, once he’d discovered that, he eagerly waited for another challenger. That was eight days ago, and not a single one had come since the badgers.

Which meant that he was instead satisfying himself with overly large rodent-like creatures. He was careful not to over hunt them though, and supplemented his diet with fish. The former was much more dense in essence, making it hard to not chase every one of them down, but the fish were still tasty, so he swallowed down his greed and conserved resources.

By the end of the day, he would practice with sensing and essence, and then in moving it throughout his body. He briefly envisioned the process as eastern-style cultivation, but beyond meditating to help with sensing it, he benefitted not at all from its application. ‘Rotating’ that energy through his body gave him warm feelings, but that was the extent of it. He could focus it on aches and pains, something he felt dulled the sensation and helped to heal it much quicker, but there wasn’t some magical compounding of his ability and power through the method. Maybe it was because he was a beast, or maybe cultivation just didn’t actually work.

He leaned towards the latter, but knew that he was also hoping that it just didn’t work. If people could actually somehow enhance themselves with essence in a way he couldn’t, that would vastly complicate things. Then again, he was a nearly 2 meter tall killer bird now, so who was he to say what was and wasn’t fair?

Charles’ thoughts derailed as he reached the southern edge of his territory. Over the last few weeks, he’d become very well accustomed to how the forest felt. The soft soil littered with small branches, leaves, and soft, mossy terrain almost as natural to him now as a carpeted floor. With that familiarity, though, came the ability to tell when something was different about an area. The further from his home, the more he detected these changes.

Here, he could feel a kind of lush, untamed growth that ran rampant and uncontrolled. It was different to the placid, warm sensation that his own stretch of forest bore. A kind of presence hung in the air, though he couldn’t place anything more about it. Warily, Charles decided to move forward, stealthily moving from his territory's edge and beneath the canopy.

“May as well take a look around.” Charles chittered quietly, pushing through the foliage and between growth as possible. For several minutes, the forest didn’t seem to change, perhaps a bit more overgrowth, but there was a distinct sense that the air had thickened the deeper he went. It was similar in a way to essence, though he didn’t understand why it felt so strange on his tongue.

“A different flavor? Is that normal?” He pondered to himself, hesitating as he noticed something peculiar.

The plants were becoming more and more vibrant than he’d thought a forest could be. If anything, this was more primal, a landscape covered in green-leafed plants but now with more and more flowering vegetation, explosive color that drew his eyes with their sheer depth and richness. Long petaled flowers of white and purple rested in crowns around trees, vining around and between branches. Other flowers grew from bushes and along the ground, and more than once Charles noticed that some of the plants now bore wickedly hooked brambles. They were uncommon, but he felt unsettled at the sickly-sweet scent that came from them.

On closer inspection he saw what looked like broad, fuzzy-haired leaves behind the brambles. They were small, perhaps for bugs or rodents, but that at least put an even greater pause to Charles steps.

“Alright, potentially predatory plants. Do I even want to risk this?” He shifted from one foot to the other uncomfortably. The side of him averse to injury and danger told him that this wasn’t worth it, but at the same time he hadn’t yet seen anything to be overtly wary of. It was, also, just the edge of the territory.

“Further in, at least to see some clues as to what lives in this area.” He nodded to himself, convinced at least of that much.

Suddenly he could smell something on the wind, a trace of sweetness that was absolutely mouthwatering. It reminded him of apple pie, with the faintest touch of cinnamon, still warm from an oven. Charles’ raised his beak to the air, taking in the scent deeply, as it drifted. He turned in the direction he could smell it and walked forward silently. He’d eaten some small bits of food already, but he certainly wasn’t averse to having a little bit more.

And whatever that was, it smelled amazing to him. There were plenty of fruit bearing trees in his edge of the forest, but it just… wasn’t the same, compared to what smelled like an apple pie.

“Hold the peck up,” he struggled to stop, his body's cravings for the smell intensifying and nearly throwing his concentration again. Charles grit his beak and sat down on the ground. “This isn’t normal. In the first place, who the hell would have a pie out here?”

Even knowing that, the urges didn’t subside at all, and he felt an ever growing compulsion to breathe deeply through his nose.

Charles felt chills race down his spine at that, a strange dissonance in his thoughts. If he didn’t have plentiful experience with fighting his own instincts, he doubted he’d have noticed the sensation at all. Without any further consideration, Charles turned and broke into a flat-out sprint back into his neck of the woods, abandoning any pretense of stealth. He avoided so much as touching any of the barbed plants in the area, a feeling of fear and terror fueling his retreat.

“Nope, nope, nope, I am not going in there.” Yelping as he ran, Charles’ felt the influence on his body and mind wane as he put distance between him and the strange - and quite dangerous - forest to the south. Charles’ didn’t stop running until he found himself somewhere westward in his territory, and only because the creek was in the area.

Panting for breath, Charles forced himself to calm down after the feather-raising encounter. Even now, he could vaguely sense that something was still not quite right, the scent cloying to his nose. A whisper of reason told him that he should go back, investigate the threat to know what he was dealing with.

He shredded that whisper to tiny pieces, uncertain if perhaps that was leftover from some kind of essence ability or otherwise, trying to push him back into the snare. Sure, the idea that he needed to be sure of the threat wasn’t wrong. But the frightening thing was that Charles couldn’t know if that was his intent or not.

Talons gripped the thick moss under his feet beside the creek as his heart continued to hammer in his chest. Without concern for noise, Charles turned and ran towards his nest, eager for the solace it could present. Within minutes, Charles was nestled between moss and branches, a trio of badger fur rugs forming his bed.

Very near a panic attack, Charles started to talk himself down, letting the aura of his nest help him as much as it could, “It’s okay, we’re fine. You’re Charles Monroe, ex-human and current blade-beak. You have five siblings that are all presumably alive, and your parents are birds. We’ve got a nest that’s nice and safe, and we’re a damn good badger slayer. Your neighbors aren’t psychopaths, probably, and not all plants are mind-controlling predators that can kill us. Everything’s fine.”

He went over the variations in several different ways, carefully allowing himself to think more freely after several minutes of repetition. Charles’ had no idea how to combat mind control, but at least he didn’t want to freak out by thinking about it too hard. Instead, he distracted himself by verbalizing his thoughts as much as possible - at least, as much as he could verbalize things - and listening to his own words again and again. Hopefully, whatever was in his system would filter out quickly.

And, after those several minutes were up, Charles allowed himself to consider his options. Instantly he noticed that he bore only a deep animosity and aversion to the southern forest, something that he guessed was all him. No trace of any suggestion seemed to remain to return in the slightest, but even so he would unconditionally avoid that area regardless of any supposed reason to go further in that direction.

Steadily, Charles made his way back to the western portion of his territory, running across the stream after a short time. He let out a breath of relief as he passed it, going further and further out. The air seemed to change, albeit only marginally compared to before. It felt lighter in a way, but nothing much else seemed to change. The plants were slightly sparser and the ground became flatter as he went, but it was still definitely a forest.

He continued his journey at a sedate pace for almost two hours before he began to notice the sensation of environmental essence lighten even further. Charles clucked to himself, annoyed that the forest might just vanish before he could even see so much as a landmark.

After another thirty minutes, though, he couldn’t help but bounce back and forth on his feet with giddy excitement.

“It’s a feathering trail! Not just a game trail either!” He barely restrained himself from darting out of the woodlands to inspect it much more closely. Never before did he think he would be so excited to see such a trail, but this was a massive help.

Charles slowly moved to the edge of the dirt trail, looking further down the path to the left and the right. The right moved deeper into the forest, while the left led away.

After briefly weighing his options, Charles decided to follow the trail deeper into the woods. If nothing else, this would help him know where people might venture inwards from commonly. Compared to his southern short-lived adventure, this was already dramatically more profitable. With an eager gait, Charles set off to explore, careful but optimistic for what he might find.

 

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Michael Adams

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