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A note from Michael Adams

And resume posting! Also, big thanks to Humblebee for the $10 Patron! 

That's pretty much it for the time being, but as always, I hope you all have a great day and enjoy the chapter. 

 




The road was little more than coarse dirt, smelling vaguely differently than the soils Charles had grown accustomed to in his life among the trees. It was reddish brown, packed hard enough that he had to push to leave a mark into the dirt. That suited him just fine, though, considering the fewer traces he left the harder he would be to track. Considering that he didn’t know the temperament of the people of this world, let alone to animals like himself, the caution seemed more than prudent. He’d guessed that the path leading deeper into the forest either terminated at some point, or turned down southwards away from his stretch of the woods.

That said, if it did turn southwards, he was done following it. Anything going into that predatory plant infested woodlands was taking their own lives into their wings. Nothing that Charles was interested in doing without very good reason. Curiosity would only take him so far, and considering the fact that he hadn’t seen any traces of anything coming from that place, he was happy with leaving it alone. Thanks to his acute senses, he could probably pick up most threats that weren’t specifically stealthy long before they’d sense him.

Especially if he was on the road, then he’d see any threats long bef-

“Oh, what’s this?” He paused, catching a scent of something unusual in the air. The scent was new, earthy and woodsy, but somehow just slightly different. It wasn’t the exact same scent as the woods around, though it was very close. Charles slowed, concentrating on his breathing as he drew in deep lungfuls of air slowly through his nostrils. Air pulled through his beak, the flavor tested amidst an incredibly receptive olfactory organ. Whereas his human ability to smell had been mediocre at best, he could almost paint a picture of the world around him with his nose now.

It was, frankly, not something he’d invested too much time in pushing to the limits before. Not because it was hard, but simply because he still couldn’t get over the fact that everything had a distinctive tang to it. Different species, different creatures, ages, health of body, injuries, season and more all changed each and every scent. It was easy to take in, but incredibly hard to assort them when he didn’t know what each was. Passingly he’d accrued a wealth of knowledge on the smells around him, but the forest itself was omnipresent. For anything with even a slightly lesser sense of smell, perhaps this difference in scent wouldn’t have even been noticeable.

Considering he might well have the olfactory senses of a vulture, Charles was not one of those animals.

“Different. Definitely different, but is it a problem?” He pondered aloud, warbling lightly as he tilted his head, wing talon to his chin in consideration. “Hmm… I don’t think I’ll go too far out of my way to find it this time. Let’s finish investigating how far the road goes first.”

Nodding to himself, Charles quickly picked up the pace, a lazy trot that carried him quicker than he could nearly run in his last life. All the while he tasted the air, letting his nose guide his awareness alongside his eyes. The shift in perception was robust, though he did have to concentrate to parse the details. New smells drifted on the breeze, pushing towards him roughly from the direction of his nest. All the while that odd-forest scent remained, though still only traces of it. He clucked at that, annoyed that he couldn’t get more than bits and pieces of the smell. It was like getting only part of a sentence in writing; you could guess what else there was, but some important things were definitely going to be missed.

After another ten minutes he slowed down, seeing the trail shrink rapidly before simply stopping all at once at a wooden sign. His pulse accelerated at the site of the board stuck into the ground, hammered in place atop what was a very clearly squared post. Charles took a step forward, only to pause and glance around, wariness asserting itself at the last moment.

“Not like I’d expect an ambush out here of all places,” chuckled the two meter tall killer bird as he strode forwards the rest of the way. When nothing jumped out at him, Charles simply focused on the writing on the sign itself, cut out with a wedge and apparently inked in the grooves. Whether that was to let it withstand wear and tear, he wasn’t sure, but the script itself was what drew his eye.

It looked similar in a sense to cursive, but it was also more angular than he’d been used to. Regrettably, the characters themselves were different entirely from the English alphabet. Charles shook his head, deciding to parse the letters themselves to at least try to distinguish how many unique characters he could see. While he was no linguistics expert, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try to keep a mental record of what he was seeing here.

As he began, he started with a letter that looked like an “S” albeit with the bottom in a closed loop rather than open. Nodding to himself, he moved onto the next letter.

Until a burning sensation started to spread across his conscious mind.

Charles hopped back with an alarmed squawk, immediately afraid of a surprise attack. He swiped the air blindingly fast with his wing-talons, just in case an unwary soul had come up behind him. In a moment, he was ready to take off running in any direction he could, unwilling to have a fight in the open.

Except, when he turned around, nothing was there. He pivoted on his feet, using his long neck to swivel his head back and forth all around him. Still no threat presented itself, and already he noticed that the burning sensation was dimming, leaving something of weight in his mind that he found difficult to describe.

After nearly a minute of tenseness, Charles let himself relax, “What in the feathering peck was that nonsense?” bewildered, the bladebeak turned his attention back to the sign, uncertain as to the identity of that sensation.

And only became more bewildered as he could actually read the sign now.

“Alright, what in the actual peck is this?” He blinked, only dimly registering the words amidst the tumultuous thoughts that raced through his mind. Was this a part of Alterra’s gift? It would certainly make sense to arm him at least with the ability to rapidly learn this world's language, but even so he was shocked to learn that his mind could actively be altered by anything. Granted, knowledge itself wouldn’t inherently change the way he thought… probably…

“Actually, let's just shelve that part… I don’t want to consider how that might affect me. But, if nothing else this does present a wonderful amount of convenience; I’ve never been very good at learning new languages. My French and German are still awful.” He clucked, trying not to be depressed about the fact that his old languages might be utterly useless in this world.

He forced on the sign, which now shone itself clearly to him.

Demarcation Notice

← Evergreen Forest
Daurgast Forest →

Greenleaf Town, road, due sunset, west

 

Charles blinked at the sign for a few moments before happily warbling aloud. There were names for the places, now! The unexpectedly pleasant surprise not only told him that his forest was the Evergreen, but also that gods forsaken green hell was the Daurgast. He turned his head, gazing back down the road, fixing the direction firmly in his mind. Greenleaf Town might well be the only human habitation for miles around, if he were fortunate, and the fact that the road cut off here meant that rough-hiking was the only method for travelers to go through his territory.

Whether that was a good thing for the future, he couldn’t say, but at the very least for his growth phase that wasn’t a bad thing at all. More time to grow uninhibited was likely only a plus, though Charles had to admit he was curious about what the people in this neck of the woods were like. Were they withdrawn and callous? Were they the type of people to entertain travelers and tourists?

He briefly imagined a tavern filled with boisterous, stereotypical adventuring types that he’d seen through various games and other media in his old life. There was something charming about that thought, up until he realized that he’d be the exact type of creature people would be talking about.

Generally in the terms of hunting or tracking.

“I’m really gonna need to think about how I’m going to present myself to people…” Charles realized, clicking his beak in consternation. Would he be standoffish but non hostile? That might well be safe, but he wasn’t sure how aggressive he was supposed to be as an animal in this world. Moreover, was he satisfied with being able to be called just an animal? On the other hand, being overly friendly and approaching people had its own potential problems. Coming near someone in the first place might be a frightening experience for both parties involved, but potentially rewarding. So long as he wasn’t treated as a pet.

“Aaand that’s another problem,” he contemplated unhappily as he began to slowly trot into the forest, “I don’t want to be someone’s pet, but I don’t know how people will respond to a critter of comparable intelligence to a human.”

Charles paused at the edge of the trail, before looking down at his taloned hands and feet. Gently, he cut the strange, angular letters he’d seen into the forest floor, marveling at how the language seemed to guide him on how it was supposed to be written, rather than just regurgitating the alphabet at him.

In only a few seconds, Charles had written out his name and previous age.

“Alright, that is damned handy,” he nodded happily before swiping his taloned feet through the scratches, erasing its presence. If he were ever hard pressed, he could write in the language, at the least, but that would be an entirely separate bag of worms that he wasn’t sure he wanted to open.

It’d be a good card to play in negotiating, at the least.

The blade-beak trotted through the forest, angling himself slightly eastward to come out wider towards his home. If nothing else, he wanted to check to see if the edge of the Daurgast was closer here than deeper into the Evergreen. The forest certainly seemed to share in a more alive sense, as though things were bursting with energy. It was different from the primordial age that some of the Evergreen gave off, as though it were so full of energy that every leaf readily danced in the wind. Every twining vine ready to burst into movement, every branch and bough ready to sway.

It hopefully wasn’t actually ready to do those things, but Charles found it impossible not to sense the energy there. And after a few minutes, he realized that the edge of the Daurgast was indeed present here, but aside from a few scant locations filled with bursting color in the forms of flowers, there wasn’t much present. That also ended up receding as he moved further eastward, where age-old Evergreen suppressed the energetic pulse of the Daurgast. It made Charles wonder which of the two environments truly contained the dangerous fauna, considering that the Daurgast seemed more like an energetic teenager while the Evergreen seemed more like a wizened veteran.

Perhaps there was no easy answer there, he could have just been lucky not to meet something far stronger than himself so far.

He climbed over a large fallen tree, the gradually rotting wood giving him ample purchase to work with. Atop the log, deep in the green, Charles took a deep breath into his lungs. Even after living here for so long, he still couldn’t quite get over how beautiful it all looked compared to his old life. If he hadn’t gotten sick, maybe he would have been a proper park ranger. Then again, maybe he’d have never discovered how much he loved forests.

Charles was about to reminisce further when he noticed a low buzzing sound nearby.

“Hmm? Bees?” Charles’ interest perked up, “Haven’t seen any bees yet. Plenty of other bugs around, though.”

He dropped down the log, landing quietly on a mossy bed. Steadily and carefully the blade-beak moved closer to the direction of the sound. As he did, he made very certain that he wasn’t moving too fast or making much noise. Too many times had he heard of bee attacks in his old life, and finding out if he was allergic to bee venom was not high on his list of priorities right now. Anaphylactic shock was dangerous even with full medical care available. With the lack of anyone to help him, an equal occasion would be very likely fatal for him. Whether or not essence would help him, he couldn’t say.

And, as he peered over another fallen log - something he noticed was unusually common in this area - he had to suppress an alarmed squawk.

Amidst several collapsed trees with mottled patches of white was the largest hive he’d ever seen. It sat partially within a hollowed trunk of a tree, at least five of which rested beneath it. Beams of light freely permeated what should have been a robust canopy, shining upon the grey material of the hive's walls. The hive itself bulged from the trunk, like some festering boil that begged to be lanced with fire.

Charles did a double take then, focusing on the patches of white that he’d seen all along the fallen logs. The discolorations shifted ever so slightly as he watched, exposing the dozens of small bodies for what they were. Not bees, but instead hornets, shock white like bleached bone with spots of black on their foreheads and a single dot on the back of their abdomens. Their wings were translucent, nearly invisible even in the light. Their eerie appearance wasn’t the only disconcerting thing, Charles noted, but in fact the sheer number of them. There must have been tens of thousands of them.

He swallowed hard, looking down at the clearing itself. The terrain should have had grass, but instead it was strewn with chewed wood and mulch. It barely smelled of anything save for especially moist wood, but it was full of detritivores. Worms and beetles absolutely writhed along the floor, interrupted only occasionally by some of the hornets descending to tear into them, carrying dismembered portions back up into the hive. Presumably, this was the food stock for a younger generation, because he couldn’t see any of the hornets consuming food themselves.

Charles was positive that he’d be dead in minutes, if not seconds, should the hive be roused to attack. This was far and beyond anything he’d even heard of from earth, and he had no doubt that these bugs were worse than anything he had a frame of reference for. Anything that tried that hard to be visible was either venomous or poisonous, or simply didn’t give a single pluck.

Just as he was about to back away slowly, he saw the entire colony go still and silent at once. Charles forced himself to freeze, even as his instincts wailed to escape. If they’d detected him, it was over, and so he could only hope that they didn’t see him.

All at once the colony of white hornets blazed into action, and Charles darted away amidst the cacophony that annihilated any other sound. He cleared the logs he’d passed by leaps and bounds, faster by far than anything he’d ever accomplished before.

Yet, after a few seconds, he slowed to stop in confusion. Nothing was chasing him, no swarming in his ears. Charles turned his head all around, seeing nothing, not so much as a wayward scout in his direction.

He frowned at that, before realizing that the sounds were concentrated within the hive itself.

Charles, against his better judgement, crept back up to the hive as quietly as he did before. He doubted he needed to even have a semblance of stealth, though. The leaves shook in the air from the moving wind generated by the flurry of motion in the clearing. The fallen logs formed a shield around the hive, but even they were vibrating madly. He could feel it in his bones, as though the hornets were one massive organism.

As he peeked over the barrier, though, he knew that they were anything but united.

Thousands of insects attacked one another. Every hornet tore into their neighbors voraciously. They smashed into each other mid-air, a tangle of limbs as they sought to rend one another apart. Some grouped up on individuals, only to turn on their previous companions in blind rage. Charles stood transfixed with equal parts fascination and horror. There was something unholy about what he was witnessing, the sheer violence of it all. Not just for the combat, but because he could see them devour one another even as they themselves were being devoured. In seconds the hive’s numbers had dwindled, and now a minute later they were less than half. Still, the bugs down below were untouched by the adults, now caught up in a rapturous fervor for cannibalism and violence.

After what felt like hours, but in reality was only a handful of minutes, silence had begun to permeate the forest once more. Only a hundred or so survived the madness, and just as suddenly as it had begun, did it relent.

Then, Charles watched a truly alarming spectacle. Each of the hornets was gleaming with torrents of essence, contained within their small bodies as though ready to burst. They stiffly walked to the hive, and waited there, heads bowed low even as they bore the brunt of the essence overdose. Unlike with Charles, they didn’t seem to be filtering it through their bodies, merely vessels to the power. It felt unnatural, disturbing in a way that he couldn’t quite place.

And, as he watched some of the hornets' limbs begin to disintegrate, he knew why. The body wasn’t meant to house so much essence without using it. All of that pressure wanted to escape and needed to go anywhere else.

Charles watched as the hornets bowed lower, preluding the emergence of their monarch. A larger hornet with a crest of chitin in blood red strode forth from the hive. It was already as large as a human’s hand, yet contained a sheer density that made him wary. Carefully it moved through and over the horde of a hundred, tapping some as she went. The process took a little over a minute, and only twenty hornets rose and dove into the rotting wood around the hive. Charles wanted to know what was happening with that, but couldn’t risk moving in, nor was his ability to sense essence good enough to tell what was going on amid all of the chaos.

The rest of the eighty hornets lined up for the Queen as she tore into them, devouring one before the next stepped into position to continue the buffet.

Charles shifted on his feet, drawn to the spectacle with sick fascination. The movement, so quiet and impossible to detect before, seemed to draw the Queen’s attention.

The bug lifted its eyes to him, somehow seeing only him through its compound eyes. Charles held his breath, frozen in weight of that gaze, and for a second forgot any predisposed notion that these were merely hornets. There was something predatory and cruel behind that gaze, a reminder that this world was not the one he knew.

And, in that moment, he could almost feel a kind of promise in that attention, the kind that Charles couldn’t quite put words to. All he knew was that he needed to be somewhere else before she was done with her meal.

The bladebeak didn’t need any encouragement. Abandoning any pretense at stealth, Charles fled once more, his talons digging deeply through bark and earth as he sped off. Somehow, he didn’t make a straight line for his home, though he dearly wished to hide away. Instead, he moved to the river, hoping to dilute his scent in it, just in case he was pursued. All of this whilst his human-brain was desperately trying to resolve what was just witnessed.

“Oh, pluck me, this is just so wrong.” Charles gasped loudly as he dove into the water, ignoring how cold it was against his hot muscles. Subconsciously, he began preening his feathers, cleaning off further in the water. “The pluck are those things? That was a feathering massacre!” Charles shuddered, remembering the way the essence had flooded them. It was clear to him that they were going to be powerful, but how much more powerful could they get? Was something like that normal out here in the wilds?

“Alright, we’re sticking to the river all the way home.” Charles nodded to himself, calming down only after cleaning himself twice over. He still felt dirty, like he’d just witnessed something he really wasn’t supposed to see. Yet, that was also valuable information.

If only because it firmly reasserted one constant.

“Yeah, peck the Daurgast, I’m never going near that place again.” He affirmed to himself once more before beginning his trek up river, careful not to leave any traces that he could as he went. That was more than enough excitement for one day.

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Michael Adams

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