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A note from Michael Adams

Heyo! Looks like we're picking up traction a bit quicker, now! That's definitely a good thing, and thanks for everyone who is rating and reading the story. It certainly helps me have more drive to invest more time in writing, it's always nice when people like your work, y'know?

Anyhoot, 'Enthused' joins 'Noregretsneeded' and 'Humblebee' in the $10 tier on Patreon. Thanks so much! I'll do my best to keep the posting rate up for everyone without burning out. 

Now, as for this specific chapter, this is where we start running into the issue of how Charles is supposed to interact with the rest of the world, so I look forward to what you all think! Enjoy!

 

Charles was pissed.

There was a brief moment where he’d realized that there was an invader in his home, a moment where he was wary, almost frightened. But that moment vanished in a flush of anger, partly born of his exhaustion from his panicked flight from the hornets, partly born from the righteous agitation of someone invading his home, but a significant portion coming from the sheer outrage that his blade beak instincts held at the trespass of not only his dominion, but his nest.

‘Who the pecking hell-’ Charles’ thoughts froze as his eyes narrowed on the woman. There was a sense of oddness to her that he couldn’t quite place. She was shorter than Charles, with a general outfit that suggested a long line of working in forested areas and the like. Her brown and green clothes would blend into the background of the forest - unlike himself, he briefly noted - and be capable of hiding quite well. Everything appeared rugged, made to last, though he wasn’t necessarily an expert in that particular quality.

Yet, the thing that drew his eye most of all on her person was the fur-covered hide currently clenched to her chest.

Charles felt an eyelid twitch in fury, ‘A-are you stealing from me!?’

Quickly his plumage began to expand, and in moments Charles found his anger steering well ahead of any rational thought he might have had. An alert side of his mind noted the blade on her waist, the bow and arrows on her back. She was armed, and if she drew, he’d likely sustain damage in combat.

Yet, his instinctual rise for combat steadied as she almost calmly stared at him.

Then, much to even Charles’ shock, she spoke.

“Uh, hello,” she paused, awkwardly, as Charles blinked in confusion. “I, uh… this is yours.”

The brown haired woman gently and slowly leaned over, placing the hide back on the ground, still watching him carefully. She didn’t draw her blade, nor raise her voice. Charles thought that was terribly hopeful of them, up until he realized he really was remaining calm.

Angry, yes, but he no longer felt the drive to immediately attack.

‘Alright, that’s… weird. So, does she know what I am, then? I’d guess so, if she knows how to deal with my kind well enough for this.’

While he was thinking that, she broke his line of thought by bowing to him. That part had a very strange response from his instincts. Almost immediately, all of the fight went out of him, left only with a disgruntled annoyance and an unsung energy that no longer had an outlet.

Charles huffed aloud, even more annoyed that these instincts were swaying his emotional state so much. The woman jolted slightly at the sound, but remained bowing.

“If nothing else, she’s got a pecking strong spine.” Charles muttered aloud, a small series of chirps resounding. After a few more seconds, he drew in a long, deep breath - and watched as the woman tensed - before letting it out long and slow, imagining that he was breathing out his rage at the same time. It was only marginally helpful, but every bit helped.

He squawked at her, this time she rose, caution clear on her face, muscles still taught. Charles let out another sigh, one more firmly rooted in the kind of annoyance one would feel when they didn’t want to deal with something.

That must have translated across, because the woman suddenly had a surprised and complex look on her face. Charles moved into the nest, plumage still slightly afluff, and stepped to the side.

She looked back and forth between him and the exit.

“Well? Go on.” Charles squawked aloud and gestured to the doorway with his wing talons. That surprised her too, but she steadily moved forward, careful not to get too close to the large predatory bird.

It was then that Charles moved forward, looking at a certain object on the floor. He sighed, squawking once more at the woman who froze in the doorway, uncertainty once more clear on her face.

Charles leaned down, glaring at the fur that she’d held.

“It smells off now.” He muttered to himself, before picking up the offending fur.

The woman glanced at the fur, unable to keep the desire from her eyes. Charles was aware that these furs were high quality, and he could taste the essence on his tongue as it clung to the hide. Perhaps these were a great deal more valuable than he’d guessed.

It still annoyed him, though.

He held the fur tightly in his beak before winding back his head. For a moment, the woman stood stock still, but that lasted only until he’d thrown his head forward, launching the heavy hide at her with gusto. Unprepared, the hide slapped right into her face, bowling her over and out of the nest as she came up with it in her arms. Flabbergasted, she gaped at the hide in her arms and at the bird that threw it at her.

“Off you go, then. Don’t tell your friends.” Charles narrowed his gaze at her and flapped one wing dismissively.

She couldn’t help but keep the beaming smile off of her face, but she got up quickly, scrambling out and away from the trees. Charles wasn’t the best judge of character, but so far everything she did - and didn’t do - hinted that she at least wasn’t an awful person.

There were, admittedly, other reasons why he threw the hide away. There was a chance, however remote, that if there were hunters for him, perhaps this would create an inroad to be something other than hunted. If they knew he was intelligent enough to be able to harvest goods, well, who could say if their first thought would be to kill him, not capture?

He had no illusions of his ability to remain utterly unfound for the rest of his life. Eventually, he would need to interact with society, if nothing else for finding his old family, and more pressingly to be Alterra’s hitman. This, at least, could give him that opening.

Hopefully, there wasn’t some massive city of psychopaths around here that would still hunt him down. In the first place, he imagined poaching was still a thing, so getting to know people who didn’t seem to actively want to harm him could help his image.

He huffed as he moved the other hides, rearranging them so there wasn’t an empty space between them. Of all things, Charles would be sure to keep his word once given. Not being able to communicate certainly had it’s downsi-

“Oh, feathering peck! I could have written in the dirt!” Charles let out a loud retort, “Ah! Stupid! Peck!” He groaned aloud, suddenly second guessing his plans. After reconsidering everything, if he really wanted to go see society, couldn’t he have followed her home?

‘That would sound so sketchy if I wasn’t over glorified hunting hound material.’ With a weak smirk he commented mentally, only to return to glowering at the hides in contemplation.

“No, it’s definitely good to see how she’ll respond to this. I’m definitely going to have to keep an eye on the area though. In hindsight, it’s obnoxiously easy to follow my trail from the river. Maybe if it rains well again soon, it won’t matter, but my tracks from when I was practicing are clear as day. I know next to nothing about their society, either, so it’ll be good to see how she’ll respond to me in the future. If I never see her again, that’ll tell me that, at the least, most people probably consider my kin extremely dangerous. Unless she’s one of those people who want to pet a bear cub, mother bear be damned.” Charles mulled it over, knowing full well he wasn’t going to be able to work with only this much information.

This was a good start for information gathering, though. They were probably of a medieval, perhaps low-renaissance, technological level, though he couldn’t say anything about magic. He didn’t see anything personally, but he wasn’t positive that there wasn’t some kind of device on her person capable of supernatural abilities, either.

Setting that aside, Charles briefly checked outside, straining his sense of smell, sight, and hearing in an effort to listen as she left.

‘Either she’s fast, or she’s very, very quiet.’ Charles clucked to himself, now regretting not having watched her leave to see for certain which the case was. ‘For all I know, people can use essence too. Wouldn’t be that surprising, really. The question is how that takes form.’

He considered the issue as he flopped down into his bed within, basking in the calming energies of the rune. Oddly, it hadn’t seemed to interfere with his previous aggression in the slightest. They didn’t operate as well when he was experiencing emotional highs, and he supposed that his outrage counted.

Contemplating his options, he decided that his actions, while not necessarily the best, could certainly have been worse. Attacking her would have also served to give him more information, but the potential cost was too high. If humans decided that he was abnormally aggressive for his kind, or if the act of aggression alone was enough - as was often the case before - then he might well become a target for extermination. It was also possible that their technological level was higher than he’d anticipated, perhaps not everyone outfitted themselves with the latest tech.

He doubted that, but he wasn’t an expert in any kind of crafting in general, so he couldn’t decidedly state whether the production methods used in any of what he’d seen were somehow profound or impressive. It looked effective, but that was the limit of what he could offer in terms of an appraisal.

Huffing to himself, Charles gradually calmed down under the effects of the soothing, pulsing runes in his sanctuary. Today had been a long day already, and while he was wary, he doubted that there was anything to be wary of for now.

Charles’ fell asleep, relishing the warmth of his nest and the gentle whisper of a breeze as it played through the branches and set leaves to dancing outside.

Elsewhere in the forest…

 

The bird dove down, wings hugged close to her body as she slipped between branches and kicked away from them with a wicked kick of her taloned feet. She moved like a serpentine river, down, down, deftly weaving through the reaching fingers of the tall greens around her. Never did she take her eyes off the prize though, the tantalizing thing that bounced and drifted ahead of her.

Of her siblings, she was the fastest, the most skilled. She knew that she wasn’t the strongest of her immediate kin, their eldest brother would unconditionally hold that designation in her mind’s eye.

At that moment, she pivoted in the air, somehow feeling the movement of the wind before it had even reached her. As she did, her quarry moved, too, bidden by the breeze to sweep sideways erratically. She threw her wings wide, darting forward to the–

Then flared her wings as a piercing cry resounded from the side. It was, annoyingly, like being slapped in the face with noise, enough to stun her even if only for the briefest of moments. In the next heartbeat, a blur of black and red smashed through branches with impunity from another side, thick talons snapping out at the target.

He missed the target. Yet, Talon didn’t give a breath of relief yet, knowing that Yak was nothing if not tenacious. With feet that ironically seemed better at crushing, rather than tearing, her younger brother snapped at the floor of plant matter manically, each time growing more bewildered as it drifted left and right away from him.

Then, from below, a beak poked up, seeking to grab the floof out from under him. She was a sneaky one, Gabby being more than capable of sneaking up on even her. The edge of the floof was in her grasp as she fell away, a triumphant look on her face as she moved to secure her hold.

And, true to form, another piercing cry stunned the three of them, just enough that Gabby let go of the floof. The essence infused bombardment came from above as yet another blur of red and black darted down low, threading through trees while spiraling. He was the next most agile, Owl having strived to keep up with Talon’s own prowess.

‘Three accounted for, now where’s… ah!’ Talon’s gaze lit up as she set her eyes on the last member of the troupe. Pecky, now thoroughly annoyed with Owl’s petulant screech attack, bowled into him from the nook of the tree they were in. They sprawled out against the dense leaves, Pecky thoroughly cackling and pecking his sides to relentlessly tickle him.

Talon shook her head before diving down once more, swiping the floof out of midair gracefully. She flapped her wings, briefly relishing in the sensation of wind against her feathers, before she came to a rest near the rest of her siblings. Owl and Pecky extricated themselves from the other, bickering as they did. If any of the siblings were surprised that Talon had won, it didn’t show.

Though, Owl did shoot Pecky a few more dirty looks. To be fair, he had been in a prime position to potentially steal away the prize.

Talon maintained a calm look, trying her best not to look overly pleased with herself.

Though, as her tail feathers flexed back and forth happily, the rest of the siblings could tell she was pleased as a peach.

And then they all froze as one, a strange scent drifting on the wind. Talon, Pecky, Gabby, and Owl exchanged glances.

“That smells… strangely familiar.” Owl put forward with a slight furrow of his feathered brow, “I can’t quite place it.”

Pecky chirped back, “It smells like a bird of some kind. But, like, not our kind of bird? Well, kind of our bird, but like, different?”

“That makes sense.” Gabby nodded thoughtfully in response, “Yak, you’ve got the nose, what doe–where did Yak go?”

Startled, the four of them realized that Yak was gone. A tremor of worry rose in them collectively before they heard the distant, deep cry of their sibling, having already long taken off and begun moving in the direction of the scent.

Helplessly, Talon opened her wings, “Well, whatever it is, it’s got him worked up. Let's back him up. Last time he tried to nest on an Ironback.”

The siblings cringed as one. That had been an experience.

“Let’s go.” Talon dropped from the branches, catching herself with an elegant spin as three more pairs of wings followed behind her, moving southward. All the while, the essence-infused scent continued to fill their lungs, inexplicably filling them with a sense of warmth and trepidation.

‘Is this?...’ Talon caught herself thinking of old memories, but in spite of her practical side telling her the odds that he’d survived were low, she couldn’t help but hope. The lost one had saved them, and while he was special in the head and couldn’t talk right, he was smart in his own way, and had paved the way for them.

If it was him, she wondered if maybe he even knew how to fly. He didn’t bird very well, from what she remembered.

‘Wait and see,’ she cautioned herself, but was unable to keep the bit of excitement and hopeful expectation from her face.

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Michael Adams

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