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A note from Michael Adams

Aaaalright! Another post! There's not teeeeribly a lot of bring up, though we did briefly get under the 200's in rank! Our rating was at something like 4.79, but then I'm pretty sure someone gave us a 4.5, bringing it down to an even 4.75 (I think?). DO NOT get the impression that I expect people to only give me five stars and that's it! I'm actually still super excited and happy that we're going so strong and staying tall. At this rating, any little shift matters a lot, and I'm more than happy with where we've ended up already!

...that said, we could always use more reviews, and sharing to your friends. -cough cough-

Ahem! Anyhoot, I'd like to thank the new patrons again; "mly85lc", "Filip", "Daniel Hernandez", "Logan Vingris", "Mark", "Andrew Read", "Robert Chappuis", "Pokox", and "Nicholas Pelzl"! Thanks all of you for your patronage, and thank you to you readers here! As always, this wouldn't be possible without all of the good will and help in climbing the ladder that you give!

Also, violence soon! Not yet, though. Not yet. 

 





The nights weren’t exceptionally cold in the Evergreen, at least from what Talon had experienced so far. She knew, distantly, that there were changes she could expect from the environment, shifts in temperature and weather patterns. How she knew that, she couldn’t quite place. Part of it certainly came from her instincts, but as with many other things, there was a kernel of information that came from within her own mind, as though the knowledge was waiting for the engagement of thought to reveal itself. Talon hadn’t spoken to the others about this phenomena; knowledge was useful, and she somewhat guessed that the others experienced it as well. Perhaps it was as natural as the instincts that guided her to do other things.

There were some instincts that directly seemed to clash with the knowledge in her head, however. The kitten - cub - that lay beneath her was a precious and young thing - nemesis, predator, young and vulnerable - and deserved to be protected. Sheltered amidst herself and her siblings, it had finally managed to stop shaking and seemed to have fallen into a mostly still sleep. Somewhere in her mind she recognized that this saber tooth cub represented a beast that would eventually grow to rival their dominion over the area.

And, she recognized thanks to the knowledge in her mind, that such a thing was perfectly acceptable. So what if it would grow up eventually? That wouldn’t matter, they weren’t even really hunting the same prey. Additionally, they as hawks were superior; wings trumped mere, petty legs any day.

‘Sorry, Eldest,’ she offered a brief moment of regret for his current form. Perhaps in the future he could change again, become something else. Her knowledge was suspiciously silent in regards to the topic, perhaps it was something she was required to find out on her own. Talon took a deep breath, imagining putting her instincts in a box and then-

-crushing them down beneath her talons like the rodents they were behaving like.

All at once, the little whispers in her head telling her to harm the adorable bundle of fur beneath her body fell away, silenced beneath her will. ‘It is a child. A child that is most obviously hurt and terrified. I don’t know what Gabby did, but she made a promise, and she needs help upholding it. We’re family, so of course I’ll help her.’ She nodded to herself as she nestled herself back in, letting up a little bit on her side of the bird-pile to make sure the kitten didn’t overheat too much.

She liked this, the feelings that came from protecting something weaker than her giving her a sense of satisfaction that she relished. More than that, the knowledge that this beast would grow big and strong in the future did not detract from that, instead it added to it. During this vulnerable period, they would protect it. Who knew, perhaps in the future it would return the favor?

Not that she required it of the poor thing. If it did, all the better, and if it didn’t, well, that was fine too.

Just as she lay her head atop one of her siblings shoulders to settle in for some sleep, she heard a disjointed ‘snap’ from outside. Talon paused, not especially concerned as of yet. There were plenty of nocturnal creatures that passed around their home. Unlike what their Eldest had done, their flock of hawks had no intention of advertising their presence overtly. Going unnoticed was the best protection, Talon fervently believed, and leaving marks all over their stretch of the woods would do the exact opposite for them.

She settled in deeper, resolved to let the noises be when suddenly another noise happened, a scuffling sound that was much closer, albeit lower in volume.

‘Hmm… Now what is that?’ Talon frowned, her raptor eyes narrowing in concentration as she rose, doing her best to remain quiet. She flapped her wings once near soundlessly, even in spite of the confines of the hollow, coming a short ways towards the entrance of their nest. There were several small entrances and exits, though only three that were genuinely large enough to blast through at full speed. They weren’t straight shots through, either, considering the fact that their flock had procured several items in the forest - loot, Eldest had called it - they had also reinforced certain places with bits of plant, sticks, grass, and other such things in order to keep the draft of wind down.

Talon carefully picked her way to the edge of the entrance before casting her sight out into the darkness. This night was darker than most, no moon to speak of and much of the stars hidden behind the canopy. She and her siblings couldn’t see very well at night, a problem that they’d shared with Eldest. He, on the other hand, seemed to have no issue regardless of day or night, something that she begrudgingly had to admit he had the upper hand on. Nevertheless, she strained her vision, trying to pierce the darkness.

Then, she also started to cast out her still developing sense for the wind around her. She’d been growing more and more capable of manipulating the winds around her, more attuned to it, she’d felt. Even so, the range wasn’t especially great, but it was plenty for her normal routine. But what she wanted of it now was more, greater in a sense that she could feel in her bones. Her wings almost ached with the sensation of essence in them, and she briefly grew distracted at the feeling. Her essence channels were on the cusp of something greater there, she could clearly tell from the way her channels were reluctant to release essence, instead compacting it, straining against her body like a flexing muscle working it out.

Still, she dragged her attention away from that sensation. For now, there was something happening that her instincts were practically shouting about. Talon’s eyes focused, managing to catch the vague outlines of the nearby trees and their branches, some reaching upwards, others stretching their limbs outwards. Nothing was out of place there that she could see, and so she began to scan lower and lower among the trees.

Even with the darkness, she could generally make out the nearest trees, but the ground was another story. Perhaps Owl would be able to see better, he’d at least gone hunting at night occasionally to try to practice.

‘Maybe it was a false alarm,’ Talon clucked aloud, before shaking her head.

Suddenly her sense of the wind alarmed her of something moving. It took her a precious moment to realize that it wasn’t moving through the open air, but instead was close, clinging to the tree just below her ledge. Even before any other thoughts could intrude, she knew that her casual noise must have startled them, because whatever it was had burst into action then.

She braced for what might be an attack, but instead was confused as her wind sense picked up a small object being slung through the opening, upwards and over her.

‘A rock? It’s not even aiming at me, so wh–’ a kernel of knowledge, one greater and more terrifying than anything she’d ever been granted before, pushed into the forefront of her mind, ‘--a grenade!?’

The object clattered into the midst of the nest, and Talong let out a shriek of alarm. Already in her mind’s eye, an explosion of fire and steel played out, shredding them in this small space. There’d be no escape, it was almost certain death at this range.

It burst then, a sudden bright light and a piercing, disorienting noise that blasted her mind and ears. Concussed, she cried out once more, unable to even hear the sound of her own voice. The rest of the flock would certainly be worse off given that they’d been sound asleep previous to that.

She didn’t know about any of that though, instead her mind nearly felt like it was burning with the sheer force of will she marshalled to push the terror and panic down. ‘Focus! We’re not dead, it was a– a flashbang grenade!’ she felt a kind of relief at that, but also a disquiet, ‘The attack isn’t over.’

Sure enough, the moment she refocused on the only sense not affected that was available to her, she detected the movement of the individual from outside. Wind told her where he was, climbing expertly over the edge of the tree. Talon let out a battle cry and took wing, her short wingspan had given enough space to launch her first headlong and then talons first at the assailant with an expert flare of her wings. Unable to hear or see, Talon had no idea if the thing was at all alarmed, but he did seem to recoil.

More so when her claws sank deep into her forearm, piercing straight through the hardened shell there.

Her satisfaction lasted only a moment though, her thoughts disoriented and just a heartbeat too slow to block or dodge the man's wild swipe. It caught her upside the head, feeling like she’d just been clobbered with a rock, only somehow harder. She fell to the ground, now so discombobulated that even her wind sense gave no clear picture.

A moment later, she felt something wrap around her, and as much as she struggled, she couldn’t seem to break free. Unwilling to give up, she struggled more, bursts of wind heedlessly slapping against the area around her. Only when she was hit again did she stop, reduced to unconsciousness even as the man muttered under his breath.

“This fucking forest, I swear on Samut’s name I’m not stepping in this damned place ever again.”

—------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Elsewhere, a certain Phorus stretched out, greeting the morning light with a chipper, low caw. He’d gotten a good night's sleep, though that wasn’t nearly as rare anymore as it had been during his human life. Even without the sigils in his nest, he doubted he’d have nearly as much trouble sleeping as he once did. Sure, he had some responsibilities, some of which might appear to be impossible - he certainly had no idea how he was going to kill a bunch of the deities' apostles - but he also didn’t have anything pressing to do right then. No need to pay rent, go to the grocery store, do the dishes. None of that, and one other thing he’d realized is that he also didn’t have to do any laundry.

That, he had to admit, was pretty nice, up until that also reminded him of the fact that electricity, sweets, perfectly climate controlled rooms, and the ability to drive down to a grocery store to get anything he needed was something he couldn’t do either. He mentally griped about that, the moments when he missed his old life coming fewer and farther between, but still just as depressing. Considering everything that had happened, he felt that he was taking his new life in stride fairly well.

Admittedly, if it wasn’t for the company of his bird siblings and parents at the start of his life, he was pretty sure he would have lost his mind. The calming sigil in his nest did wonders for stabilizing his mentality as well, and without it he didn’t want to consider how much of a wreck he would have been.

After finishing his morning routine of stretching and lightly checking the surrounding area of his nest, Charles moved towards the river. His long gait swallowed the distance quickly, and after much practice scarcely left any trace of the Phorus’ passing. Idly, he considered how much time had passed since he’d come into his new life, and realized that at some point he hadn’t really been keeping track. He was sure it was less than three months, but more than one. The fact that he grew so quickly was alarming in a way, but he also knew that he was far from what one might consider a normal beast. Even his siblings weren’t quite full grown yet, and he himself had no idea when he would be full grown. He also had no idea if he could evolve once more, or if he was locked in with this body for the rest of his life.

If he was, he’d work with it, but he somewhat hoped that he could keep progressing. Something told him that - in spite of his formidable combat abilities - he wouldn’t measure up very well to any of the acolytes that he’d eventually need to do battle with if he couldn’t.

Charles preened and fussed over himself in the water, admiring his vague reflection in the more still areas of the water. At this rate, he knew he’d probably already developed something of a complex regarding his appearance, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

‘I just look so damn good!’ He chirped happily, shaking out his plumage and scanning the area around himself. No signs of any watchers alerted him, and so he quickly moved to his customary fishing spot a little ways up river. It didn’t take long to catch one, and after making it a meal he plodded over to the tree that bore several horizontal lines in it. From afar, it wasn’t very obvious, but up close, it was clear that the lines were intentional. Charles added one more, marking his current height while noting that his growth had slowed now.

‘Damn, how tall does a Phorus get?’ Shaking his head, he turned in contemplation, ‘I mean, I guess I put down a lot of food, but I’m pecking huge.’

His thoughts wandered to the sabretooth cat that he’d met some time ago. At the time, he figured he’d have to take damage fighting it, but after several days of growth, he wasn’t so sure that it would be all that hard anymore. He wasn’t growing upwards much more, but he could feel his body getting denser, heavier with the muscles that he cultivated with his training. Even in the wild, he doubted there were many beasts who took such pains to train. Most animals on Earth didn’t partake in any kind of dedicated exercise; intelligence only being a minor point, they simply didn’t have the energy to waste to do such things, and hunting or searching for food was enough to keep their bodies in normal operating conditions. Charles, gifted as he was with his current form, had never intended on relying on ‘normal operating conditions’ for his body, especially after how cancer and sickness had wasted away his last body.

All of this building on one fact, ‘I am one beefy bird.’

Charles strutted his way forward, before lingering on the edge of the river’s clearing. ‘I should go see how those critters are doing,’ he considered idly, before frowning. He’d all but decided already that he would be leaving the forest soon, but he still wasn’t sure how his siblings would take the news. Would they try to go with him?

‘Actually, is that a bad idea?’ He immediately shook his head, ‘Just the amount of attention that would draw wouldn’t be good. Especially since I’m going to need to somehow be more covert. Until I know more about the acolytes, just being a tame will help me immensely. I doubt they’ll be looking for something like me in the first place, or looking at all.’ He’d already pondered the benefits of traveling with a group that was none the wiser of his ultimate goals. The fact that he could organically see the world and how it operated would be invaluable for his future plans.

But he couldn’t take his siblings with him. They’d draw too much attention, and moreover, he couldn’t be sure he could protect them, let alone any humans he’d be around. It was, perhaps, callous, but he’d rather the people around him be at least semi-disposable. That concept probably wouldn’t survive extended contact with a group that he liked, but it was a good thing to keep in mind, he felt.

Charles began his jog through the forest while carefully managing the essence pattern in his legs. As soundless as a shadow, he wove between plants and over them, bounding against tree trunks at times, the only noise coming from a rustling branch, rather than the heavy stomp of the Phorus as it moved. It still took several minutes to get in range of the nest, and Charles grinned widely as he began to note the scents of the Red Hawks in the area.

He slowed his steps and took a deep breath, before releasing it in a bugle call through the air, announcing his presence. The essence blast poured out from him jovially and with mischief, hoping to take them by surprise like he frequently did. Yak was usually the first one out, much akin to a feathered bomb rather than a hawk. Charles braced his feet wide this time, Yak was a big boy, and he did not know that launching himself for a hug felt like getting a backpack full of books shunted at his chest flat-footed.

Charles waited, looking around and feeling surprised that he couldn’t hear them coming. He didn’t let up his vigilance in spite of that; Talon, Pecky, and Owl all were adept at moving through the air without making much noise, something that had improved with their little games. Yet, after seconds counted down, much to his rising sense of wariness, nothing happened.

‘Hmm… Maybe they’re not home?’ Charles let his stance relax visibly, though he still retained the footing he needed to pivot out of the way at a moment's notice. He intentionally gave off several openings, but after another thirty seconds, nothing happened. ‘Alright, they’re definitely not here.’ Amusement played across his eyes as he jogged towards their home tree. If nothing else, he’d just wait and ambush them in their own lair, maybe screech at them or som-

His attention trailed off as he noted a strange, weak scent in the air. Charles slowed, tasting the smells, more wood, but something else. He couldn’t quite place it, but it seemed familiar somehow, albeit quite old. If he needed to, he could probably track it, but if the wind picked up, that wouldn’t necessarily be true. That was one thing he’d noticed, most of the time the forest was an excellent place to track others through scent, but on the days when wind really picked up, that wasn’t true anymore. While he hadn’t had any close calls due to that, he did realize that being upwind or downwind was something he’d have to internalize going forward. If he thought he was safe and let down his guard, but couldn’t even detect half of his environment, he’d just be asking to be ambushed.

Charles pushed onwards, still catching whiffs of the scent as well as some others. That worried him, given how close to the nest they were. ‘What am I even smelling?’

He felt he knew the scent, but it just barely tickled his senses, dulled as it was by time and the weight of other scents in the world. Perhaps the next time he could, he’d enhance his sense of smell with an essence pattern, filter things better. That’d be some time, no doubt, but it was something to consider.

The sense of something wrong only grew the closer to the tree Charles drew. The smell was only growing more abundant, and Charles felt his pulse begin to rise.

‘Please,’ he cast his hope out into the world, unable to put to words the rest of his wish for fear that it might be true. Charles’ form blurred forward, stealth forgotten in his hurry as he began to realize what the smell was. He’d smelled it the other day from the poachers, it was undercut and muted, but he still recognized it. He’d only just now begun to recognize other scents as well, much closer to the tree. Coppery and tangy, he could almost taste blood, minute amounts of it, where a fight had broken out. Not a lot of it had been spilled, but that did little to slow the rapid staccato of his heartbeat.

Equal parts of panic and despair poured into him as his traitorous mind conjured up images of his siblings being slain without him having ever known it, even as his rational mind pointed out the irregularities around them. Yet, the words ‘Not again, not again, please not again,’ would not be denied. ‘Not another family. No, no, no, no-’

Charles clambered over the edge of the nest, seeing into the tree hollow fully. Here, the scent of blood was the most potent, but still far less than it would have been for a fatal injury. Other scents lingered, something acrid and sharp in its tones that he didn’t recognize, as well as what suspiciously smelled like saber tooth cat, and his eyes gave him more details.

The inside of the nest had been scattered all about, the herbs, plants, and even shiny materials that Yak had found were all missing, save for bits and pieces that lay scattered between branches randomly. A scorch mark on the floor from something caught his attention, and upon closer examination he realized that this was the source of that oddly terrible smell. In any other frame of mind, he might have guessed at what it was, but he only filed that straight into the back of his mind. He could assume they were still alive, that they’d been captured. Poachers. The word evinced a bone deep wrath in Charles even as he knew what he needed to do, what he wanted to do, to save his siblings.

He crept low, placing his snout directly against where he smelled blood. It was human blood, that much he was certain of, and as he keyed in on it, he felt his instincts roil, prodded relentlessly into action by his conscious mind. He needed to find this man, and his blood would help him do it.

With a low hiss, Charles’ feathers stood on end and a deep rumble joined the noise from in his chest. The air around him reverberated like a drum as his panics and fears were subsumed by something deeper. Whatever thoughts he had about what had happened, they were buried, with the singular focus he’d obtained.

“Not again. Never again.” Charles growled as fury and rage built in his chest.

Without any further delay, he turned and bounded down the tree, senses opened as widely as possible as he darted through the undergrowth with fervor and violence in his veins.

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Michael Adams

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