For all that Dane had planned on trying to escape, he hadn’t expected the opportunity that had come to him in the slightest. Thanks to that, he hadn’t been remotely ready for it. Though, it wasn't like he could have planned for what followed anyway. Who but the most out-of-their-mind-delusional person would have hinged their escape plan on a Phorus attack right out of a horror story.
The terrifying Phorus had come, though, and now Dane was doing his best to just adapt. He couldn’t manage much more than holding onto the cage bars desperately though, as the cart violently jostled all over, pulled as it was by the understandably terrified mules as fast as they could go. The sigil work that had been carved into the cart wasn’t designed to take this kind of abuse though, as the cart soared over an abundance of roots and tangles, and it showed.
That wasn’t what drew the bulk of his attention, however. One of their captors lay on the floor, struggling to right himself. Dane felt his heart hammer at the sight of him, anxiety and fear muddying up his mind as his thoughts raced.
‘He’s terribly wounded, but definitely still stronger than I am. tier two probably, so even with the both of us there’s no way to overpower him. The Oath would stop that, anyways, so… throw him out? If I’m not fast enough, I can’t keep him from ordering us to do anything. That, or the Oath will respond to keep me from throwing him out.’ Grimly, Dane shifted, intending on launching himself off of the bars to strike his captor. He might have a chance, but he’d have to act before the poacher came to his senses.
“You stay fucking put!” The man shouted at Dane, catching him off guard and immediately dousing his desperate ploy.
The restraints of the Oath slammed down on his shoulders, less like a cape of intent and more like having grindstones lashed around his body. With a groan, he sank to his knees, furiously helpless as he sat back against the bars. Of course he knew that the poacher would have been wary of him, but Dane had hoped that the man would have been distracted enough to take just a second longer.
“And you-” his words caught in his throat as the woman flared with essence, landing knee first onto his gut. Dane’s eyes widened at the distinct feeling of a gestalt essence formation, freshly forged, but even more so when he saw her wrap her hands around his neck. Breath blasted from his lungs, the poacher’s body hitched with effort as he tried to draw air through the iron grip of the Oath Sworn woman’s clenched hands. He struggled to pry her vice grip from him, essence surging through his beaten body.
And was met with a violent surge of the woman's own, burning through her essence pattern recklessly, harming her for as much as it empowered her.
“A berserker pattern,” Dane couldn’t help but whisper in awe, realizing he was looking at one of the core patterns, forged by a Tier One combatant. ‘She’s either a genius or Samut’s giving her one hell of a boost for revenge,’ helpless, Dane couldn’t peel his eyes from the scene.
The awe was joined by a sick feeling in his stomach as he saw blood trickle from her nose, a rictus of agony growing on her face by way of clenched teeth and a feral focused glare. ‘The Oath is killing her just as surely as her pattern is burning her up. Her body can’t take it, but...’ Dane felt guilty that he was rooting her on, knowing full well that she was their best chance at freedom, even if it would probably cost her her life.
The poacher struggled under her grip, and after a few more seconds of struggling, he grasped down at his hip, trying to reach for his dagger. Unceremoniously, she pressed into his neck tighter, the pressure redoubling as though she intended to rip his throat out. Dane could see the fear flash across the man's face as he fought harder to reach past her leg, trying to get ever weakening fingers to grasp the hilt of the blade. Blood trickled from her nose, seeped from bleeding gums, and the woman’s eyes reddened from rupturing blood vessels. She looked savage, a wordless, soundless snarl coming from bared lips.
Dane took a sharp breath as the poacher finally managed to get a hand around the dagger, pulling it free in one motion. He struggled with it, planting the tip against her rib cage and sought to drive it in deep. It bit into her flesh by centimeters at most, cutting cloth and parting skin, but essence surging muscles kept the weak strike from digging between her ribs. In moments, the dagger fell away from a limp grasp, the iron clattering noisily in the still roiling confines of the cart.
With reluctance painted painfully across the woman's face, she fell to the side, unconscious before she even landed on the planks, one hand still aggressively clutching at half of the man’s neck, but no longer the stranglehold of before.
Even with all of the jostling, Dane almost felt like the world had stilled at the final moments of the struggle. It was all he could do to stare at the scene to make sure he hadn’t somehow imagined it. Yet, even as the cart’s motions evened out, likely with the mules having found the road, the two still remained motionless. They yet drew breath though, that much he realized after a couple minutes of careful watching, but neither seemed like they would be awakening anytime soon.
“Samut, thank you for your little blessings.” Dane whispered to the air, folding his hands in front of his face in one of the very rare instances where he’d ever prayed at all. Still, if there ever was a time when he felt he should give thanks to the god of vengeance and grudges, it was now. His heartbeat gradually slowed down to reasonable levels, and while he had to wipe a cold sweat from his forehead several times, Dane had to admit that this was far better than anything he could have hoped for.
‘The donkeys will bring us to town if they’re at all well trained. So long as this guy doesn’t wake up before then, we’re safe. Hopefully the woman will survive the trip.’ Dane turned his gaze to the corpses in the corner of the cart, then back to the man on the floor, expression souring all the while. ‘They have a lot to answer for, but how far does this go? This isn’t just some bandit excursion. Only a bishop of Tephone’s church should have access to Seals of Liberation, but is that even the same thing that corrupted my Oath?’
His thoughts turned to the vibrant connection he shared with the Red Hawk, feeling her concern and confusion at what all had just happened. With a sinking feeling, he realized that these five were nothing short of valuable political and strategic resources for the Kingdom. If a nobleman was involved…
‘What’s happening?’ he heard the bird speak, only for Dane to remember her name. The fact that she had a name in the first place was stunning, but he was far too overstressed to have remembered immediately.
‘Gabby?’ Dane said, testing the name against his mental connection, feeling a positive thrum in response that he couldn’t help but smile a little at. The smile faltered as he took a deep breath, ‘Well, it looks like the bad person is out cold at the moment.’
‘What about our brother!? We saw and heard him, is he okay?’ Gabby asked, the impression of the bird he’d seen flitting across his connection.
What little remained of the smile on his face froze there, ‘Your brother? That… that Phorus?’
She tilted her head at the name, but the thoughts that accompanied Dane’s words were enough for Gabby to know that they were talking about the same creature. She nodded vigorously, ‘Yeah, that’s him! He’s gotten a lot bigger, and he can’t fly too well, but he’s a good bird!’
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ Dane kept the thoughts to himself, somehow, but followed up quickly, ‘Right… I, err, I think he’ll be fine. I don’t think you have to worry about him.’
She turned her gaze to the others, which Dane realized meant she was communicating with them. He waited patiently while he tried not to process the fact that the Phorus was direct family with the–
‘Oh, Venris’ damned teeth,’ The implications of what that meant exploded in the back of his mind. That Phorus was definitely an aberration, and on top of that Phorus were known to become incredibly aggressive if a valued connection was harmed. In this case, he doubted the animal would be able to think past the fact that this family of five Red Hawk’s might well be missing, or dead. It didn’t take much for him to realize that this entire area might as well be a red zone for newbies until this problem was solved. Phorus were an entire grade above Red Hawk, and they were an even more strictly controlled resource by the Kingdom than most others, given what they could become.
‘--really cool, he’d probably like you if I introduced you to him.’ Dane tuned back into the words Gabby had streamed over to him, and he had to pretend he knew what she was talking about.
‘Oh, uh, yeah, absolutely. And, look, there’s some things you’re going to need to know before we get to town...’ Dane sighed, before going into detail about how they were going to the city, and to be careful and why. That led to a difficult conversation where Dane had to explain that most people were actually good people, but they had to be careful of the ones that weren’t. Normally, no one would try to do anything to a Red Hawk, but they were already all captured. Given what had befallen him, he wasn’t in the mood to blindly trust anyone, but there was also the looming fact that someone had commissioned this job. The problem was that he didn’t know what more he could really do.
Until Gabby made a suggestion that was both ridiculous and exhilarating.
“Are you sure?” Dane couldn’t help but to ask both aloud and through his connection, “This is a big deal. You might not realize this yet, but this isn’t just something you can shirk. It’s fairly damn permanent.”
‘We’re sure. We were all planning on seeing more, doing more, anyways.’ Gabby happily warbled, ‘Besides, you’re not bad for a wingless. Not as good as Eldest, maybe, but not bad!’
‘Well, I guess I’ll take that as a compliment.’ Amused, Dane took a deep breath. He wasn’t actually sure if what they were going to try was even possible. From what he knew, tamers formed two, maybe three bonds at the very most, and even that was left for the best of the best. More simply caused too much conflict, and then there was the fact that tamers had their own inborn talent and bias towards certain creatures.
That also worked in the reverse - not every creature would get along with another of their race, let alone one from another species.
But these weren’t regular beasts, that he was sure of now. At the minimum, they were touched, the slightest bit of aberration on them. Dane tried not to think on how that might well have lended a lot more credence to the possibility that the Phorus was literally their sibling. As insane as those odds were, Dane couldn’t help but feel guilty once more that this was beyond a windfall of luck. If he didn’t have another day of good luck for the rest of his life, he’d still be happy. A pessimistic part of him insisted that this was going to paint a target on his back like no other, but he quietly smothered that notion. It was dangerous, yes, and there were many benefits to be had, but ultimately he knew that if they wanted to leave him, he’d figure something out. They needed to be safe from someone trying to steal them away from each other, and this was the only sure fire way to do it that he could think of.
He mentally pressed on his will, his essence flaring outwards and extending towards the consciousnesses of the other four Red Hawk’s under his guidance. Like a tree with glowing branches, each of them could see it in their mind's eye. Resting already on a pristine branch was Gabby’s mental double, and it was all the other four needed to see to know what they needed to do.
Dane passed out the moment they all made the connection, where the wave of essence they made from connecting overwhelmed their minds.
A heavy impact slammed through the branch of a tree, shearing through the wood almost like it wasn’t there. The hot rush of essence burned through his channels as he screeched in impotent rage. At no point in his life had Charles ever felt like this, and even when he’d been a teenager there wasn’t any time where he’d felt so overwhelmed with emotion that he didn’t know what to do with himself.
Let alone with how much rage still kindled in his chest.
It wasn’t like how he’d imagine it, really. The sensation came in waves, but never quite left, leaving him halfway between crying and screaming. His Phorus side was the main issue, being that it kept fanning the flames, unable to let the sense be. It was discomforting in the extreme.
‘They’re gone,’ the voice in his head whispered once more, ‘They’re gone and there’s nothing to do about it.’
‘I could storm through that city like fury incarnate; break anything and anyone in our way. I could take them back into the forest.’
‘It won’t work, too many people. Essence is available to people, too, so there’s no possibility that I can actually overwhelm them. If that man had been at full strength, would I have still won? Is that the normal level of power? I’d walk into town in a fury and get shut down. Maybe they’d kill me-’ the thought briefly appealed to him in ways he didn’t like ‘-but more likely they’d trap me.’
Another surge sent his conscious mind to the depths, and when he’d come back up he realized he was back by the river, in his slight clearing. He looked to the tree where he’d left his check marks and couldn’t help but to remember how the flock had found him. As soon as the memory hit him, he blacked out once more, but he could vaguely tell that his body was moving.
He stood in front of a gathering of large, gnarled trees, fatigue settling into his bones. Charles shuddered, looking around in confusion, ‘I-I, where am I?’
He looked around, feeling the rage smoldering beneath like a coal fire in a mine. Alongside it was a growing alarm, which gave way to fear. With a trembling gaze, he searched his surroundings, only realizing far too long after that he was at the flock’s old nest. His legs had carried him here, but he could only vaguely remember the sensation of sinking, like a daydream that he couldn’t keep his focus away from.
Charles’ mind blacked out again shortly, only to come awake once more to the sound of his own heaving breath. He could feel his muscles strained like he’d just run a marathon while also sprinting an obstacle course. In a fog, his conscious mind reconnected, tentatively almost, to the rest of his thoughts. When he realized his beak was bloody and he was currently standing over the corpse of a badger, Charles couldn’t help but feel a deepening sense of disquiet from his conscious and subconscious minds.
‘I did this. But… I don’t remember doing this?’ he broke off his line of thought, recollection coming back to him, the coals burning in his guts subsiding somewhat as he strained to keep himself still, even through the tightening in his gut, queasiness threatening to overtake him. The low rumble of panic began to build up and up as he remembered running through the forest, his conscious mind perfectly cognizant of the warpath he’d carved through the area, fighting anything that came near him. It felt natural, after the fact, very matter of course even, like he, as a Phorus, couldn't imagine reacting in any other way to the familial loss he'd experienced. Those seditious thoughts tried to waylay his concern, his control, and the panic built from there.
‘This is-, this isn’t-, this isn’t-’
Charles sprinted through the forest once more, this time under his own full control. Every passing breath was through lungs that felt too small, and Charles noted with surprising calmness that he was hyperventilating. Still, he ran as fast as he could until he reached his nest, and threw himself within. With a heavy crash, Charles forced his body down to the ground in spite of how his legs demanded to be moved, how his muscles roared for activity. The painful ache in his talons and beak whispered the longing for action, and Charles wanted to go and attack something, he wanted to hunt down every human that ever came near his territory and break them to pieces.
‘Phorus instincts are kinda crazy.’ Charles winced, still forcing himself to stay on the ground, eyes drifting randomly across the simple walls that he’d put together in the nest.
His gaze settled on the sigil on the wall eventually, and for a long time he didn’t tear his eyes away from it. The coals of rage were gradually burning out and left with a cold, morose apathy in its place. Slowly and carefully he combed through his feelings and memories, wary of setting himself off any further. Charles knew nothing about Phorus, not really, but he did realize that whatever this bird was, there were definite issues with their psychology. He knew that some animals on Earth could be downright psychotic in the wrong circumstances, but he’d never really thought much of it. However, being one of those animals filled him with an intense wariness for the future. Charles had to admit, he didn’t exactly have a Phorus ‘side’ to him, he was a Phorus, and therefore these instincts were suddenly much more in focus. They were his, and thinking of things through a purely human perspective wasn’t going to work anymore.
Charles' fear and dread steadily abated to reasonable levels, and he took that as an opportunity to dive a little deeper into his own introspection. After a few moments he realized that while his more logical front had little to do with the decisions he’d made at the time, it wasn’t as though his mind had stopped being capable of higher thought altogether. The best he could figure was that he had gone through some serious disassociation after everything that had happened... That... wasn't good. But at least it made sense, he could work with that.
He considered his path between all of his blackouts. The river was one thing, taking himself there was a comfort and was familiar to him. Then came the flock's nest - and with that thought a pain in his chest that brought anger and sadness in equal measure - where he’d been wandering and looking for them, even knowing full well that they weren’t going to be there, and perhaps never would be again. After that, he’d gone on a warpath, moving through the forest in the direction of the mountains. Anything that he had come across was fair game, and Charles couldn’t help but feel disgusted at the pointless rage that drove him to kill all the beasts he’d found. He was no better than a monster, at that rate.
But, his body had been trying to find a trail to follow. Wherever the man had gone, he had wanted to follow. Except that had been impossible from the onset. While he was familiar with the man's scent at close range, he was using some kind obfuscation of a magical variety. Trying to find that stream of scent in the forest was like trying to find a needle in a haystack full of needle-looking objects that moved. As good as his nose was, he couldn’t deal with the magical part of that, especially while his more analytical parts had taken a backseat. When he’d come-to in his nest, he’d realized it was with deep, mournful cries that echoed through the forest. To his dismay, he realized that a touch of that essence still lingered in the air, like an unresolved grudge.
‘I’m so damned tired,’ sighed Charles as he settled his head down. Any more thought on what happened wouldn’t be productive, and in the first place he’d been burning essence at an alarming rate for most of the day. The patterns in his body nearly throbbed with pain, and his mind was in no way ready to work through everything.
He only hoped that when the morning came again, he’d have enough distance from everything that he wouldn't go apoplectic with fury again.