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A note from Michael Adams

Aaaaalright! It's triple post time! I'm going to be cloning this nearly exactly across each of the three chapters, so if you're on the first or second of them, ignore this! (Total Chapters 3, Chapter 33, Chapter 34, and Chapter 35)

This has been a lot more work, because while I'm trying to keep my health up, I maaaay have gone too hard in the paint for a little too long. That being said, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday I will not be posting! Probably! I may end up releasing one tomorrow, but it'll just be a single chapter, just like usual. Again, future posts will no longer be set to happen on Sunday or Monday so I can reeeest!

We have had a lot of growth! We're over 1400 followers now, which is incredible, and the Patreon growth is likewise great! Many thanks to "The Architect", "Victor", "Ampharos3", "Andrew Holland", "JC", "WhyNot42", "kyle hirshson", "Ricky WIlmot", "Christopher Fetherston", "Rhettro", "Karan", "Tyler Shepherd", "Zmal", "Preston West", "Benjamin Brittain", aaand "CosmicOrange"! Absolutely titanic growth, and thank you all for that! Thanks to the readers here, as per the usual, for enabling this growth with your warm support and being generally awesome!

 

Edit Notice: This chapter has received a considerable reconstruction as of 05/24/2022. If you haven't read it, I would strongly suggest you do so.

Changed as of 05/24/2022

 




Charles dropped the weapons he held in his beak, grumbling dispiritedly about how awkward it was trying to carry them. In spite of that, his eyes gleamed with joy, and deep inside he could almost feel the same kind of early giddiness he used to get as a kid at Christmas time. As far as distractions went, this was going exceedingly well.

The Phorus picked up another sword first, sliding it in place next to three others. This was a short sword, so it went on the right, followed swiftly by the second sword he’d just collected. That one went to the left, leaving a total of five swords, with a greatsword in the middle. Each stuck out of primitively woven vines near the middle length of the blades, strapped between a set of sticks that kept them from falling over. He was particularly proud of that, pointedly ignoring that if he had real hands it would look far better. The adorned nest itself was flanked by axes, daggers, even a sickle, each embedded into narrow, short logs that lay just past the leaves, twigs, and thatch that made up the core sleeping area he’d put together.

‘That second group wasn’t bad, but the third…’ he shook his head, remembering just fully bulldozing over the third group. ‘Maybe people aren’t actually all that strong in this world?’ Instantly Charles steeled himself against letting down his guard, ‘No! No, they’re probably just noobs. Fresh feathered and untempered. Well, good for them that they met me, and not a bear or something! I only stole their weapons.’ Again, Charles paused, briefly contemplating if they could afford getting those replaced.

He shrugged his feathered shoulders, ‘Meh, I’m sure it’ll be fine.’

With a content warble, Charles sat down in the middle of the nest, feeling for certain that this wasn’t regular behavior for a Phorus. But even so, it felt pretty good! Idly, he wondered if perhaps he was actually a hidden klepto, but he quickly decided that wasn’t the case. Just because something was shiny, didn’t mean he…

…Well… Okay, so it was true that he took coins, too. And bits of armor. There were those shiny river rocks in the corner, right next to collections of shiny probably-ore-rocks and plants that shimmered with essence. Charles nodded at the sight, feeling giddy again at the sight and immediately fluffed up his feathers and started to preen himself with a little musical trill accompanying it. If it wasn’t for his siblings, he wouldn’t have really thought to look so closely at the plants and earth all around.

All at once the ‘feel good’ sensations vacated him. He felt just as much heartache as before, but Charles pushed that thought down and furiously preened through his feathers. Failing to capture the cart with them in it hurt in ways that Charles was all too familiar with, and as much as he wanted to lie down and let his self-destructive cycle of apathy, depression, and painful reminiscence get the better of him, Charles couldn’t do that. The world wouldn’t wait for him to get his feathers in a row - current preening session notwithstanding - and so he’d have to push forward despite the pain. He had plans, and he’d worked through enough of his thoughts in the background to know what was and wasn’t tenable.

Getting into the city on his own would be possible. But then what? Search houses? Follow their scent while obscured by hundreds, maybe thousands of others? He’d never tested that, and he didn’t want to risk his family on a ‘maybe’. Chiefest among his other considerations was the fact that he could, probably show that he was not just sapient, but fully intelligent and capable of human-aligned thought. It was a fact that sapience must have existed in beasts somewhere in this world, but there were manifold issues with that fact.

Sapience on Earth was easy, it effectively meant you were human, perhaps some would argue for intelligent species like dolphins or some chimps to be included. Sapience was wisdom, the ability to consider your world and think beyond reaction to stimulus; it was the ability to say ‘I think, therefore I am,’ and to consider with sagacity the world around you. That did not mean human, nor even humanoid, here. A sapient here could very easily still view a human being as a prey item, uncaring as to a shared sapience.

‘The question becomes if it’s a good idea for them to be fully aware that I’m completely sapient. Those sabretooth cats seemed sapient too, but perhaps there are levels to it?’ He shook his head at those thoughts. Charles heavily considered writing on the ground to the next group he ran across, just to see their response. At worst, he’d kill them all… ‘No… no I don’t think that would be a good idea. I’m fairly certain more deaths at this point will definitely result in a bigger response. It’s still controllable right now, there’s no reason to make things worse.’

He reconsidered the writing; being able to comprehend languages spoken to him might not be too outside of aberrational abilities, but what if his written language comprehension was a different story? Did they work differently? Was that a risk he was willing to take?

Unlike the ‘maybe’ of before, this plan at least showed some promise. Writing to the next group might be a good idea, but he’d want to study them first. It wouldn’t be perfect, but hopefully he could get some kind of read, or vibe-check from them and see if they might not freak out. Charles fully accepted that he might be overthinking this, but if he could communicate with a group, that would be the easiest. As much as he was distrustful of people, they seemed to be his easiest way into the city. He’d definitely have to follow them for a bit, though, perhaps insert himself into the group as well if he could get away with not having someone try to tame him, and see how they worked.

‘But now the problem is finding a decent group.’ Charles clucked to himself, ‘None of these pecking teams are any good. That first was… just awful. Unacceptable,’ he let out a low growling noise of discontent, still thinking over the first group. What had been wrong with them? Charles wanted to say something about it being their apparent callousness to the body, but was that the case? A part of him thought that was at least a factor, but there was something else that he just couldn’t quite put a claw on as of yet. Maybe because they didn’t have a ghost of a chance at beating him at all? That seemed to be comfortable with with his instincts, even if he himself felt very uncomfortable with that concept. ‘Am I a masochist? Or is that a ‘warrior mentality’ kind of instinct?’

Finishing up with preening himself fully took the better part of an hour, at which point, Charles simply settled into the nest and let the sigil overhead help to calm his mind. Within minutes, he was sleeping, gentle rises and falls of his chest the only movement in his nest.

 

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

 

When he awoke later, his mood still felt off kilter, and he knew that he wasn’t completely rested in the whole sense as of yet. Still, his body demanded movement, so he certainly wasn’t going to be able to get any more sleep. With a large, satisfying stretch, Charles trod out of the nest, automatically testing the air with his nose and surveying the area immediately around him. Nothing was out of place in the near area, save perhaps some slightly new growth here and there on bushes and trees. Satisfied that the area was safe, Charles’ eyes searched for the approximate location of the sun.

It seemed that the day's events hadn’t taken too ridiculously long, at the least. There were still a few hours of sunlight left over to work with.

‘Let's go patrol again,’ he thought to himself, unable to keep the grin off of his face, ‘I may as well see if there are any more donations to the Bird-Throne available.’ Even knowing that he was stealing from people didn’t dampen his morale at all, and with a loud hoot of enthusiasm, Charles set out to the river. Stealth pattern up at all times, Charles barely left any kind of trace of his passing, and after another bath and preening session, the Phorus moved off in the direction of Greenleaf. At the very least, he wanted to find a group that wouldn’t instantly fold the moment he showed up and challenged them. If he had to find out more about the world and how human society worked, he’d need a proxy in the first place.

They couldn’t be too much more powerful than him– if at all, considering the ambiguous nature of his circumstances in case he needed to get rid of them– but he could accept being defeated or at least fought to a stalemate by a group. He worried, though, that if they were too strong, he’d just be in a position for abuse. Thus far, Charles hadn’t seen any indication that animals were treated well, considering the poachers’ actions. That the poachers had taken their quarry alive only barely trended towards the likelihood that beasts weren’t only useful for materials and trophies. Without being able to know anything more on the subject, though, Charles was incredibly reluctant to put himself entirely at the mercy of another. Granted, he still didn’t have a good picture of the whole of taming, neither what that entailed nor the actual treatment of most tames, but he was working off of his worst case scenarios first.

If they were only somewhat stronger than him as a group, he should be able to overpower them individually or be able to escape, at least. The damned poacher leader had already proved to him that an advantage in combat didn’t matter as much if the other party was entirely willing to just cut and run.

Charles put those thoughts aside as he climbed over hilly terrain and slipped through undergrowth. The Evergreen was, as always, a vast expanse of trees and undergrowth that gave him the impression of a resilient, but welcoming land. There was darkness here, yes, but it was less of an encroaching dark and more of a restful darkness. He couldn’t quite place the sense, perhaps living here with his heightened senses had turned what would have been a discomfiting experience and made it no different than walking through his living room at home. Aside from the obvious lack of four actual walls, he truly did feel at home in the forest, and with his senses as good as they were he felt he could handle most threats that would come into the forest.

The winds blew a little harder through the woods, still barely more than a gentle summer breeze. It was enough to carry traces of something with it though, and that made Charles change his course, caution tempering his previous excitement. Dozens of hunts and days worth of experience in stalking prey tempered by his instincts made him a force to be reckoned with.

As he neared, the scent became that much more potent, but he still couldn’t quite place it. It was a fascinating smell though, sweet but at the same time somehow more robust and savory. Was this an animal? If it was, Charles wanted to eat it. Already he salivated at the thought, and a shiver of goosebumps raised his feathers in anticipation. Another shudder rolled through him as he got even closer. Charles felt his heart rate pick up and almost sped up his steps. His self-training had reigned that in, and in that moment, he instead stopped moving entirely.

‘No… this is… I shouldn’t be feeling like this? The pluck is this kind of response? Instincts, hello?’ The instant he’d begun the thought, he forced his body to lie down, hunkering against a tree and beneath the winding tangle of the undergrowth. Charles could still smell the scent, and out of caution he reached out with his senses, concentrating especially with his strange essence-sense in order to test the scent. To his relief, there was no unusual essence present in the smell, but there was potent essence. Unlike back in the Daurghast, this didn’t seem to be some kind of actively mind-altering effect.

‘Unless I can’t detect the essence,’ he frowned, ‘What if I can’t really see all essence, and only some of it?’ Charles paused as a tendril of fear worked through his mind.

He clamped down on it, quickly dispersing it, ‘I can’t afford to be overly paranoid about everything that I don’t know. I’ll never get anything done. That said… this is still odd.’

It was odd, because nothing in the forest had smelled quite so good. It was practically a massive signboard that demanded his attention. He wasn’t especially hungry before, but now it felt like he had a roaring furnace for a stomach, near empty and demanding more. The sensation would have been more unsettling if he didn’t think it truly belonged to him, but that only perplexed him further. Whatever could make him act like this needed to be approached with caution, but at the same time it could also be something to be avoided entirely. With every passing moment, though, his willpower eroded rapidly, his instincts demanding the promising meal.

In spite of his instincts howling in his ears, Charles realized that this could be something specific to Phorus. And, to build on that, he’d never smelled that scent before in the area, so it either wandered in, or…

‘This is definitely bait.’ Charles accepted the explanation, though he was less than pleased at the possibility. ‘The question is how malicious is the intent behind it? Am I to be captured? Killed? Is it malicious at all? Probably.’

He breathed in deep, slowly, controlling the motion and feeling the way his lungs expanded with the air. The scent was there, but he tried to put it out of his mind while failing to cool his desire for the meat. It was a new world, and if he was back on earth, then any animal attacking a human would certainly be put on the radar to be killed by authorities. But, the real question was how people would respond here. Charles wondered if it mattered that he didn’t kill anyone, anyone that wasn’t a poacher anyways. He didn’t even horribly maim any of them either, but he did steal from them.

‘Won fairly,’ he corrected mentally, ‘but in all seriousness… I’m going to need to walk into this trap to know for sure, aren’t I?’

That was not something he looked forward to, but he could at least approach and take stock of the situation first. Something about that response didn’t jibe with the rest of his mind, but he rationalized that he wasn’t just going to walk into a trap. He’d examine it from all sides, first, before moving in any closer. With that in mind, he slipped through the greenery, making sure to avoid the few bright shafts of light that managed to penetrate the canopy above. The sounds of the forest accompanied him, but he was long comfortable with the normal sounds. They faded to the background, but he listened for anything unusual. The rustle of leaves against the wind, the cracking of a twig, the crinkle of leaves underfoot, anything that might oust a potential ambusher. Beyond that, he examined common places where he would stash himself, were he a human and in hiding. Nothing was obvious, but he also wasn’t nearly as experienced in laying traps as he was in silent pursuits.

It could be that he’d already walked past someone in hiding, and didn’t even know it yet. He sniffed the air as he went, but he didn’t detect anything amiss. That in and of itself sent more alarms off, and instead of moving straight in, he panned wide. Every step towards it made him want to rush in more and more, and he grew increasingly irate at how much he was salivating.

‘Okay, what in Alterra’s name is this?’ He shook his head, feeling his will slipping as he circled, still thirty meters away. ‘Is this, like, catnip for Phorus, or something?’

Charles stalked around more, searching the ground for evidence of passage, of any sign that someone would have set up a trap in the area. He moved slowly and methodically, but didn’t realize that he was drifting closer and closer to the scent until he looked back up, realizing that he was roughly fifteen meters away from the source of the smell.

‘I don’t see anything still,’ he involuntarily warbled to himself with consternation, ‘No other smells either, no major tracks. Are there… Are there really no people here?’

He didn’t like that, every instinct he had was absolutely unhelpful, as virtually everything was getting dragged towards the idea of eating whatever the hell smelled soooo delicious!

Charles strode forward, only narrowly keeping his patience enough to not sprint at the source of the scent. Against his better judgment, he moved deeper, no longer a careful circling but instead a direct line. In a feather-raising breeze, the smell hit his nostrils again, driving the spike of irrational need deeper into his thinking mind. He heard no unusual sounds still, smelled nothing out of the ordinary in the forest aside from that smell. And with the lack of any obvious traps, logs, nets, tripwires, or otherwise, Charles had nothing to tell him not to do what he knew he shouldn’t, no obvious traps, no trace of humans here. Lacking that, his rational mind had nothing to push his instincts as they surged higher, an inexorable march that took control from him.

He barely forced himself to stop less than five meters away, a silent shadow cast under reaching trees. From here, he could just make out what he was looking at, sitting atop a few crisscrossed logs that were layered with intent. It was a simple enough short and wide pedestal, but that in and of itself fled his thoughts after seeing what was set atop of it.

Black scales shined in a column of daylight from above, perfectly highlighting a sinuous form. They glistened with the mildest sheen of moisture, but it was not a simple white shine that was returned to the world. No, it brought out a kaleidoscope of color innate to the black scales they rested on, and Charles couldn’t figure out why the colors were so diverse. It was subtle, and when sunlight played across ordinary scales, only the kind of sheer light that he expected from a reflective surface was returned. Details mattered less than the broad strokes of what his eyes saw; a wedge-shaped head with a long tubular body that was large enough that Charles felt it would have been challenging to fight while it was alive. Something about the sight of it just sang to his unthinking stomach.

Saliva dripped from his now slightly open maw of a beak, and Charles felt his inner rows of teeth flex, almost achingly, from the sight. It was dead, a notch of flesh cut out from the back of its head, but it wasn’t dead for more than a few hours, at most half a day. Charles had already known going into this that this was a trap, but this was a whole level more obvious, but without any trace of trap or people aside from the practical necessity that there had to be someone around for this, his instincts would not be dissuaded.

‘No, damnit, no!’ Screamed the conscious part of Charles’ as his bird-brained body ignored his wisdom and darted forward with a burst of essence as though the snake was going to get away. He hit it hard, sending wooden logs scattering with the hit as his beak descended just behind the back of the snake’s head. In moments, he was shaking the thing back and forth, before tearing the head off and tossing it back. He scared himself by swallowing it whole, yet somehow not managing to choke on it. Moments later, he began to bite and shred the meat lower, before stuffing the body into his mouth and began to somehow slurp it down.

‘Yes, the delicious meat-noodle is mine!’ Charles’ sanity escaped him as he half-choked out a cackle of noise while he bit down through a section of meat to swallow it down easier. There was an abundance of snake to eat through, and as he looked down at it Charles was stunned to find that in less than a minute, nearly half of the length of the thing was in his stomach already.

‘Pluck me! How am I eating so much?’ He faltered, feeling that his stomach was heavy, but not nearly full, somehow. He could feel a strange sensation spreading through his body, also, parallel to the essence. But, with the burning surge of the essence and devouring what must have been over one metric ton of meat, he couldn’t track that sensation. Wary of what was going on, Charles pushed his mental sight of essence to his internals, finding that his stomach was virtually a fountain of essence. He noticed immediately that his veins and tissues were absolutely flooded with the stuff, more besides flowing outwards from the meal he realized was much more essence rich than anything he’d eaten before by far.

Even as a desperate, logical part of his mind searched for the other strange cloying sensation that spread rapidly, his unthinking mind continued to eat. Whatever was happening wasn’t just essence, but he couldn’t directly sense it! If he were in any sound state of mind, he would have realized that something in his physical veins wouldn’t necessarily be shown through his essence vision.

But Charles wasn’t in any sound state of mind, and with great effort, he bit down another chunk of snake, but this time slowly, savoring the meat. It was like a nova of flavor exploding in his mouth, robust, meaty, and so laden with essence that he could barely believe his senses.

He shuddered in a way that dropped him to his knees, and almost cried tears of joy at the flavor. Logical parts of his mind and higher thinking dimmed, darkening oddly, but he couldn’t be bothered about that.

‘Ah, this is it. I’m ready to die my second time now.’ Charles warbled happily, ‘I should feel disgusted at myself, but… it’s just so good!’

He bit into the snake once more, before a distant part of him found itself resolving a question from long ago.

‘Yup, if this is how I’d taste to a snake, I totally get how it would have gone nuts trying to eat me and my siblings.’ Clucking amusedly to the morbid humor, Charles found himself slipping deeper into a food-induced fugue. There was too much here to eat. There wasn’t enough here to eat! He couldn’t decide, and it was the best feeling he’d ever had!

Charles grabbed the last third of what might have been a ten meter long snake, and started snaking it down, feeling more than a little bit of irony at stuffing the whole thing into his body. He knew this shouldn’t have worked physically, and yet he was burning the food as soon as it entered his body.

“Venris’ Teeth, is that normal? That’s got to be like five times his weight, easily.” A voice asked, though the sound was extremely low, little more than the barest of whispers on the wind. Charles didn’t take particular note of it, still having a bit more tail sticking out of his jaws. He also didn’t care about the crack of an armored gauntlet against what sounded like the back of someone's head, accompanied by a yelp. It wasn’t important yet.

His logical thoughts slipped back in as the fugue fell away, but a sense of serenity was filling him. He was peaceful, this was fine, and Charles knew that he wasn’t in his right mind. That was… not good, but not bad? With how much essence was in him, he felt a calm lake, a mirror surface.

That calm was damaged, though, as he realized he was having a lot of trouble staying standing. Maybe he should just sit down?

“Now or never, I guess. It definitely heard us.” Someone else said, “I’ll go first, just in case it’s still aggressive.”

“I don’t think that-” another voice began, this one sounding stunningly familiar to Charles. He paused at that, the last of his meal sitting heavily in his body and actual un-calm thoughts beginning to race to the surface.

‘Hmm? Oh, feathering peck! What the pluck am I doing?’ Charles roused himself, but immediately found that his essence was as heavy as his legs felt, like trying to move a mountain. An odd sense of insensation was returned to him as he twisted on his feet. His legs were the worst, feeling like they were underwater, frozen, but comfortable. The eddies of calm undercurrent did not help him as he felt a kind of dark panic seep into his mind as the numbness spread.

He dimly recognized the sensation, it wasn’t unlike his experience with some of the medications he’d been forced to take in his past life. The normal physical side effects were bad enough, but he’d had some especially terrifying reactions to some of the medicine. Those particular mental aspects had felt like this, the existential dread that snuck up on you, that felt like it was just a part of your mind. Charles only noted it now because of how his instincts were going berserk with every twist and turn of dark thoughts from the drug’s side-effects. It was the drug’s influence every time he’d thought of the embrace of oblivion, every moment he thought it’d be just so much easier to give up. That he felt it this much meant he’d been dosed with an amount that was very dangerous, but he had just eaten the entire snake.

When the bronze armored woman stepped out from the underbrush nearby, far quieter than she should have been, Charles felt his heart hammer in his chest. He could only vaguely guess at the figure being a woman, and only because the armor was very subtly shaped to contour to her figure. A distant snort in his mind sounded about being glad that ‘bikini’ armor wasn’t a thing, but that voice was buried under the cavalcade of alarms that were ringing out from not being able to move.

“Easy there,” the woman spoke in a soothing voice, and he could tell from her stance that she was trying to look as non aggressive as possible. “I’m not here to hurt you, big guy.”

“Reese, this is a very bad idea,” another woman said, “He just got a full dose! It shouldn't have been possible to eat all of that, but… this is bad.”

‘No closer,’ Charles felt tremors of panic rush through him as he tried to scrabble to his feet, only succeeding in scrabbling backwards a step or two, ‘Don’t come closer to me!’

“Is he going to be okay?” The familiar voice asked, sharp and angry, “What do we do? And, Reese, stop! Please!” The voice turned pleading at that, “He’s obviously freaking the fuck out.”

“And what? Leave him here? Come back later? The Phorus is valuable to you but not me. My Oath dictates that the Oath Sworn will come first, taking care of him is an aside. But…” The woman’s face was visible, the helmet clearly having a slot that a faceplate could fit, but none currently there. She frowned at the sight of him recoiling in clear panic, and quietly but firmly called over her shoulder. “We can wait for a short period of time. He’s nowhere near as sedate as he should be, though.”

“I’m not surprised, honestly,” another four people came from the underbrush on that side. Charles identified the speaker as a dirty blond haired man, lean and moving in a kind of way that suggested a casual sort of confidence. “Mithel said it would bring down the average Phorus based on what we knew, but… obviously his status of an aberration has changed a lot. The fact that he ate that whole snake is crazy already.”

Another woman, Mithel, perhaps, answered with a pale face, “That much should kill a tier one outright. That he’s alive suggests he’s at least tier two?”

The armored woman hesitated, her eyes searching the Phorus not far from her hunched form, “He’s only tier one, for sure. Are you sure that your concoction was made right?”

“Completely.” The woman deadpanned, “don’t your paladin-y bits have truth sense or whatnot?”

The armored woman blinked in confusion before she ignored that question in turn, though Charles found that even the others in her team were confused at the mention from the woman that he now realized looked like a walking apothecary. The bronze armored woman stepped forward, and with every word set his heart rate climbing higher. Charles carved trenches in the ground with his talons as he fought to move backwards, before he realized he could go no further. The tree blocked his way.

“Easy there, easy, just gonna do this nice and easy,” the woman spoke, resting down on one knee, “Take your time, none of us want to hurt you or do anything untoward if we don’t have too.”

Charles heard all of that, he did, but he couldn’t internalize it. All while he’d been listening and seeing them, his body and his mind were working of their own accord. It was with an almost detached sort of panic that Charles responded to the situation at hand. He felt like he was sitting in the backseat of a racing car that drove itself, knowing that disaster was coming, but utterly powerless to stop it.

“Reese, give him space,” a man spoke with a warning tone, but Charles couldn’t pry his eyes off of the woman, “Tephone’s sake, he’s clearly terrified.”

The armored woman’s gaze sharpened with irritation at the words, but to Charles she may as well have been baring that gaze at him. Before any thought could happen, pure panic and terror pushed the mountain of essence through his body, forcing it under a chaotic will. With a lightning crack of a kick, Charles lashed out at the woman. The impact was loud, and she flew backwards and slammed into a tree like she’d been hit by a truck. She coughed, blood spilling from her lips as the obvious puncture hole in her lower armor tracked the wound in her stomach.

“Fuck!” Skye shouted, “Make space, for fucks sake! The medicine’s messing with him. He’s not doing this on purpose!”

Charles struggled to try to stand, he needed to go, needed out, and he might have to go through one of them to do it, but that would be fine. He just had to go–

Reese shifted, pulling out her shield and something else that she hid behind it. Skye reached forward to stop her, fury radiating from her, but the tier two paladin bolted forward with all the speed of a freight train. Charles hissed in fear at the threat as he struck out with his beak, essence channeled through it as he tore through the shield in a piercing strike. The woman grit her teeth against the impact, but did not stop. The paladin pulled out something from behind her, though Charles couldn’t see it past her body and shield, up until it was too late to do anything about it. With his neck extended as it was, she managed to connect the collar she held around it - all at once Charles felt the essence flow in his body stifle.

Charles felt his stomach drop out from under him, as a surge of bleak, emptiness filled him up, trickling down from his dosed brain into every facet of his being.

As he looked up, he had enough presence of mind to finally recognize the familiar voice, matched to a familiar face. ‘House thief? What is this? Why do this?’



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



“Venris’ teeth! You damned–” Skye interrupted herself with a wordless scream just before she punched Reese in the side of the head, knocking her away from the Phorus with a deceptive amount of power. Skye hadn’t pulled the punch at all, having lit her body-wide essence formation for the strike. Reese recoiled, before rising up and putting a hand on her sword and drawing half of the blade, vitriol and anger coloring her expression before coming to a stop before she managed to subdue her aggression to more reasonable levels and stop her drawing her weapon. She slid her sword back down into its sheath angrily before stomping up to Skye. The elf opened her mouth to say something when the paladin slammed a gauntleted fist into her gut with the barest amount of essence powering it, knocking her back gasping for breath.

“Don’t be a God's damned child!” Reese spat more blood from her mouth, her own body wide essence pattern still roiling as she stood still, not pushing the conflict further. Skye realized that she’d just punched someone in the head with her essence pattern, and that had taken a lot of her anger at being hit back out of her. A normal person would be dead, and a tier two probably unconscious. Admittedly though, she didn’t feel sorry at all. She made no move forward, however, even with Dachna and Ronald now standing between the two. Mithel stood a bit further away, pale as a ghost and staring in mute horror at the whole situation.

“What the fuck do you mean?” Skye hissed through clenched teeth, “He was scared! You forced that response! It’s not his fucking fault your big metal ass was in his space!”

Reese’s expression cooled even further, the wound in her gut somehow not bothering her. In fact, Skye noticed that it was visibly closing before her eyes. Reese replied, “He’s panicking from the drugs, of course I’m collaring him for that. For Advarica’s sake, he’s still moving in spite of all of that drug you put in him. Even for an aberrant, that’s extreme.”

Skye looked around to try to find support, but her team shifted their gazes uncomfortably away. “Seriously? You can’t be agreeing with this!?”

“I’d do this with a person, too,” Reese stated, “Your guardsmen do something similar, do they not?”

Ronald froze upon being put on the spot, “It’s frowned upon, but… for especially panicked or insane individuals, yes, restraining collars can be used for short periods of time before they burn out.”

“That kick alone would have torn any of you in half.” Reese stated flatly, “That ‘peck’ would have punched through your heart, or head. He is not some angry neighbor, he’s a Venris’ damned beast and should be respected accordingly.”

“Justify it however you want,” Skye ground through gritted teeth, “He’s a Phorus, and that demands respect. You’re not from the Kingdom, or else you’d know that. No tamer worth anything would be okay with this.”

Reese’s expression tightened, but she looked away from Skye, down to the Phorus on the floor. The others followed her gaze, seeing a pitiful, dispirited creature on the ground, an internal anguish in its eyes that they could very plainly see.

Mithel cleared her throat, “I… think the medicine has taken full effect.”

Skye glared at her, “He looks awful, Mithel.”

“Back off, Skye,” Dachna glared back at her, “This is a shit situation, no matter how we cut it. We couldn’t have known he was going to eat the whole damned snake.”

Skye stared hard at him and then to Mithel, seeing her downcast expression and realizing that she wasn’t really at fault. No, most of that went right to the person who had made the plan in the first place. Skye sighed, “Sorry, Dachna, sorry Mithel. You’re right, that’s not on you.” She turned her gaze back to what was a beautiful bird, but she couldn’t see that at all right now. All she saw was a hurt beast– maybe more than that– that was on the edge of breaking down.

 

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



Charles listened spiritlessly, feeling the flow of his essence constrained and the march of whatever drug in his system proceeding unfettered. He just felt tired, despairingly so. Deep in his core, he felt a quiver of something that hadn’t moved in so long, like a claw reaching deep from his nightmares. A multifaceted thing that hated purely, an alien sensation that Charles felt thrum in his heart. ‘Humans… really are like this, aren’t they? Maybe I’m going about all of this all wrong. Maybe getting rid of them, too, is a good idea. How do I do that?’

The cold, cruel possibility of that question empowered Charles as pushed all of his essence upwards, rushing through the collar's control. For a split second, Charles was in command of his limbs, a feeling of cold rage like he felt when his family was taken from him becoming everything in his world. And then it was like a trapdoor had been slammed shut, and the flow was cut once more. Despite that though, Charles felt the collar was weaker than before, it had to strain to keep him contained.

‘Again.’ A grim determination settled in him as he prepared himself once more. A few more times, and then, perhaps, he’d really see what that so-called paladin was made of.

Yet, for all the anger, more despairing thoughts flooded in from the periphery of his mind. The possibility that this was what being tamed meant dominated his mind. A surge of essence flooded through him once more, but this time for slightly longer, and his concern for his siblings grew dramatically.

‘I won’t live like this. I won’t let them live like this.’ He decided immediately, and found that his instincts were utterly at peace with dying fighting. That helped clear a lot of other things up.

The sound of someone moving closer roused him to attention, ‘Ah, here it comes, eh?’ His glare settled on the green clothed woman, albeit fractionally lighter than the glare he’d given the paladin. She’d at least had the dignity to be angry for him, insulted at the whole thing. Did that matter to him? Perhaps more than he thought, but did it matter overall? No.Charles felt then that his Phorus side could have accepted the trap as a loss; the drug was... awful, but highly effective. But as an ex-human he couldn't rationalize that drugging an opponent was at all a fair or honorable way to earn a victory. The drugs muddled his mental processes, but Charles still tamped down his Phorus instincts that tried to say this was fine..

The mere thought of being “tamed” this way disgusted him.

Charles couldn’t shift his posture as the woman, Skye, knelt fully down on the ground next to him, fearlessly in range of his beak, his claws, his talons. Their gazes met, and while Skye’s eyes had the rimming moisture of tears in them, they were hard and angry.

She herself may have noted that his eyes were wild, a violent willingness to die, because her breath hitched before she began to speak. “I’m… I’m sorry we had to meet again like this.” She started slowly, “This wasn’t how this was supposed to be. I wanted to bring you that snake, because I know Phorus like them. It’s from a higher essence tier. I figured you-” her breathing became irregular at that, but she stilled herself, “It doesn’t matter. Look… I’m going to try to connect to you. You might even understand me now, but I don’t know. If you let me in, I can at least explain what’s happened? This was supposed to go better, slow, right.” She didn’t so much as look up at the paladin when she said that, but the way the armored woman shifted on her feet was more than enough.

“I don’t even know if you really understand what I’m saying, or just the general gist of things so, I’m… just gonna go for it.” She breathed in deep, calming herself before she laid a hand against Charles' side, who stiffened like a board at the contact. A grimace contorted her features before she forced herself to be calm once more.

A tendril of essence extended from her, and in Charles minds’ eye, he knew what it was supposed to be. It was warm, a reaching hand, a vine, a warm day by the riverside with temperate weather and familial comfort. Winding and reaching, all the way across. It was a comfort, not a curse, and distantly he could even tell the kind of person it was attached to. She was distant to people she didn’t know, kindly blunt, and had a disdain for the large city life she’d grown up in. There was a kind of odd kinship he felt, but at once he identified that as his instincts being traitorous, willing to settle for a loss that wasn’t earned. It was a wreath of peace and companionship.Yet, as it settled around him, it felt like anything but, with the collar around his neck.

Every vine and stone was a chain and weighted ball. Every beam of sunlight was filtering through bars of bone and flickering shadows made of despair, shame, and suffering. It contorted as it went, and he didn’t know if it was the collar, his muddled mind, or if this was just how taming went that allowed her to get so close to him. Just force a contact deep within, and suddenly he’d be tamed? Would he ever be the same person with that? He’d never reach as high, he’d never have the drive to push, nothing would ever quite be right. The horror of it dawned deep within him, that it was just so much worse than he’d possibly imagined, even as he knew a great deal of this was the rampant paranoia bred by the drugs in his mind. Even knowing that meant nothing, though, because a little voice whispered in his head, ‘What if that’s all true?’

And it was then that Charles mentally bit down on the connection as it looked less and less like a winding river and vines to him, and more like an iron noose to hang himself with. He decided he would bite down as tight as he could until either his mind broke or the connection did, whichever came first. He threw the entirety of his psyche at the intruding connection, all too willing to grind his own mind to oblivion if that’s what it would take to win.

The connection shattered into rain, surging away and into nothingness, away from his sense of self and the core of his being. The woman recoiled, tears and rampant sobbing surging through her as the pure emotion in his depths transferred over.

“No, no-” She seized her shoulders with her hands, hugging herself as the big man landed next to her, but too shocked to seemingly know what to do with himself. “Spirits, I’m sorry! I’m so, so, so sorry! I-” She devolved into incoherent babbling as Charles lay there.

And still, he couldn’t muster a single ounce of sympathy. Already he stared listlessly until his gaze fell once more on the paladin, rage still sitting there within. Charles wanted her to understand too, he wanted her to be hurting far more than he’d wanted Skye to hurt. She’d been a foolish, naive girl, but now that she’d relented the connection, Charles decided she at least wasn’t irredeemable. His thrice damned instincts aside, she would need to work to correct the wrong she’d brought upon him.

If he didn’t just kill them all anyway, he would need some time and distance to decide.

Charles pushed his essence hard, a narrow, sharp and potent flare of it escaped the collar. In the blink of an eye it reached and rushed into the paladin, containing all of his pain, despair, self-loathing, disgust, and a taste of all the darkness they’d just inflicted upon him. Reese turned and practically sprinted into the treeline, and Charles could hear her retching into a bush. The others sat down next to the elf woman, a sense of tense emotions to them as they looked back and forth between the Phorus and where the paladin had gone.

A minute passed before the paladin came back, looking far paler, but also as though a decision had been made.

She drew a dagger and approached Charles, who for his part was almost glad to see it.

“What in the Grudgebearer’s name are you doing?” The shorter woman, Mithel, half-screeched before trying to come up to a rise before being seized at the elbow by Dachna. She shot him a bewildered glare but instead of saying anything, he just watched the paladin.

“This was… a mistake. This isn’t.” She swallowed hard, “You’re right. This isn’t right or good. I’m…” She stopped, breathing hard. Instead of continuing, she knelt down, and offered the dagger to the elf.

She looked incredulous for a moment, which turned into shock, and then absolute fury.

“Y-you want me to ki-”

“No, I want you to decide.” The paladin turned her gaze to Charles, who remained in much the same state as he’d been in, “Whatever you choose, I’ll take responsibility for it.”

Distantly, Charles felt a small inkling of hope beneath the mire, but he quashed it the moment it reared its head. He’d hoped enough in this world and the last, for now, he’d just watch and see what they decided. The universe just seemed to love crushing him every time he dared to hope, after all.

Slowly, the elf took the knife, carefully, like she expected some trick. Instead, she grasped the hilt firmly and moved to Charles' side, swallowing hard. She leaned over, touching the Phorus’ feathers tentatively. He didn’t stiffen this time, but he also didn’t seem to care.

She didn’t know what was worse.

“I can’t ask for you to forgive us, I know what this means for most. Especially for a potentially fully sapient aberrant-” Skye spoke with a grimace, “-but I do hope that you do find it in you to forgive us. Humans, Elves, Gnomes, Dwarves… all of the sapient races, we have our hang ups, but we’re not bad people.” She paused, before slipping the knife against Charles’ throat.

She cut down against the collar, instead of plunging it through flesh.

“So, please, don’t take this out on them. There are plenty of people just trying to get by in the world. And…” she trailed off, before shaking her head, seemingly deciding against saying anything more as she pulled the collar away and flicking it into the forest like the filthy thing it was.

She handed the dagger back to the paladin with a stiff nod and an even stiffer, ”Thank you.

At that, the group moved on, while the paladin only looked back to the Phorus, an unknowable expression on her face.

“They don’t know, but I do. I… should end you, but I guess I can’t.” She chuckled self-deprecatingly with a shake of her head, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone what you really are. But take her words to heart. We’ll see what you choose to become, hm?” She turned away fully seeing the Phorus’ breathing picking up and clear confusion writ upon its face.

 

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

 

Reese walked away from the Phorus, unworried about his physical condition. He’d improve and be mobile shortly. Everything had become a mess, not even to say anything about the fact that the team would almost certainly not be able to fully trust her going forward. Hopefully, it would be unnecessary. But, more than that, she almost prayed that her decision wasn’t the wrong one. Letting an aberrant go was a breach of faith, but letting one of them go was entirely another.

Gods willing though, he wouldn’t be a monster to put down in the future.

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A note from Michael Adams

This chapter has received a considerable reconstruction as of 05/24/2022. If you haven't read it, I would strongly suggest you do so.


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Michael Adams

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