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A note from Michael Adams

Aaaaand we're back to our regularly scheduled programming! Seems like the response is fairly positive, which I'm quite glad for. Thing have stabilized a great deal, and now my hands don't seem to want to fall off, so that's also quite nice!

Thanks to everyone who is reading and making this possible! Especially for those of you that are filling in your fellow readers on information, I'm still somewhat on moratorium of commenting and checking comments too much. I still do, and will, but at a much sparser pace than before for at least a little while longer. 

I'm sure I've missed something that I wanted to mention, but I can't think what it could be right now. So, instead, just enjoy the read and I hope that you all have a wonderful day!

 




For several minutes, Skye stared into the flames as they licked at the dense wood in the fire pit. Vibrant, roiling coals shimmered from under the logs, and in spite of her current conflicted mind, she couldn’t help but find the sight unusually pretty. Today had been… a day, Skye decided. That she couldn’t quite put it into good or bad was unusual, since she’d often been able to sort days pretty well in one category or the other.

Staying out of town for most of the day? Good day, probably. Stuck in town? Probably ‘bad’ or at the least boring.

But today she’d seen what was probably a fully sapient beast reduced to a dark and violent ball of rage and self defense, in no small part due to her own plan. Things had gotten away from her during that, but it started as her idea. Then she’d forgiven the paladin for ruining her once-in-a-lifetime chance at getting a Phorus as a partner, something that a version of her from a mere day ago would have been apoplectic over. But now? Now she felt disgusted that she’d even thought of him as just a tame to aim for. She’d already known he was an aberrant with unusual intelligence and at least had a low level of sapience, but that wasn’t that crazy. Still rare, but… He was so much more than that, and Skye knew that she’d try to go make amends to the Phorus when she could, even without her team. He deserved at least that much, not that Skye knew what she could even do for him. Maybe explain that they could take him to his family? That was risky in its own way, but… not impossible?

Skye diverted her thoughts to the matter currently at hand. They’d finally found the Oath Sworn, or at the least been around for him to stumble into their camp. Should she feel good about effectively having been found, rather than finding him? She wasn’t sure, but at least it was done.

All things to think about, so Skye read the rain– as her previous druid teacher was wont to say– and collected her thoughts.

The business with the Phorus was Bant’s arsehole-bad, no part of that should have happened with the way it was supposed to be. It was wrong on so many levels, and while she wasn’t keen on becoming a druid if it meant having to be more like her teacher, she’d still resonated with some of the lessons he’d taught. Not all beasts were created equal, some were innately more intelligent than others, some could have the spark of cognition to become a true thinking being. These often became the overlords of the Unclaimed Lands, and they ranged from warm to cold hearted as much as any of the sapient species did.

That said, they were almost unanimously enemies of the humanoid sapient races from day one, so most societies made active efforts to get rid of one before they could gather power.

That Phorus certainly possessed that spark, and that made what they’d put him through so much worse. The problem was that it probably wasn’t the right decision to just let him go. She huddled up with her knees to her chest, resting her chin on them. If she asked any tamer, maybe they’d see the reasoning, agree that it was a good idea, but no one in power could see it that way. Guildmaster Maul certainly seemed to have had his reservations when he gave Reese that collar to begin with. The fire popped loudly as sap or moisture expanded in the heat, followed by a brief splash of embers.

‘He’s almost definitely traumatized, and at the very least wary of people now.’ She sighed tiredly, ‘There’s a good chance that he’s going to develop into a manhunter. Should we have just… ended him?’

A cold that couldn’t be warded from by fire put its claws into her before Skye shook herself angrily. She’s said it once before, but sometimes doing right by everyone wasn’t really the right answer. Her right answer was walking free right now, and she’d deal with the consequences of her actions and hope that the Phorus wasn’t going to start tearing people apart anytime soon. There were plenty of stories about the grandeur and fame, but there were terribly few of the darker side of a guilder's life. The times when the good choices were gone, either from mistakes or a critical lack of something. In those times, it became a matter of choosing the least bad option, and that was the dividing line between the greats, and the bar standard. Between choosing the least damaging option, and the right option. Skye knew that there would be times that she would have to make harder choices, but she wasn’t a god’s cursed paladin, she had the right to choose.

As much as Skye wanted to say she had done the right thing, the truth was more complicated than that. As far as trying to do the right thing by the Phorus, she was sure she'd made the right call... But had she made the right call by the people he might one day hurt? The answer to that question was that she probably hadn't. Even so… her gut had told her what she needed to do in that moment, and she’d done it.

‘Ugh… Just grow up already,’ she chided herself, ‘You’re supposed to be showing you’ve got what it takes, not stumbling at the first hurdle.’

It would be what it would be. Skye whispered a prayer that the religiously homogenized masses would cringe after, wishing that the Great Mother would watch over the bird. There was no click of divine awareness like what some people said they felt when they prayed to those of the pantheon, but Skye liked to think that she was heard anyways.

Then she pushed her thoughts to the paladin. Reese Snowe was a decent sort, all things considered. It galled her to think that she actually liked the woman in the distant sense. If they’d met outside of what happened today, she could almost see herself becoming friends with her! At the same time, she still wanted to dislike her, to be small and petty and closed-minded, because she had messed up by not listening to them at the onset of that encounter. But, Ronald also wasn’t wrong; they had greater duties than to just themselves, and the paladin had been prepared for a frankly more realistic outcome from what they had known at the time. Skye could also try and claim that she was being magnanimous and open hearted for forgiving her, it would be an easy lie that would still protect her ego. Truthfully, she didn’t really forgive that incident, but she’d put it away and liked her well enough anyways. That was frustrating on many levels to her; how could you not forgive someone but still like them and even maybe want to be friends with them?

She groaned, ‘As an adventurer, it’s not wrong to say that major disagreements within a group should be kept to a minimum in order not to splinter us out in the field… But it was too easy to just give up on being angry.’ With a flick, she sent a twig spiraling into the flames, ‘Am I just a pushover? Shit. I am, aren’t I?’

Suddenly, Skye felt a distinct lack of maturity. She was more worried that her team might come to think of her as a liability, or worse she thought, a brat. That thought briefly made her snicker at herself, but she felt the humor fall away under the seriousness of it all. Burying her face against her knees, Skye felt frustration and embarrassment in equal measure. ‘Can’t do anything about that now.’ She breathed out a quick huff through her nose. Idly, she wondered if it was too late to wake someone up to have the watch with her, these thoughts weren’t helping right now.

‘At least the Oath Sworn is safe now,’ she felt a knot of emotion loosen at that, a genuine gladness that helped ease the rest of the tensions from the day. ‘I’d have liked to show that I could track him down myself, but… I’ll take it.’ She looked up through the gaps in the canopy, throwing a silent ‘thank you’ to the wind for any relevant entities listening. Truth be told, she still hadn’t entered the Dream and truly felt her sense of self shift to her desire to become a ranger. She hadn’t told the others yet, and was still using all of the tricks she’d learned as a druid’s apprentice, not really any kind of ranger skills. Her inner self still grew, but she dreaded what would happen if she pushed to the second essence tier like this.

‘It’s a lot harder to force the changes to your inner patterns as you go up in tiers…’ she worried away at another stick, the fifth one she’d randomly plucked from the ground during her idle ministrations.

For a few long seconds, she stared up past the fire, noting the trees, and not for the first time wondered if she really wanted to not be a druid. But then she remembered that acerbic, bitter man and his casual disdain for everything not the forest, and decided that she didn’t want to become anything like him. Sure, she didn’t have any particular love for city folk, but they weren’t nearly the ignorant fools he’d made them out to be. Maybe in some places, but certainly not here in Greenleaf.

And then she committed those thoughts to the fire as surely as she did the stick. A low hissing sound came from a bit of green wood, and Skye sat up with a start of remembrance.

“Oh, shit, I forgot to reset the wail-ward.” She cursed quietly, rising with a shortsword on her hip. The only downside of their perimeter stones was the fact that they were a one and done deal. Every side had its own charge, at least, but they weren’t nearly sophisticated enough to share that essence charge across to the others. Skye stepped away from the warmth of the fire, pulling her cloak a little tighter around her shoulders. The weather wasn’t terribly cold at night, yet, but it was brisk enough with the breeze combing through the trees from the high mountains not much further along their path.

She searched the ground slowly, shuffling back and forth while grumbling that Dachna probably hid the stones a little too well again. She picked through the undergrowth, carefully and quietly at first, before furrowing her brows with annoyance as a quick search became minutes.

‘Tephone’s tits, Dachna, where’d you put the damn things?’ Grumbling, Skye held her hand out and gently extended her essence forth. A buzzing rumbled through her body as her essence pattern favored her intent, and steadily she began to get an image beyond eyesight of the land around her. The essence all told a story, and truth be told, she used this more than anything else when she tracked something. She hadn’t told the others yet that her tracking skills were middling at best– Dachna might actually be able to track better than her– but her essence sensing skills usually beat out the need to hone those skills. Eventually, someday, she’d put a little more focus on shoring that up again, but this was just so much easier.

And, surely enough, she found the stone with a ripple of a connection back to her, not three meters to her left. “Typical.” Was the only thing she said as she moved over to it, keeping her senses rippling outwards now that they were active anyways.

And she froze as her essence sense pinged on something else, big and low to the ground. Skye unfroze after, pretending not to have seen anything to the best of her abilities.

She moved to the left around a tree, putting it between her and what she’d sensed, pretending to come forward to the stone. Instead, she felt her heart hammering in her chest, a hundred thoughts running parallel to each other as she sought the optimal path here.

‘Is it hunting? It’s hunting, isn’t it?’ Her thoughts distantly registered the appearance of a blob of not-forest in her awareness. It was poised low to the ground, and she realized then that there wasn’t a chance that this hadn’t been planning on ambushing her at the stone.

‘Venris’ teeth, what in the hells is happening in this forest!?’ Skye almost screamed in a mix of terror and frustration, but instead she managed to push it all down. Her essence pattern moved as smoothly as she could force it, giving her a boost as she directly retreated from her position behind the tree, keeping it firmly between herself and the beast behind it.

One meter, two, then a third, Skye almost thought she’d be able to get back to the camp and alert everyone quietly before anything happened.

And immediately cursed for tempting fate.

At that moment she felt the beast move forward quickly, with a lithe agility that left Skye almost in admiration. Then the vertical slits of its eyes became apparent in the reflected, still distant firelight, and Skye finally couldn’t keep her panic bottled up.

“Bant’s arsehole! Fu-” she let loose a litany of curses that scattered to incoherent babble as the sabrecat pounced, still silent even in the attack.



---------------------------------------



Charles was watching everything, from their campfire talks to the stumbling wreck of a man that came to their camp. In spite of what happened to himself prior, Charles was pleased with the way the group received and treated the man. Even Mithel, the poisoner, was a surprisingly firm yet deft hand at caring for his injuries and keeping him centered.

He didn’t miss the distant look in Skye’s eyes, either, as she stared into the fire. Emotions flicked across her face, easy enough to read, and Charles let himself thaw somewhat to her obvious inner plight. It didn’t mean forgiveness, and certainly not for any kind of tame connection; Charles didn’t think he’d ever be comfortable with a connection like that for a long time, if ever. Perhaps that would lead to more trouble down the line, in fact, Charles highly doubted that it wouldn’t lead to problems of some sort. Even so, it was his mistake to make, and he refused to give anyone so close of a connection to him like that.

The fact that his siblings might well have had such a connection foisted upon them both darkened his thoughts, and gave him all the more reason to find them. If they were forced into it and mistreated, then all other considerations be damned, he would see blood spilled.

He forced down the surge of rage, turning his attention to a low simmer that chased away the vagaries of bored sleepiness. Already he’d heard that they were okay, and unless everything had been a very elaborate charade, Skye had mentioned them without knowing he was there. He supposed that much should have been obvious with them coming out here so prepared for him, and with the fact that they were searching for the Sworn. They were working for, or with, the guild, though he didn’t know if that was actually something significant or not.

That was good to know, and had done wonders for his mood but frankly, he was quite bored of his watch. Skye’s silent vigil and fireside introspection must have been going on for at least two hours, and while Charles was patient, he wasn’t that patient.

‘Maybe… maybe I poke in there and see what happens?’ He pondered to himself, before realizing that the camp was protected by the obnoxious alarm system they used. If nothing else, that was a pretty good idea. He wondered at how many other little tricks people could use to help protect themselves in the wild. Perhaps there was a way to have houses entirely shaped out of the wilderness, all without lifting a finger.

‘That does put a damper on going in there, though.’ Mulled the currently sitting bird, feathers at rest to preserve warmth as he leaned against a tree. ‘I guess I can wait until– wait.’

Charles stirred, feeling a breeze drift in from the mountains, and with it, a familiar scent. Ordinarily, he might have been pleased to know that she was still around and kicking, but right now the sabrecat was on a direct line to the camp.

‘Ah, pecking fluff, come on, really?’ Charles grumbled as he rose slightly, putting his feet under him, ‘Are you seriously going to attack them now? Unbelievable.’

With a huff, he walked wide around the camp, gently cycling the essence in his eyes and legs in tandem, tip-toeing around the forest, getting closer and working his way around the stones. He was downwind of the cat, so unless it directly saw him or heard him, he wasn’t going to be detected in this gloom. Hopefully she was just curious about the group.

As he drew wider around the barrier, he realized that the cat strode forward through the line of the wards, and Charles felt a smirk spread across his face.

Only for that smirk to fall to confusion with nothing at all happening.

‘What the cluck!? Is it defective?’ Charles balked quietly, before shaking his head. It was either broken or perhaps out of juice. That would be… annoying, but convenient for Charles to invade, if nothing else.

He risked standing higher, bringing his sightline above the bulk of the vigorous growth of the forest. Skye had stood up and begun walking in the direction of both the cat and the broken ward in a sinuous, searching way.

‘Are you-?’ Charles tamped down on a rageful line of thought before it could take off. ‘Great, alright, fine. Like pulling a chick from the edge of the nest, no big deal.’

He pushed forward as quickly as he dared, but he still could barely tell how close the cat was. If it weren’t for the fact that he could smell its general location, his essence sight just wouldn’t have been effective this far out. Part of him dimly wondered at just letting the familiar cat eat Skye, maybe let it just do the rest of them and be done with it.

That part of him sighed tiredly at the realization that they were still probably a better bet at getting into the city than any of his other plans. Plus, Eustace, the Oath Sworn, had done him no wrong, and arguably really didn’t deserve to die in the wilderness to the tier two cat.

Charles refocused on his essence vision. It was, he realized, less like looking through empty air and more like looking at a grainy filter that could be focused in and out. Depending on how he focused, things closer and further could appear more clear, but there were limits.The cat was a shadow on the film, blending in with the environment by sheer virtue of distance. She was still at least 30 meters away, and it stunned Charles that he couldn’t see her clearly. Humans certainly showed like bonfires even when he wasn’t keyed in on the area they were in.

Unless the cat had a stealth pattern which… Charles admitted would only be par for the course in a stereotypically nocturnal and stealthy predator.

With less than twenty meters in distance, Charles didn’t want to get any closer. He wasn’t sure why the cat was here, but he hoped this was a case of curiosity and that he wouldn’t need to intervene. As Skye got closer and closer, though, he realized that the cat hadn’t moved much, the smell and general feel for where she was had maybe shifted towards the line of the ward.

Surprising even himself, Charles didn’t sigh in frustration that the elf would choose now of all times to refresh the ward. That had to be what she was going for, and the cat at least seemed to be aware of that fact. So, he had to admit then, it was very likely the cat was going to try to eat her.

‘Do I… attack the cat?’ Grimacing, Charles shook his head, ‘Maybe I can talk her down? Ugh, if I didn’t know both of them, I’d be tempted to just let them fight it out and see what happened.’

Just as he put his stealth to the test in moving around the still active corner ward, he realized that Skye had frozen and moved backwards, in a process so quick that if he hadn’t been able to see her with his essence sense, he wouldn’t have noticed. In seconds, though, the situation completely deteriorated.

“Bant’s arsehole! Fu-” she started, but immediately had to roll to the side to avoid the first pounce of the sabrecat. It whipped its claws forward, raking the air over Skye’s head, and Charles felt his resolve harden as he charged in. ‘You owe me even more now!’

The cat yowled loudly, less like a housecat and more like a protesting wood chipper, if Charles was honest. If the others had slept through Skye’s cursing, they certainly weren’t sleeping through that.

It repositioned, and darted at Skye once more, this time swiping low on her. It caught the edge of her pants, but Skye herself only managed a glancing blow of her own, doing little more than annoying the sabrecat with a haphazard swing of her short sword. Charles felt essence flood him, and just as the cat prepared to throw itself bodily onto Skye, Charles let the stealth side of his pattern drop, devoting all of the energy to power.

Like a locomotive, Charles crashed through the undergrowth, bellowing out a long, oscillating cry that almost felt like a slap of hard air. The sabrecat immediately pivoted to the new threat, but still went wide-eyed at the appearance of a two and a half meter tall red and blue feathered Phorus barrelling into it.

Charles smashed into the sabrecat bodily, careening through the forest and into the edge of the light cast by the campfire. It was not a graceful attack, and he found himself going head over heels in the worst kind of way around the cat. Charles choked back a screech of pain when claws pierced into his leg, but when the cat began to rake them, it ripped out of him in a flurry. Thoughts of not hurting the cat too much immediately vacated him as he lifted his leg up and kicked out, hitting the bastard in the ribs hard enough that he felt them nearly give, a slash of talon curving across them.

Then she bit him. Right past the tail feathers.

Charles rounded on her, curving his head around and biting her behind the skull, but not hard. Yet. “I will bite your pecking head off if you don’t let go of my arse, right now!”

Even through the muffled, frankly disturbing noises coming from his mouth, the essence pouring from him wasn’t obscured. The cat stiffened, before letting go with a deep growl that vibrated his bones.

They broke apart, Charles keeping the humans behind him as he felt blood trick down his leg with no little amount of annoyance.

“You help the child snatchers!” The cat half accused, half shouted in disbelief, “Why? Why do you do this? Do you not know?”

“I…” Charles almost stopped to consider how clearly he understood her, but shunted that aside, “Child snatchers!? They are not the ones responsible! They are innocent in this, you misguide your attack against people who have nothing to do with…” Charles slowed his words, steadily looking around the cat for the missing piece of this setting.

And then felt another stone sit deep in his guts as he said, “Your kin was taken? The cub?”

Pure rage pulsed across the connection as she caterwauled, “Yes! They took him! They are responsible for their actions! The humans should know better than to take as they have.”

Charles sat watching her movements, the pain in his leg and rear fading entirely as he glanced back at the group. They were now all active, but he noted less than fully armed. He doubted they would lose much now that the element of surprise was not on the cat’s side.

Reese and Dachna moved to the side, a motion that neither the cat nor Charles missed at all.

Both hissed or trilled in warning, and the team instantly stopped, a new expression of shock befalling them as Charles turned his attention back to the cat. They probably wouldn’t move around unnecessarily… Hopefully.

“My family was taken,” Charles imbued as much intent and the images of the birds that had been with him to the cat, “Still, they are not responsible. Killing all humans will not help, and will only eventually lead to you being hunted down yourself.”

The cat– Charles noted he needed to find a way to identify them better than ‘cat’ or other obvious traits –was still clearly angry, but her hackles descended fractionally as she felt and heard Charles. With as much pent up energy and frustration as any desperate person, she paced back and forth before Charles, trying to think. Her tail whipped furiously back and forth, and Charles did his best to keep his own risen feathers from fluffing up in an aggressive display.

“That one smells like the child snatchers.” She finally stated, but remarkably calmer, “Explain.”

Charles didn’t need to turn his head around to know she was talking about the Oath Sworn. He was exhausted still, but a fresh fear filled him at the unusual sight at the edge of the firelight. ‘Ah, yeah, I guess that would be pretty confusing for most beasts…’

Still, he didn’t know how much she would understand.

“That one was forced, as were some of the others. I killed some of those responsible for everything,” At this he tried, but failed to portray in detail the ambush he’d executed, but enough of his essence image got through that he figured she understood based on the steadily declining aggression she showed, “But these humans are… helping to find the rest.”

He knew he was fudging the truth, he was relatively certain that what had happened had been uncovered, and now, with luck, proper authorities were stepping in.

The cat stilled, and Charles privately marveled at the way she was actually understanding him. Not just in the casual sense, but genuinely seeming to feel what he was trying to say. He guessed then that she was aware of his own misgivings, but had enough of the sense of what he thought that she was willing to back down.

“Fine. I will… refrain from action, for now.” Before Charles could feel too relieved, she continued on, “In return, you will be the one to help get Tiku back to me, safely.”

With a wince, he considered that condition. The cat let a low growl loose at that, but Charles spoke before she riled herself up again, “The cub, yes? I… Very well,” he sighed, turning his gaze back to the group. This was not how he wanted to do this, but at this point, he was involved whether he liked it or not. Even if he didn’t like this team, the cat would undoubtedly become a terror for anyone else in the area. He’d have very little chance of being choosy if she was eating all of his choices from Greenleaf.

“Yes, I’ll do this. Tomorrow, the humans will likely return to the city. Do you know where it is?” The cat blinked and then affirmed where it knew the human city to be with incredibly vague and blurry images of its own. Charles wondered if it had learned that trick from him, but didn’t go on a tangent about it, “Wait outside of the city, and I’ll eventually come out. If my guesses serve me well, it will potentially take a few days, but I will find Tiku.”

She looked less than enthused when she heard the ‘days’ part, but let out a short chuff of acceptance at that, “If you do not come back within a week, I will assume you were unsuccessful and bring down the might of the mountain upon Greenleaf.”

Charles blinked rapidly and tilted his head at her, “That’s not ominous at all.”

Another chuff, this one of amusement, “You, at least, are honorable enough. There are too few of those like us these days. If the humans fail to live up to your expectations, take solace in that you will be avenged.”

She said it so damned valiantly that Charles almost thought she was giving him a pep talk, rather than openly telling him that the city would potentially have a guillotine hanging over it. Was that possible? Could beasts actually overwhelm a city and flatten it?

Then Charles remembered that he was a giant killer bird and was living on a planet with essence, gods, and magic, and thought that, yes, yes that could very well happen.

“If you would like, feel free to follow us out of sight. I intend on stopping by my nest to pick up a few essentials.” Charles felt his feathers settle more, the throb of claw marks and more than mild pain in his arse now coming back in full force.

The cat dipped its head low, before turning around and vanishing into the darkness without a sound.

Finally Charles’ feathers flattened out entirely, and the large bird took in and released a long, deep breath. He hoped that he made the right choice, that he could put his talons to task and not have failed before he even started.

“What in Advarica’s name just happened?” Reese whispered, and Charles felt his feathers ruffle ever so slightly again.

He turned to face the Greenhorns, a thoroughly displeased grimace on his face as he looked them over one by one.

“I feel like he’s judging us?” Dachna murmured, only to get a sharp elbow jab from Mithel next to him.

‘Right… What the peck am I going to do about this mess now?’

 

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Michael Adams

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