Cheep!? 54
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Cheep!? 

Chapter 54

That night, Niko was exhausted enough that he fell asleep easily. Unfortunately, staying asleep was proving problematic. Seemingly every few minutes, Niko found himself awake and alone in the grass beneath the tree. His siblings were with Dane tonight, and while he didn’t want to raise a fuss over something like that, he still had hoped one of them would sleep beside him. Lonely as he was, he couldn’t help but realize that this would be the first night he’d slept alone aside from when he was back in his nest.

Only, now, there was no sigil that soothed his anxious mind, no comfortable and familiar place that helped him to feel safe and at ease. It wasn’t bad here, not by any means that he could see, but it still wasn’t his. There was something missing here that made it so that his subconscious just couldn’t relax.

Finally, after having only managed to catch snippets of sleep fraught with strange and distressing dreams, Niko decided he’d had enough of trying to sleep. His wandering gaze followed the short man-made river, glinting in dim light cast from overhead. The grasses around him were static, and he could feel a vague pulse of essence in the vegetation. It wasn’t quite stagnant in the room, but he had to admit that the feeling of the trees and plants were more noticeably off than they were yesterday. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t drunk tonight. 

‘I really hope I don’t have to start drinking to sleep…’ The thought occurred to him as he derisively considered his current state. ‘That’s definitely not something that I want to make a habit of.’

Niko rose from his seat, stretching out his limbs and doing his best to limber up his stiff muscles. Then, slowly, he began to remember the feeling of fighting the golems. He recalled the way his feathers felt when putrescent concoctions hit them. Above all, he tried to remember what it felt like when he started to peel back the layers of his older instincts. Niko slowly closed his eyes to the world, his memories of the battles a vague shadow at first.

Then he started to move, remembering the pressure, the wariness, the pain of the failed dodges. He imagined the striking swipes of the golems’ quarterstaffs, envisioned the oppressive, unfair weight placed upon him after dodging Mithel’s flasks several times in a row. And as he did so, things became clearer, and he found himself physically moving his body back and forth, dodging strikes. Unlike earlier, though, he found himself increasingly dissatisfied with how he was maneuvering himself and how the essence in his body was moving. He realized that his movements were too wide in combat, wasteful to dodge strikes that he knew weren’t actually as on target as he feared they were. It was a habit trained into him from fighting the badgers, he realized, but it wasn’t necessary against every potential opponent.

Niko, as he was now, would have been able to tell Mithel had overcharged a potion to explode at her command. That, he realized, was either an unintended or designed benefit of his practice with Mithel. At a glance he’d gotten better at gauging how much essence was being used in an attack. With that information he knew when he’d be able to dodge by a hair's breadth or if he needed to virtually throw himself out of harm's way. All the while he trained by pushing the essence in his feathers out, and then, as though the essence was a layer of plastic-wrap, ‘vacuumed’ the essence close to his feathers. Eventually his efforts paid off

Niko could feel that the essence barrier was there, augmenting not only his ability to shed liquids, but ironically boosting the physical defense of his feathers from sudden strikes as well. Considering how much it had fought him when he tried to form it like a shell, Niko didn’t expect it to aid in regular defense at all. After he activated it he found that he needed to devote far less attention to keeping it active. Moving around, Niko made certain to slowly reduce his focus on his feathers, until he found just the right amount that allowed him to maintain the barrier. Eventually, he might get the process so down pat that it would be as natural as breathing. 

After that, Niko began his shadowboxing routine, doing his best to dodge imaginary opponents from all sides. In his head, he played out what would happen if he abandoned all pretense at skilled combat, attacking something with a wild and reckless frenzy. Then, he began arming them, remembering what the poachers had looked like, what they’d been armed with. Niko substituted sticks with glaives and spears in his mind’s eye, any given strike would struggle to get through his defenses now, but a solid straight hit would still damage him.

If he were willing to trade damage, it could be the foundation of a potential fighting style, though he found he disdained the idea of trading blows like that. Instead he opted for an approach that emphasized switching between strategic strikes that would allow him, hopefully, to heckle his opponents into formations that were beneficial to him, and occasionally trading blows when he knew he could win. 

Sometimes in his imaginary duels, he struck with all the savagery his beast given gifts would allow, hitting someone like a runaway freight train and carrying them off and away from their group. In fact, it worked so well that he found he couldn’t wait to see how real, living adversaries would respond. Would the golems even be able to counter the maneuver? He also tried to imagine what an experienced enemy would do. 

The golems moved according to his predictions, and while he knew it wasn’t perfect, he suspected that the way individuals would deal with this would be to cluster up even tighter. The thing was, if a group of opponents did that, he’d be more than capable of just running away. But, if the goal was to take out one specific individual…

He wasn’t sure how to do that in formal combat with multiple groups, but he could do so with ambush tactics in the wild. And so Niko worked on what he had seen and learned thus far, attempting to resolve the issues he'd encountered during training earlier. He emphasized practicing his high beak strikes, claw swipes, and lastly his kicks with goring the opponent in mind specifically for that one. This continued for hours before Niko decided to clean himself up in the river, and then dumped himself back into the grass.

This time, he was overtaken by a solid block of sleep, but awoke too soon as Ronald called out, “Good morning!” Niko lifted his head blearily, looking at the man with confusion and chirping at him. “Huh, I’d have thought you’d have been awake already.”

Niko shook his head, “I’m not a pecking rooster, man.” 

“Well, in any case, did you sleep well?” Ronald diverted from his path to the washrooms over to the grass and the large rock that he promptly sat on, “Gotta say, I don’t see the appeal of sleeping on the ground when a perfectly good bed is around.”

“Got any my size?” Niko jilted flatly at him, “Because I don’t think I’ll fit too well on a normal bed.”

Niko saw the man trying to determine what he might have been saying based off of Niko’s admittedly very animated features and tone. Ronald then shrugged, “Uh… Is it a bed size thing?” Happily, Niko confirmed with a nod and a quick ‘Cheep!’, and Ronald smiled, “Y’know, Skye apparently has a second big, round bed if you wanted to take that one. Otherwise, I could ask if one of the leftover rooms could be outfitted for you?”

“Skye does? Why didn’t she…” Niko trailed off, brow furrowing as he realized that she would only have seen it that night, and maybe didn’t want to bother him.

“Anyways, I’m going to go clean up.” Ronald stood and stretched, “If today’s anything like yesterday, I’m gonna sleep real well tonight, too.”

Niko followed after him shortly and took care of his business before his siblings stormed the washroom as well. Overly cheerful ‘Good mornings’ streamed from them, and Niko, in spite of his knee-jerk grumpy reaction, was happy to see them in such good spirits. 

Breakfast was just as resplendent as the morning before, but this time Crowe wasn’t guarded towards Niko at all. He was glad for that, but he was surprised to hear Crowe interrupt breakfast halfway through.

“For the rest of the week, there have been some slight changes in plans.” The immaculately dressed man began, “The mornings, aside from the breakfast you will be treated to here, will be more free form. The Greenhorns are encouraged to acquaint Niko to the city at large, whereas the Gilded Wings will still be under house arrest until the Red Hawks are more adequately able to defend themselves. It’s still not recommended that you all travel out of the city, but the inner and outer city should be fine based on what we’ve learned.”

That was good news for the Greenhorns, though Dane and the others didn’t look surprised at all. They’d likely been briefed on this before, but they also didn’t seem put out in the slightest about not roaming about. Niko’s group, though, looked ecstatic.

“Gilded Wings?” Ronald raised his eyebrows at the name, “Is that the name you guys settled for?”

Dane smiled, “Somewhat. The Hawks wanted our group named the Golden Phoenixes after they heard about the Phoenix and that they could maybe become one themselves someday. Yak especially was pushing for ‘golden’ in the name when he saw how shiny it was.”

Niko snorted in laughter, “Yak, really?” 

“Shut up! Brother is dumb! Shiny is best!” Yak immediately responded, leaving the other birds cackling at him.

“See? Even big brother thinks you’re obsessed!” Pecky playfully ribbed him.

“We talked them down to Gilded Wings.” Tanya stated flatly, but a small smile tugged at the corners of her lips, “It’s still pretty ostentatious, but we can live with that.”

“What about you guys? What are you going to go with?” Eustace asked, and Niko looked at the rest of his team with interest.

They simply looked confused, “Uh… we have one already?”

At that, Dane, Tanya, and Eustace exchanged worried looks, “You… want to be known as Greenhorns? On pilgrimage, while having a Phorus on your team?”

Niko found the moment when his team realized that, yes, they probably should change their name, to be very amusing. 

“Aside from that,” Mithel broke in, “We have so many places to show you, Niko!”

“You mean places to show him off, to?” Dachna added with a cheeky grin.

“That too,” Skye answered, “You’re going to be very popular with everyone.” She said while looking at Niko, “I know we covered most of this, but people are probably going to try to touch you. It’s up to you how you want to deal with that, but try not to… uhh… disarm anyone.”

“Literally,” Dachna chortled to himself even as Ronald frowned at him.

“It’d probably be a good idea to let you meet with my Dad. As the Guard Captain, should you run into any issues he’ll almost be guaranteed to be the one pulled in to preside over it.” Ronald’s tone turned more formal, “He won’t play favorites, but it’ll still be helpful for him to get an idea of your personality without any incidents in the way prior.”

Skye slid a chop of ham onto Niko’s plate, drizzled with some kind of berry jam. Niko only glanced at it and Skye, who whispered, “It’s really good like that,” before he snapped it up in his jaws.

She was right, that was unusually good.

“After your mornings, you’ll be expected to have your lunch here and then for the rest of the day you will undergo training. We expect our ritualist to be ready to initiate you all into the pilgrimage by the end of the week. So, you have six days to get what you can out of our assistance before it becomes more complicated to acquire.” Crowe finished before stepping back from the table when no one had any major questions. At this point, Niko had put together enough about the pilgrimage to guess that it was some kind of world or fate spanning phenomenon. Somehow it detected your power and potential, and assumedly worked towards drawing that power out whilst also offering opportunities to advance even farther along the way. The problem was that with every advancement while on the pilgrimage, the pilgrims would be tested even harder. That was doubly so when they received help from others, though that penalty reduced significantly with a proper cost paid to those that offered said help. 

Theoretically, if the pilgrim had some method of paying for services, there would be a minimal change in the pilgrimage even if they were being trained by a master of a craft. That wasn’t always possible, though, because it was difficult to tell if the pilgrimage considered something paid in full or not. Perhaps he’d be able to tell for himself easier later, but for now Niko was forced to work off of a lot of assumptions. 

After breakfast finished, Skye was the first one to say, “We should go check out a decent armorer, update our gear and maybe see if they have anything worthwhile for Niko.”

“I like that plan,” Ronald nodded, “I should get the rest of my chainmail and plate settled.” Niko looked to the man, remembering that he tended to wear a combo of the two. He guarded the most critical parts of his body with platemail, but most of the rest of it had to do with chainmail. 

“Niko, how do you feel about carrying stuff?” Dachna asked, getting a dirty look from the other three. “No, wait, I’m serious here!” Dachna huffed, and his team's expression lightened with abashment, “I’m not talking about making you a pack mule here, but you’ve got us all topped on strength many times over. We can take a lot more gear than any other team could, it’d give us a damn good tactical and strategic breadth if you’re willing.”

Niko wasn’t enthused with the prospect, but he considered the point alongside the rest of the group. ‘I would be able to carry a lot. That was even before I apparently hit adulthood. It’s… worth considering,’ He thought to himself.

Mithel shifted attention to herself with an audible humm, “Y’know, that’s not a bad idea. If we could bring more, I could get a real alchemy kit that would give me more options in the field. Plus, there’s a lot of ingredients that need to be harvested and preserved properly as soon as possible. Having more tools would be useful for that.” She met Niko’s gaze, as he considered that point. Out of the lot of them, he was most willing to help carry Mithel’s things. If the potions she’d used from yesterday were anything close in quality to what she could make, it’d be more than worth his while to help with transporting them. 

Ronald and Skye seemed more concerned with Niko, Skye stated,“It’d definitely be your call. The two of us don’t really have much to suggest, I think. Maybe a better camping kit, but otherwise being able to get more out of our excursions into the wilderness would be good.”

Niko considered things from his perspective more. They were all correct in how many benefits it could theoretically give them. And, besides that, he didn’t especially mind carrying some things. He nodded to Skye and pulsed an affirmation across the line just to make sure she got the message. “He’s alright with it. Some reservations, I think, but so long as we don’t actually treat him like a pack mule, I think it’ll be fine.” Skye translated as Niko nodded along.

“Now… How about letting someone ride you? I could totally see buying a lance for–What? It's just an idea.” Dachna began to say before the group shook their heads at him.

“You have got to have troll ancestry.” Niko clucked at him disappointedly.

Still, after breakfast the Gilded Feathers went off to training and the Greenhorns navigated the hallways of the manor, this time leaving through the front entrance. Niko knew that they were probably being allowed to roam more as bait than as anything else to pull attention off of his siblings' team, but perhaps no one would make a move on them. He couldn’t be sure about all of that, though, and so as he stepped foot out of the immaculately cared for grounds of the Guildmaster’s residence, Niko took in the sights.

The city's architecture wasn’t quite like anything he was used to. The structures had a slight modern aesthetic, angled obtuse triangular roofs with brick work and wood. Some businesses had much beautified facades, especially here in the inner circle of the city. Most of the construction was done in wood, even though there was enough stone used in the construction of these buildings that he suspected that stone wasn’t actually prohibitively expensive, and more likely that wood was just abundant and cheap. Several small things stood out to him as they walked, though, such as the fact that the road was made out of uniform cobblestone which boded well for the state of roads elsewhere in the Kingdom. He’d heard a long time ago from a history buff friend that a civilization being capable and willing to make cobblestone roads generally suggested prosperity and an interest in public projects. As he looked around more he noticed hanging lanterns that were currently dim. They hung from buildings and from posts besides the street. 

Aside from the obvious state of the city, Niko also paid special attention to the actual mode of transportation in the city. While there were only a few carriages pulled by mules, people roamed in the middle of the road just as much as anywhere else. It seemed that walking was still the major method of getting around the city. Niko didn’t notice anything especially fancy, though, no floating individuals or bicycles to speak of. 

Excitedly, Skye pointed out buildings for him and eagerly told him what they were looking at and what they dealt in. Niko followed along as well as he could, but between listening to Skye and making his own observations, he was beginning to find it hard to ignore the other thing that was becoming abundantly clear. Everyone that came within sight of them couldn’t help but stare at them, some in shock, others in open wonder. It made Niko somewhat nervous, but contrary to what he expected, his companions drank in the attention without responding much. 

Niko stopped walking abruptly when a little girl broke away from her mother with a sharp squeal and sprinted at him. Before anyone could think to stop her, she reached Niko’s leg but stopped short of actually touching him. She looked up at him with a sense of wonderment and the words, “So pretty,” murmured from her lips. 

“I’m so sorry about that, she just gets ahead of herself.” The mother quickly took to her daughter's side, nervously taking her reluctant daughter's hand.

Mithel smiled warmly, “It’s alright, he’s a very pretty bird.”

Niko warbled at that with a nod, “Damn straight.” 

When he didn’t move, the girl suddenly pulled away from her embarrassed mother, and clung wholly to Niko’s leg. Niko barely noticed the way the Greenhorns nervously regarded the interaction as he regarded the little girl with a bemused expression. 

“Soooo soft!” She buried her face in his sparse feathering along his legs.

“Rebecca,” the cautioning ‘mom’ tone came through as the adult woman turned once more to the Greenhorns with an awkward expression on her face.

Ronald calmed her down with an, “It’s alright. Niko here would have just moved away if he didn’t want to be touched.”

Niko almost rolled his eyes at the subtle suggestion, but he didn’t move away. Instead, he brought his body fully to the ground, turning a gold-orange eye to the little girl. She giggled as he fluffed his feathers up and warbled at her invitingly. 

A crowd had built up around them, and now several more people with their children had begun to walk closer after seeing the little girl pet a creature that showed up in heroic tales freely and happily.

“Can the kids come closer?” A man asked, and Niko happened to notice the pair of twin boys on either of his hands. He seemed like a lumberer, if Niko had the right of his appearances. The woman from before, the mother of Rebecca, seemed to be more difficult to guess at until he noticed the extra calluses along her fingertips with his powerful vision. 

‘Seamstress? Maybe,’ he shrugged mentally, ‘In any case, I don’t really mind the kids.’ 

He sent a mental pulse to Skye, trying to push the second thought over to her. She examined his expression at the same time, before nodding, “That’s fine,” she beamed, “Come on over, kids!”

Tentatively the twins moved forward, guided partly by Skye to Niko’s side. He stared at them intently, interested in seeing how they acted. On his other side, he felt Rebecca flop against his opposite side with a soft moan that he found hilariously dramatic. In standard kid fashion, the other two likewise pressed against his other side, and did the same thing. 

That opened the floodgates as several more kids came over. 

“Is he good with younger kids?” A pair of parents came over and asked Ronald as they carried a baby in their arms. 

The man smiled, then gestured to Niko, “You can find out for yourself, but he’s very intelligent.”

Niko turned his head to face them– a husband and wife if he had to guess– and the bundled up baby in the woman's arms. The man looked a touch wary, but the wife’s ecstatic expression seemed to wipe away his reluctance. Still, she did pause and give him a hopeful look.

“It’s fine,” he said, “He’s very patient with all of the other kids, after all.”

The wife smiled widely and approached with measured strides, not too quickly, but not slowly either, to his front. “Hello, Niko,” she said in a high tone of voice, “This is Amelia, she’s very young. Have you ever met a baby?”

Niko wasn’t able to keep the amusement off of his face at that, but the woman didn’t notice. The husband did, though, and his forced expression of calm melted into something a little more natural. The woman reached him, and Niko looked down at the pudgy faced baby as she leaned down. 

‘When’s the last time I saw a baby?’ Niko thought to himself, ‘Friends babyshower? Yeah, I think so. Some woman I didn’t know asked me to hold her baby,” he chuckled, though admitted that she hadn’t really been imposing on him too much. 

Still, it felt different somehow this time. The child's eyes cracked open, squinting against the light, but widened in a small sense of wonder as Niko saw his own reflection in clear blue eyes. Tiny hands clumsily reached out, little cooing noises that Niko recognized as baby talk for ‘come here and let me paw you’. 

He obliged by slowly angling his head sideways to make sure the sharper edge of his beak was too far away for the baby to grasp. Still, she touched the side of his beak and giggled as she did so. 

One of the kids behind him got the gumption to climb him, and that shuffled him enough to startle the baby. Amelia’s startled look was one that Niko knew well enough on babies to know that she would almost certainly start crying in moments.

So, he did the only thing he could think of.

He started to sing a lullaby.

The baby, kids, crowd, and even his team stilled as the tones flowed from Niko’s throat. It was different from the songs he’d sung before. This was mellow, musical, structured to be smooth and gentle. A light touch of essence moved at his behest from within him, trying to carry a sense of calm and relaxation to his audience. 

“Hush little baby,

And don’t you cry.

Because here, I have a little thing,

It might just be a lullaby.

A little of this, and a little of that,

But it’s just for you, little baby,

Just for you, a little nothing, 

But a little something.

Just a lullaby. 

So breath in,

And breath out,

Because it’s just a lullaby.

But it’s your lullaby,

From me to you, little baby, so don’t you cry.” 

Niko made it up on the spot, but it was heartfelt, and while the words weren’t especially melodious in his head, his gently lilting tones transformed it into something more. He sang for a minute or two, and watched as the baby went from distressed, to comfortable, to too comfortable.

She wasn’t the only one, though. The crowd seemed to have gone from excited and wary of the large bird in their midst, to exceedingly calm. It was a relaxation and, Niko realized, was potent enough that a kid had managed to pass out on his back.

Niko pulled his head back and away from the baby, noticing the warm smile on the mothers face as she, too, pulled the girl back. She whispered, “Thank you,” to Niko before gently carrying her baby back to the father.

One by one, the parents collected their children, some of them sleepy against Niko’s back. After that, people gave thanks and appreciation to the group for the music, and the Greenhorns accepted them with happy platitudes, likewise immersed in the air of calm that Niko had brought.

When everyone finally dispersed, the street felt just a little bit less traveled than before, like a quiet sanctuary had been established, only to slowly drift away, clinging like the last vestiges of slumber. 

“That was very beautiful, Niko,” Skye said as she ran a hand down Niko’s back, “Thank you.”

“You’re really good with kids,” Dachna smiled broadly, a look devoid of his normal mischievousness, “Maybe you’d consider going to an orphanage or two someday with me?”

Niko’s response was positive. He really didn’t dislike this sort of thing, afterall. It reminded him of when he was caring for his sister back when he was human, and more freshly when he was raising his siblings. 

“Let's get the rest of these goods sorted,” Ronald smiled, “Then we’ll see about some wandering, eh?”

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