By the dawn of the 5th day, Simon’s outlook was much more bitter. True, this would only last for 3 more days, but the days it had taken to get here had been a slowly increasing hell. The animals that the Wild Rider was bringing in became increasingly monstrous as time went on, while the area of land they had to manage them had grown increasingly cramped as more and more creatures filled it.
Which was the point that several people took on their roles as peacekeepers in the enclosure. Originally Simon had been extremely dubious that this was necessary, but as there were more monsters, with surly tempers, displays of strength became increasingly common.
Having a Classer put them to rest was reassuring, in a way.
“Hey um….” Lally paused, looking around. Simon, Heather, and a few others meekly sat around a fire, eating as fast as possible, trying to get a meal in between work. David lay over to the side, seeming to doze in the grass next to one of his vegetable farms. Simon would give David this; those were the largest tomatoes he had ever seen. Well, they at least seemed like tomatoes, although they were colored differently…
“Simon and Trey, can you come help me carry some firewood back? If we can get it done within the next hour, we can start repositioning animals for the next big wave of arrivals before they get here. Imagine.” Lally’s voice was filled with faux optimism. They all knew that this group would be even larger, and all their preparations would be for naught.
Simon nodded wearily and stood, looking around. For whatever reason, the area around where the humans ate was filled to the brim with monsters, coldly regarding Simon as he stood. The three of them made their winding way through the monsters. It was inconvenient, but better to leave them laying where they were, than move them and have to deal with them angry.
A shout caught the trio’s attention as Simon was stepping over a 30 meter python.
Grimacing, Simon turned and followed a frowning Lally as she walked towards the source of the shout. Kirk was standing, glowering up at a crimson eagle, the size of a bear, spreading its wings and knocking away nearby monsters. Its wingspan was probably almost 8 meters, and several nearby monsters were giving it disgruntled looks.
As it attempted to spread its wings further, Kirk, who was in front of it, prodded it with his spear, keeping it from spreading its wings too wide. The eagle screeched, furious, glaring at Kirk, and then looked balefully around at the monsters nearby, who blocked it from spreading its wings.
“Kirk, just-” Lally began, but Kirk snorted.
“If we don’t fucking teach it a lesson, it will be unruly for the next three days. Look how fucking big it is! Better to strike now, while it’s on the ground-”
“Do we really need-” Simon tried to interject, but a long hiss silenced him. Simon froze. To his horror, that huge python that he had stepped over had followed them, its huge body slithering between his legs. In fact, Simon had to widen his stance, because the head was so large that it brushed up against his ankles.
Once it was through, it straightened, and hissed at the eagle, its pupils narrowed to slits. Screeching, the eagle hopped forward towards the python.
“You fucking-!” Kirk bellowed, stepping forward, bringing the butt of his spear against the chest of the eagle. The aim was probably not to actually damage the eagle, but rather to shock it and put some fear into its attitude. But when Kirk struck, he simply rebounded off as it hopped forward again, overwhelming him.
Simon abruptly felt very afraid that the crimson eagle was going to attack a snake that was currently slithering between his legs. But he couldn’t find the impetus to move. He was frozen.
Luckily, that didn’t seem to be in the cards. Instead of fighting, they began conversing briefly in squawks and hisses. Then, in an extremely confusing and comical manner, the eagle hopped on top of the python, gripping the middle of its body with its talons. Then, as the python slithered deeper, the crimson eagle just sat on top of it, glaring at any monster that blocked it.
Kirk got back up, his face beet red. “We should fucking gang up on it while it’s asleep. If we don’t-”
Lally didn’t even answer, just sighed and walked away, Simon and the other wood fetcher helping.
After they had finished with the task of hauling wood, and after they spent several hours accommodating the new batch of animals that the Wild Rider had brought, the group of 30 Pledgees were eating when Heather suddenly looked up from her bowl, and glared at David. “What are you doing?”
David didn’t bother to answer, continuing to patiently harvest his plants, which had swollen to a huge size, filling a basket. Heather didn’t seem to mind the lack of response, but she did seem to have a problem with what he was doing. “Have you been sneaking away to feed these monsters? Do you think that will help you get a better companion?”
David, again, didn’t answer, but there was some more focus from the eating group, their eyes sharp. After all, if someone got a better companion, that was a companion that they couldn’t have. And it made sense, to feed the animals, earn a little bit more of a positive association in their minds.
Very quickly, Simon could tell that the mood was souring towards David. And Simon could sorta understand why. Those that had spent their time trying to physically intimidate and control the monsters probably realized that while they were working hard to control the animals, David had been here simply feeding them. One of the militant focused Pledgees dumped her food on the ground, her expression dark.
Which was a message, sure, but one that made Simon wince; he didn’t know how, but David was a phenomenal cook. It was slightly disappointing to see all of it wasted.
But what no one expected, even David, was that one of the dirty and desperate people, a 12 year old girl, would speak. “Can I help?”
Jemma looked up at the quiet man who cooked the delicious food, her hands trembling as she gripped her bowl.
His eyes were slow to turn to her, and the entire while Jemma trembled. Emerald fire rippled and grew in his eyes, a piercing light that caused Jemma’s heart to pound, but at the same time she was unable to look away.
Jemma was here because she wanted a peaceful life taking care of animals. She didn’t want to have a companion and then fight against the monsters threat. No, her calling was closer to a breeder, or a caretaker. Before the System arrived, she had even dreamed of being a veterinarian. Initially, when Jemma arrived she had latched onto Lally, doing everything she requested, doing her best to help, hoping to learn how to deal with the animals.
This became increasingly difficult, because for whatever reason… the powerful monsters began to gather around the location where everyone ate and slept. It made it impossible for her to rest, and Jemma had taken to prowling the camp at nights, just to rid herself of her restless energy.
She almost cursed herself, inwardly, for investing some of her bonus stats from Paths into Vitality, which kept her away from the sweet oblivion of sleep. But there were some benefits. A few nights ago, she had discovered that the calm cook also did not sleep, or if he did, it was even less than she did.
It was oddly soothing for her to watch him care for the plants. He was methodical and efficient. With a touch, the man seemed to be able to intuit the health of the plants. Then he would either pick them, cull them, or use them for the human food.
Because of course, as Jemma quickly realized, the choicest pieces went to the monsters.
The first time she had witnessed it was two nights ago, but she had only noticed by the end, as the man was winding his way back through the lines of animals, his basket empty. So last night, Jemma had kept herself up to watch what happened.
What she saw left her stunned. Not because of anything that happened, but because of what didn’t happen.
The cook had simply walked out among the monsters, every single one of them perking up as he approached. The monsters shifted slightly, in an overly casual way. Working his way in a clockwise manner, the cook would set a fruit or vegetable or whatever in front of the monsters, then continue in a circle, slowly working himself in a wider area, giving fruit to monsters farther back.
Those monsters in the near circle seemed to be acting on an unspoken agreement, and only after all 9 monsters in the closest ring received their fruits did they eat, all of them gulping it down in a single bite. There was a shaggy grey wolf, a two headed lion, a strange, glowing eyed boar, a sheep with fluffy white fur, a python, a huge komodo dragon, a strange metallic dog, a turquoise frog with four eyes, and a gorilla with soft, grey hair.
These ate together, ignoring their compatriots, and then settling down. What shocked Jemma was that they seemed to change after absorbing the fruit. Most of these were in subtle ways: the wolf’s fur grew increasingly bristly, the boar’s eyes became even brighter, the frog’s skin became increasingly blue. But Jemma also saw that the sheep simply grew a small but visible amount, and the komodo dragon’s level increased by 1, to 26.
The monsters that were farther out were much less patient, and ate theirs immediately, snapping them up as soon as they touched the ground. These pieces of fruit and vegetable were smaller, and less eye catching, seemingly much less potent, and all the monsters eyed the man with the basket as he strolled around, taking his sweet time.
But none made a move to take more than they were given, despite their obvious greed. There were two reasons that animals didn’t act, Jemma knew. Confusion and fear. And there was no confusion in those expressions as they gazed at the basket.
Which made even less sense to Jemma. The Path that had kept her alive this far in the System was the Fearful Path, from which she learned the skill Fear’s Tremor. Some might consider it a detriment, but Jemma didn’t mind the small tremor in her hands when she was near a creature that she was afraid of. In addition, it was predictive; there were times she was about to take a turn on a mountain trail and her hands trembled, and she waited until it passed before proceeding. The exact details were confusing, but she was content to trust it.
All 9 of the monsters in the first ring, and many beyond them, caused her hands to tremble. The cook did not. Which plunged her heart through thick ice into cold, dark water.