Simon woke up early on the day he would receive a companion, shocked that he had fallen asleep. He had promised himself he would continue to grind away at his skills, focusing on improving himself, even if just a little, before he would be tested by all of the companions, and be forced to have a poor mount. But before the physical demands of the last few days, that was quickly wiped away.
Not that Simon was initially very worried about what he would obtain. Although he wasn’t the strongest, he trusted David’s judgement, that his Class would begin to show how useful it was. And to be fair, it had. The initially peculiar Astral Form and Astral Projection were becoming increasingly second nature. It was weird, but one of the effects of the preparation tent was to suppress his form, keeping him from phasing through the wall.
Because he could only sit here, thinking himself into a corner.
To Simon’s surprise, the Wild Rider themselves came, opening up the door to his tent, beckoning him outward. After a gulp, Simon followed.
Everyone else was already there, standing around in a loose group, even David, who appeared thoughtful, gazing over towards the enclosure the group had built and maintained for 6 days.
And that looked extremely different. The monsters were running wild, whooping and crying, filling the air with their sound as if they too, were excited for what was to come. Which, in a way, Simon supposed that they were. They would be receiving a companion as well. But Simon couldn’t help but think that the monsters were in higher demand, even if there were fewer people.
After all, aside from David, the monsters were probably head and shoulders more powerful than all of the assembled humans.
“It is simple. Simply walk to the end of the enclosure… and then return. When you reach the entrance, turn and find who has found you to be worthy. You may begin immediately.” The Wild Rider said, waving her hand. The gates opened. After a small hesitation, people began to walk forward.
More and more people followed, until there were only 5 people remaining. Simon, David, the young girl that had helped David previously, and Heather and Kirk, who were just glaring at David.
“What, are you chickening out now? Even after all of your shitty bribery?” Kirk sneered.
David didn’t even look at him, but walked over to the girl, and kneeled down next to her.
“Would you like to walk with me?”
His voice was softer than Simon had ever heard it, and he abruptly realized that the little girl was trembling. There were several seconds of silence as Kirk’s face went red, but Heather just walked to Kirk’s shoulder and tapped it, shaking her head in disgust. The two left, throwing glares behind them, disappearing into the swarm of monsters, as the beasts criss-crossed around them, taking the time to sniff those that passed through their area.
Eventually, Simon hesitated, and said. “I…. I’ll go on ahead.”
To his surprise, David nodded as well and stood, going to join him, leaving the girl behind. In fact, David walked right past Simon and into the swirl of beasts. They slowed around him, Simon saw, everyone taking a longer moment to sniff him, and the others being careful not to jostle each other too much, lest they get in his way.
Simon took a step towards the enclosure, then hesitated, then looked back over at the girl. “Are… are you okay…?”
He felt extremely lame to ask, but he didn’t want to just leave her there. Especially after David had taken the time to see how she was. Her trembling was really bad too. Initially, Simon had thought that he had some fear towards this, but… compared to this girl…
“I don’t belong here…” She mumbled, still standing still and looking at the ground, her arms wrapped around herself. Simon looked at her, looked at the monsters, then looked back at the girl. Inwardly, he was torn. Well, the Wild Rider never said there was anything like a time limit, but if his animal companion selected someone else…
Cursing to himself, Simon turned and walked back towards the girl. Then he just stood there, because he never really had to be around children. His mothers were pretty distant with their own family, so he didn’t ever have any cousins. And he had no siblings… Sure, he had comforted his peers, but…
Simon scratched his head. It had been a while since he had seen anyone this upset. Feeling helpless, Simon raised his hand and used his skill to produce Mending Fluid, producing several drops in a vial. He offered it to her.
The girl shook her head furiously. “No, no, it’s not… you can’t fix it. Because it’s me. I’m not a broken person, just an incomplete one. Not like…. Not like him…. I don’t belong here. I just like animals…”
She began to sob, and Simon blinked. He… actually knew how she felt. Feeling strangely out of his body, as if he was in an Astral form, he walked forward and knelt before the girl, putting his hands on her shoulders. She flinched, but just from surprise, more than anything else.
“I… get it. He’s… he’s not like us.” Simon said slowly. “But… for two months, I nursed David back to health, from being so injured he couldn’t even move. You see him now, and you can’t tell, but… he’s still human, at his core. And he’s looking for a companion, that’s why we are all here, to follow the lead of the Wild Rider and acquire freedom through a friend.”
Simon stood, and turned away. “And that's… a very human emotion. One that you have too, right? So… so don’t be so hard on yourself.”
And with that mutter, he walked forward, entering the monster horde. Instantly, they surged around him, and Simon stumbled, worried about the girl, about David, about being trampled here, about the arrival of the Skeleton Knight… All of these things ran together, forming a thick swamp of emotions.
But although Simon thought it would swiftly overtake him, these things quickly faded away. Instead, as the animals squawked and growled and squeaked and grunted around him… That stuff was scraped away, leaving only a desire to discover his other half in the throng of animals around him.
Very soon, Simon could pick out individual animals, even though they rushed and flowed around him. Time seemed to stretch. Every step was an eternity, and he met and held the gaze of every single animal, from the smallest monkey, to a huge horned elephant, for at least a second.
Then their gazes broke, and Simon moved on.
Blinking, Simon was shocked to discover that he had reached the fence that marked the end of his enclosure. So he turned around.
Behind him, the animals were sitting now, silent, watching, their eyes seeming to glow with a strange magic. After a brief hesitation, Simon walked forward.
Here, although there weren’t any moments that stretched as they did in the walk over, the walk backwards took much, much longer to walk forward. The silence was heavy, a ponderous thing, as both sides considered. But Simon knew that the animals would be drawn to his strength, so he refused to look behind him. He walked straight forward, head high.
It was a little burst of positive emotion to find that the girl was gone when Simon arrived back to the gate, to the waiting Wild Rider and most of the other pledgees. There were also marked poles, and Simon walked to the one with his name, careful to keep his gaze forward until the last minute. When he arrived, he spun around cleanly.
Smiling, Simon looked at the several animals that had followed him. A ponderous ox. A young sheepdog. The horned elephant. A variant of the fluffy sheep, this one with soft blue fur. And also an adolescent python.
Then he looked around. His grouping was one of the largest, of all the people, but everyone had a couple. But what shocked Simon the most was that there were only 3 sitting in front of David, and two of them were newborn animals!
It appeared to be a baby from the Fluffy White Sheep, and from the crimson eagle. Aside from them the metallic dog stood, stiff and proud, in line.
The little girl, on the other hand, who was only a few steps behind Simon, arrived and turned to find at least a dozen or so monsters of different varieties. Her eyes went wide at the sight.
“You may now choose.” The Wild Rider said, gesturing.
Kirk was the first to move, striding forward and putting his hand on the head of a komodo dragon the size of a surfboard behind him. It flicked its tongue out, pleased, while the other animals turned away and dispersed.
Everyone moved, while Simon studied the monsters in front of him. Of these, he was most tempted by the horned elephant and the blue sheep, although the draw to the blue sheep was mostly due to its association with the fluffy white sheep, which seemed pretty powerful. But still… that was compelling enough evidence. But the horned elephant was young, but still the size of the van. The damage that it could inflict…
Simon took a hesitant step forward, then looked around. Most everyone else had chosen, except David, the girl, and himself. David seemed puzzled, looking at the monsters, and the girl was still shocked that she had the largest group, so Simon supposed it was his turn. But before he moved, a voice stopped him.
“A bit of advice?” The Wild Rider said, appearing behind him. “Don’t just look with your eyes. You have other ways of sensing too.”
Simon just looked at her. Did they mean…?
Closing his eyes, Simon spread out his senses, activating his Astral form. Immediately, one figure amongst those in front of him glowed with a powerful spiritual energy, that Simon wasn’t able to perceive in his physical form. The energy was so thick that his Astral form had difficulty approaching, and he wasn’t able to form a projection in that chaotic area. Shocked, Simon opened his eyes.
If he could bond with a powerful spiritual animal, would his abilities increase as well…?
“I choose… you.” Simon said simply, looking into the wide set eyes of the ox. It blinked slowly at him, then nodded.