Simon hated Anthony, the overweight leader of his training group. Toto, Simon’s Soul Bond beast, agreed, although it was in a very dispassionate way.
“Straighten your back! Raise your weapon!” Anthony bellowed, his eyes directly on Simon. Simon hunched his shoulders, cursing inwardly.
Sure, he was physically capable, and his time with David- the Ghosthound had taught him to survive in wild situations, but most of Anthony’s training involved direct confrontation with the opponents, charges of riders in formation towards an opponent.
Which, of course, was not where Simon’s talents lay. It took absolute begging for Simon to be allowed at the back, where his healing and water spells could be used to their utmost effect. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no way to convince Anthony that his Astral skills, and his Dreamer Class, were worth planning around. If anything Anthony seemed insulted at the concept.
As if any Class could equal the strength of the Wild Rider’s charge… That was what his eyes seemed to say as they squinted at Simon.
So Simon, day after day, drilled pointlessly, learning to do something that he would never do.
To be fair, it did do wonders for raising Simon’s Riding Skill, and also his Soul Bond. There were bonuses. And the frequent accidents associated with the riding practice meant that Simon had occasion to practice his healing skills. But would it really kill Anthony to just admit there were more options than just charging at the enemy…?
And based upon the way the other training leaders treated him Anthony was relatively high up. If this was truly all the army of the Wild Rider thought about it… Simon began to become worried for what would happen in the battle against the Skeleton Knight. He supposed it was a good thing that Donnyton was taking the brunt of the forces right now…
Still, information from the front lines were hard, because it was on the other side of the Skeleton Knight’s forces. Who knew what the state of things actually was…
After the drill was over, Simon, barely managing to keep up with his other pledgees, Simon collapsed in a heap. For a moment he considered using his Astral form on break again, but Simon hesitated. For the past several days, Simon had wanted to talk to the Ghosthound.
He understood why the older man had hid his identity. It was just…
Simon rolled over and stood up, annoyed. It was just that… he had felt….
Toto walked over and nudged Simon softly, distracting him from an extended teeth grinding session. Simon sighed, throwing his hands up in the air. His emotions were a mess, constantly sliding between tired and annoyed, and a deep sense of betrayal.
Every time he used his Astral form and watched the Ghosthound, his urge to visit him had faded. So now, if he wanted to settle this…
Simon’s stomach gurgled unhappily. He would wait, and this evening, go and see the other man. And get his answers. Or something. Rubbing his head furiously, unable to make heads or tails of his emotions, Simon angrily sat down, determined to relax and rest.
20 minutes later, he got up, huffing and stiff, returning to the practice under Anthony.
The whole evening passed in a blur of dissatisfaction, until he stomped out of the final practice of the night, his body sore and bruised, and whisked his way over to Thea’s tent. It seemed that the look in his eyes was enough, because the usually brusque Thea just nodded and followed along behind him.
The area that the Ghosthound was staying at was well known. It was the spot that there had previously been the small field for growing the magical fruits. Some animals used to hang around the area, sniffing for bits that people had missed, but the area had already been picked clean. Now, too, everyone was scared away from the deep cavernous hole in the earth, and the deep troughs carved into the ground by the flailing of the Raid Boss the Ghosthound used for a mount.
So it was silent and dark as they walked towards the Ghosthound’s hut. No one even knew what he had been up to in the last several days, staying in the small shack of woven roots he had created for himself. Rumor had it that some of Donnyton’s special forces showed up to report to him, because strange figures were seen moving back and forth around the hut, but no one was willing to move close enough to investigate.
There was even a thickness in the air that Simon felt, as they walked with Chrysanthemum and Toto towards the house. For their part, the animals seemed supremely unconcerned, growling back and forth to each other. It was cheery, in a way, but it also meant that the only noise on their trip was animal growls.
When they arrived at the small fire next to the hut, the Ghosthound was standing outside of it, a tall rack, filled with spears that appeared to be made of roots. He held one in his hands, staring intently at it, drawing a pen across its surface. At his feet, there were several spears, some of which were covered in glowing runes, others which were broken and burnt seeming.
As they approached, the Ghosthound didn’t look up, which Simon at first thought meant that he was so lost in his work that he couldn’t hear them, but then as they approached and he still didn’t move, Simon realized with a slight chill that it wasn’t that he didn’t know he was there, but that he realized they were there far, far before they noticed his location.
His Perception… just how high was it…? 100…?
Finally, with a hiss, the root spear in his hands cracked, the middle disappearing before Simon’s very eyes. There were strange, blue flames that ignited from the remnants, licking at the Ghosthound’s hand. But he just huffed in annoyance, and shook his hands, the flames slowly dissipating.
Then he turned to regard them, his eyes strangely bright and green in the darkness. His gaze was intense, and curious, but overall weary. Simon tensed up, mirroring the Ghosthound’s stance, but without any of his confidence.
This… why was it like this…?
“So… you were Randidly Ghosthound… the whole time.” Thea said, breaking the awkward silence. Simon just stood there, clenching and unclenching his hands. He had wanted to say that, but more, but more…. something. Just a certainty that he held in his heart that he wanted to include in the question, but his mouth…
His tongue flopped back and forth like an awkward slug.
The Ghosthound nodded slowly, and as he did so, his giant bone wurm appeared, sliding across the ground like it was grease. The wurm flailed, trying to stop itself, but then it just began to roll forward, carried by its momentum towards the house. With a sigh, the Ghosthound stepped forward, stopping the wurm with a dull bang.
Even that casual action…! Simon squinted his eyes together.
The wurm righted itself. “Thank, fast is hard.”
Shaking his head, the Ghosthound said. “It’s thank you. But at least you are making progress.”
The wurm nodded happily as the Ghosthound turned to Thea and Simon. “...Yes, I am the Ghosthound. I guess… you’ve heard of me.”
If anything, his hesitation only served to make the ball of emotions in Simon’s chest more tight. Almost unable to control himself, Simon took a step forward, and said. “But… why….”
The Ghosthound tilted his head to the side, and Simon continued, as if a balloon in his chest popped. “Why lie? Why hide it? Was it because you were injured, in a strange place? Was it because of my age? My skills? Did you just not… connect with me? I thought… we spent all that time together, just trying to get you better…”
Trailing off, Simon couldn’t find the words to continue. Every single trick that the fake person David had taught him, every edible plant and way to start a fire. Every way of tracking monsters, every gesture and mannerism that Simon had only been happy to adopt, finally learning from another man he admired… it was fake.
What was worse was that it wasn’t a betrayal, really. After all, the true person under the mask was the Ghosthound: probably the most powerful person in all of their Zone. So he couldn’t be angry that he had imitated him. But… it felt dirty.
Was this really the way the people at the top behaved…? Was this just the way the world was…?
In a corner of his mind, Simon knew he was being melodramatic, but… after those weeks together… after being finally convinced to leave his spring, where he was safe… after forsaking a powerful sounding Class at his direction….
Wasn’t Simon owed some honesty…?
The Ghosthound scratched his neck. His lips were pursed, not in annoyance, but rather as if he was weighing two options. Finally, after several long seconds, he said. “It was because… I was afraid. I’m strong, but… my enemies are stronger.”
After a moment of stillness, the Ghosthound moved, and now that Simon was aware of it, he could see, in the strange unnatural smoothness of his movements that this man was not truly human, not all the way. He had improved himself, becoming more than that. Very quickly, the Ghosthound returned, holding a small object.
His eyes were bright and sad as he looked at Simon, then he offered Simon a glove. “An apology. For all the trouble I’ve caused you… and the fact I lied.”
Simon just felt everything drain away, leaving a wariness. Because he felt something more difficult to bear, in a completely different way; the Ghosthound was running from something, some powerful enemy, something worse, far worse, than a Tier III Raid Boss.
“M.r Ghosthound-” Thea began, but the Ghosthound interrupted her.
“Call me Randidly. Or even David, if you’d prefer.”
“Alright… Randidly.” Thea said, her voice high and nervous. “I just want to know… what kind of enemies do you have to run from?”