Nearby the gates, I could see Mint standing around beside a large horse drawn wagon. He was casually scanning the streets around him as he waited.
(I hope I'm not late.)
Picking up the pace, I weaved between the people around me.
"Oh Miss Scarlet!"
He waved and called me out the moment he spotted me. I raised a hand in turn but opted not to raise my voice. Instead, I quickly closed the gap.
"Hey. I'm not late, am I?"
"No no. In fact, I'm still waiting for my other escorts. They had some last minute business to take care of."
"Oh, I see."
(I hope he's not just saying that to make me feel better.)
That said, it did actually make me feel a bit better. The thought that I wasn't dragging anyone down was nice, even though I had absolutely no reason to think that I'd be dragging anyone down at all for this job. At least while we were on the road.
"So...can you tell me what sort of things to expect? I've never done an escort request for the guild before."
"Oh, you've done escorts for other guilds or something? How was it like?"
There was no way I was going to recount all my terrible experiences escorting NPCs into hell holes, traps, ambushes, and glitched pathing.
"I see. Well at least these sorts of escort requests are vastly different from that. It's pretty rare for the unexpected to happen. Maybe a few monster attacks, the occasional bandits, but even that is rare."
"Bandits are rare?"
I had the image that monster and bandit attacks happened pretty much every time a merchant was being escorted, considering that the spent the money to hire escorts.
"Pretty much. If they were common, merchants wouldn't use the roads they appear at you know?"
"Ah, makes sense."
"Monster attacks are more common, but they only happen once every few days or when travelling in a particularly infested area. Even then, they usually only show up in small groups and are easy to repel. We merchants actually count on being able to harvest a few monsters along the way to help cover the costs of the escorts."
Mint points out at his wagon and there was some tarps and rope in a clearly open extra space. It was a bit weird that merchants actually looked forward to monster attacks like that. The thought made me wonder just how there were enough monsters around that would allow such a thing. The ecology of this world was weird.
"Huh? If you count on monster attacks to happen, then why don't you just strengthen yourself instead of hiring escorts?"
"Ah, some merchants do that. It's especially common among former mercenaries and adventurers. But for the rest of us, the time we spend on training ourselves up to be self sufficient is time we could spend making more money. Unless if you have a particular reason to get those skills and levels, it's just not worth it."
(And thus they spend that money on escorts instead huh?)
"Hey! Mister Mercari!"
"Oh, looks like they're back. Hey! Over here!"
The merchant waved at a group of three people who were making their way through the busy street towards us. Two young guys and a young girl, all in their early or mid teens. One of the men had triangular pointed ears and a thin furry tail. Their equipment looked like hand-me-downs from three generations ago, and their clothes under their armour looked as old as they were. My eyes half closed on the fact that the animal-eared one was wearing an open vest and nothing else to cover his upper body.
(Is that one doing that on purpose, or just can't afford a real shirt?)
"My dear mademoiselle! To think we could be reunited at a...!"
"Oh shut it and stop being in heat all the time you moron!"
"Ah, stop it you two!"
As they got close, the half stripped one rushed up and grabbed my hands, bringing his face way too close for comfort. But in the middle of his sentence, the girl smacked the back of his head and pushed him to the side, toppling him to the ground. The third member of the group rushed up and pulled the first one back onto his feet as he tried to deescalate things.
"Hey! That hurt! Why do you always have to be so violent?!"
"Oh shut it! Why do you always act like you're standing at attention all the time?! Make it learn to lie down, or I'll make it learn how to play dead!"
"Ahh, you two! Not in front of our benefactor! Ah, I'm terribly sorry about those two."
Before I could get anything in, those two just kept yelling at each other. The last one seemed a bit more amiable, but had way too little influence or force of will to actually get the other two to stop. Not like I was one to talk though.
Behind me, there was a massively loud fake cough, making all three of them, plus myself, stand like rods.
"Now then, as you three already know, this is Miss Scarlet, the one that saved us from those loam wolves a while back. As I've told you before, she's joining us for our trip as an additional escort to Knossos City."
"Ah, I'm Aaron Recnal, and it's a pleasure to be able to work with such an amazing mage! Gah!"
"I'm Mary Eromyalc! You were really incredible appearing with a cloud of dust and taking out all those wolves in an instant! I hope we can be friends!"
The triangle-eared one extended a hand out to me, but before I could take it, the girl body-checked him to the side and grabbed my outstretched hand in both of hers and shook it with all her strength. It was actually more than I expected considering how her arms weren't particularly muscular, but I should've known as my own arms were thinner yet I probably completely dwarfed her in strength.
"Why you! Why do you always have to do that sort of thing Mary?!"
"Oh shut it. I wouldn't have to do that if you weren't always a cat in heat!"
"I'll have you know that we cat-kin don't go into heat!"
(Rather than that, wasn't that something that only effects females?)
"Ahem! If you will, I'd like to get a move on before the sun sets."
"Ah, right! You two, let's get going! We can leave the talking to afterwards!"
"I'm coming! Bleh!"
Thanks to the timely intervention, I didn't have to get caught up in those two arguing a second time in only a few seconds. Maybe a third time, considering the girl stuck her tongue out at the guy at the end.
"Sorry about that. They're always like that."
"Oh, I'm Jason Dleihs by the way."
We quickly shook hands before Mint had the horse start pulling his wagon and we followed after it.
"So, where did you come from anyways?"
Within seconds of clearing the city gates, the four of us spread out forming a half-circle covering the back and sides around the wagon. Somehow I ended up being one of the back corners with the girl being beside me. Just in front of me was the tailed guy.
It felt like they weren't really maintaining formation properly and were closer to me than the last guy on the far side of the wagon. Maybe the formation didn't actually matter much?
"Umm...from the west."
"Oh really? We came from the west as well! Ah, but...I've never seen you before. I'd definitely remember if there was someone as beautiful as you in the village. Did you come from beyond the forest?"
"Uh, yea. I came through the forest."
"Wow! Really? I knew you were strong, but strong enough to get through such a dangerous place? How did you get so strong even though you're younger than us?"
"Uhhh, well, I fought a lot of monsters."
"Oh man. I'm glad none of them managed to scar that pretty face of yours. It would be a loss to the entire world if they did!"
"For once, I actually agree. It's a pretty scary thought that I might mess up and get a nasty scar or worse."
"You don't have anything to look at, so I don't see the problem."
"Why you! How can you say that to a girl?!"
"Ah! You two! Stop fighting already!"
(And once again they're fighting. How does this party even stay together when they're like this?)
"So, what sort of things are expected to be done in escort requests?"
After quite a while, the two calmed down and we were able to have a proper conversation again. The trip itself was pretty boring as we were simply walking on a mostly featureless road with very little to note aside from tall grass on both flanks and the occasional tree in the distance.
The pointy eared guy was pulled to the other side of the wagon by the other guy so that he and the girl wouldn't be able to fight. I was left on this corner of the wagon pretty much alone with her.
"You mean aside from following the client and protecting him and the cargo?"
"Yea. Aside from that."
"Well, there really isn't much more than that."
My eyes grew a little wider while looking at the girl.
(Umm...shit. I forgot her name already.)
"Well, the hard part is that we have to always be on guard day and night until we can rest at a town."
"How's that done?"
"Ah, well, it's pretty simple. During the day we'll all keep an eye out, but when we make camp for the night, we just take shifts for the watch."
"Shifts? Then I guess you don't get much sleep during an escort?"
"Ahaha, I guess not. Especially since there's only three of us, it was pretty tough at the beginning, but we're used to it now! Ah! But since you're here, we can get a bit more sleep!"
(Sleep huh? It feels weird talking about it since I don't do it anymore.)
"Hmm...if that's the case, how about I just take the night shift?"
"Well, if I rest during the day in the wagon, it wouldn't be hard to keep watch during the night. That way you guys can get proper rest and be at full strength to deal with any threats during the day."
"Well, sure, that would work, but..."
"No way! I can't allow such a beautiful woman to keep to the flames all alone the entire night!"
"Hey, stop it!"
From the other side, the two guys yelled across. There was the sound of some struggling and I could see some dust puff up from under the wagon.
"Umm, I don't mind myself, but are you sure about that Miss Scarlet?"
"I'm fine with that. I'm used to staying up at night."
(Rather, I prefer the night in general without the annoying glare of the sun making everything too bright.)
"How about you Mister Mercari? Is that fine?"
"As long as you are in agreement, I don't have any complaints, but are you sure it's fine Miss Scarlet?"
"Yea, it is."
"Alright then, you can take a rest in the spare space in the back. Just let me stop the wagon."
Before he finished, I had already hopped inside and was pulling the cheap tarp over my body.
"I'm already in. You don't have to stop."
"Oh, well, you really are quite capable aren't you? Have a good rest. We'll be relying on you at night."
With that, I pulled the sheets over my head. But the second I did that, I pulled off my bag and started to remove some things from it. Some wood as well as a bolt of spider silk came out. From there, I used [Spirit Form] and [Materialize], then applied some more magic to form the wood into an approximation of my own body but in several parts to make it easy to take apart and put it into my bag later. The silk was cut into long lengths and the ends were embedded into the head area of the wooden dummy to look like my hair. The colour (or lack thereof) was pretty close to mine, and should fool a casual observer.
When everything was in place, I completely disengaged [Materialize] and extracted myself from under the old tarp. Using [Float], I hovered above the wagon. A bit of [Tempest Magic] kept me from falling behind, and I looked around.
It looked like nobody noticed what I was doing. Well, nobody aside from the little fluffballs that got all excited when they realized what I was doing.
That was because I had gotten so bored already that I just wanted to be entertained, and there wasn't much better entertainment in the middle of nowhere as playing with the little spirits. Well, aside from talking while walking, but trying to do so reminded me how bad of a talker I was. Especially when I had so many secrets to keep.
Just in case, I paid attention to the presences around the wagon, but there weren't any significant ones, and none of the small ones I did detect made a move towards the group. leaving me to play with the little spirits.
To start with, I made and spread out a bunch of mana treats which the little fluffballs eagerly caught and ate up. From there, we started one of our usual games as I started to chase them, using [Tempest Magic] to push me around while floating.
"Miss Scarlet. Can you wake up now?"
"Mmm? What's up?"
"We're making camp now. I thought maybe you'd like to at least have dinner with us."
The sky had turned crimson and the sun was starting to dip close to the horizon. I thoroughly enjoyed myself playing with the fluffballs, and they seemed to be properly satisfied themselves for the first time in a while. It was nice that I finally was able to make up for how much I was neglecting them while I was in the city.
During the day, the others called me for lunch as they rested at the side of the road, but I ignored them. It wasn't like I could eat normal food. Pretending to sleep was a natural way to avoid being found out.
But sleeping even at this point wasn't so good.
Putting the wooden doll back into my bag, I snuck back under the tarp and acted as if I was coming out of it.
"Ah. In that case, I'll help cook."
"Huh? Cook? We don't have ingredients though."
"Then what do you normally have?"
"We just have some black bread and dried meat."
The guy with a shield on his back came up with some hard looking bread and a small bag full of dried meat in his hands. I couldn't imagine how any of that was tasty.
"If you guys don't mind waiting a bit, I can make something."
"Really? If someone as beautiful as you is the one making it, I can wait all night for it!"
"As much as I hate to agree, if you can make something, I'd love to eat it too."
"Oh, you'll make something Miss Scarlet? In that case, how about everyone set up the camps first while we wait?"
With that, I took off in a sprint, checking out one hit on my [Sense Presence] skill after the next until I found some rush rabbits. A quick squeeze of my fingers around their necks ended their lives in an instant. I nicked their necks with a claw and sucked the blood out of each of them.
It wasn't really enough as my stomach threatened to rumble, but it had to do for then. I needed to spend time gathering more blood as my jars of blood were running out.
Nearby, I could faintly hear the sound of running water, so I headed towards it. Only a short distance away, I found a small stream flowing through the grasslands almost parallel to the road. The stream really was tiny though, as it was only big enough that you could barely submerge a water skin enough to fill it. There was no way to fill a pot from here using normal methods. Fortunately, I was more than experienced when it came to filling a container with fluids using unconventional means.
Taking out an iron ingot from my bag, I reformed it into a pot large enough to serve four, then I used [Aqua Magic] to make the stream flow up and into the pot. Once it was filled halfway, I put the pot into my bag and returned to the camp.
I got back to everyone as the first tent was spread out on the ground and two of them were just about to raise some wooden poles to hang the heavy canvas off of.
"Oh, welcome back. That was fast."
"Wow! Rush rabbits?"
"Three of them as well?"
"Incredible, you really do live up to our every expectation."
"Umm...anyways, it'll be a little longer."
I put the rabbits down and pulled the pot out of my bag and placed it on the ground. Next, went about to open up the rabbits. I had lost the knife I had bought before to the lord's goons, but I had made a pair of daggers that same night.
Taking one of the daggers out, I reformed it a bit into the shape of a more proper utility knife, then went to work skinning, removing the organs, then separating the meat from the bones. When I was done, I heated up the water using magic, bringing it to a boil in only seconds, and threw in the diced meat in to be cooked.
As it went, I diced up some leftover vegetable from my bag. I was starting to get really low when it came to food, as almost all of my reserves had gone to the orphanage. If I wanted to keep doing this sort of thing, I needed to stock up again soon.
Carefully timing it, I added each vegetable depending on it's cooking time. While I kept a low flame going underneath, I took advantage of my newest skill, [Multi-cast], and stirred the contents at the same time using magic. Finally, I added some salt and pepper to the mix while stopping the stirring to remove the scum from the top on occasion. My [Multi-cast] rank wasn't high enough for me to cast three spells at the same time yet. I had a lot more practising to do, unless if I got lucky and found a monster that had the skill naturally.
"Alright, it's ready now."
I turned to my travelling companions, but to my surprise, they were all staring with their mouths agape. The always bickering duo were drooling a bit.
"It smells so good."
"It smells better than the food at our last inn."
"It really does."
"Is it really alright to eat something so nice smelling while travelling?"
"I made it, so isn't that a given? Ah! I forgot the utensils."
Looking around, none of them had bowls or spoons to eat with. I hadn't even prepared something to serve the soup with. Hiding behind the large pot, I dug into my pack, pulled out an iron ingot, and formed it into four simple bowls and spoons to match, along with a ladle.
"Here you go."
I handed each a set and served some soup to each.
They each thanked me in turn as they received their meal.
"Mmm! This is great!"
"It really is better than that inn's food!"
"Ah, to be able to eat this well!"
"To be able to do so on the road..."
Once they started to eat, I got up and headed towards the far fields.
"Miss Scarlet? Aren't you going to eat as well?"
"I'm going to have a look around. You guys can eat ahead."
"How about doing so after you eat? You should enjoy the meal you yourself have made!"
"Ah, umm...well, I've got something to do..."
My brain went to overdrive, trying to come up with an excuse to not eat with everyone.
"Ah! Mister Mercari! She said she has something to do! It's rude to ask anymore!"
"Huh? Oh, yes, I suppose that is true. I apologize."
"Ah, no. It's no problem..."
Fortunately, the girl gave me an out, though I wasn't quite aware what it was she was trying to imply.
"Oh, we'll save you some food for when you come back."
"Ah, no, it's okay. I've got a small appetite. You can have it all."
"Even still, we'll make sure to leave you some. It's the least we can do."
I quickly made my way to the fields. Seeing them all eat wasn't doing me any favours and I was really aching to get more blood into my body. The small amount I had wasn't doing it for me.
As everyone else ate, I switched to [Spirit Form] to avoid my high-speed movement from being noticed. I quickly found and hunted myself a charge boar a bit of a distance away, drained it of all it's blood, then threw the remains into my bag.
Now that I was happy with a nice and full belly, I headed back to the camp.