I came out of the waist-high grass on the far side of the wagon after making sure that everyone else was all together on the other side.
Making my way around the wagon with the horses tied to it's side, my eyes caught the sight of a fully erect tent and all four of my travelling companions huddled around a small campfire, the sound of their conversation drifted over indistinctly.
"Oh Miss Scarlet, welcome back."
The first to notice me was Mint, the only one on the far side of the fire. As he spoke up, the other three turned towards me with a smile.
"You're back! The soup was amazing!"
"The soup you made was such a delight! So much so that I would love to eat it every day!"
"As much as I'd hate to agree with anything this cat in heat says, it would be nice to eat your food all the time."
The quarrelling duo interrupted their third as they rushed over to me, eyes glittering. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the other guy. Despite being their mediator, he had little success at his job and was now being completely ignored.
"Ahaha, thanks. I caught a boar just now, so I'll make something for breakfast as well."
"Ah, that's why she smells like blood again..."
The cat boi whispered something to himself but it seemed like my hearing was better than he thought.
"Miss Scarlet, we left some soup for you along with some of our rations. Please have some."
The pot was sitting beside the fire keeping it from getting cold. Taking a glance inside, there was enough for a single serving left. Beside the pot was the rest of the food Mint promised sitting inside of a simple wooden mug that probably belonged to one of them.
"Ah, thanks. I'll have it when I get hungry."
The bread and meat, along with the entire pot went into my bag. The bowls and spoons the others used were next to where the pot was, neatly sitting in a little circle.
"Oh sorry, I was going to wash those in the stream in a bit."
The non-argumentative guy got up when he noticed I was looking at the bowls.
"Ah, no. It's fine. It's faster if I do it."
Picking one set up, I applied some magical water and quickly rinsed the bowl and spoon out before doing the same to the rest. In less time than it would've taken him to walk to the stream, I had already finished cleaning all the utensils.
Seeing that, he slumped down beside the fire.
"Miss Scarlet? We cleaned up the remains of the rush rabbits and put them on the back of the wagon for you to take."
"Ah, you can keep them. Didn't you say that the monsters hunted during an escort go to the employer?"
"They do, but that's usually only for monsters that attack along the way, not monsters that the escort hunt on the side."
(So there's a differentiation?)
"Well, I don't need them anyways. You can keep them."
"Is that so? Well, I'll graciously accept them then."
I sat down at the campfire and the five of us chatted a bit about random topics. As random as it was, it was informative. Apparently monster sightings had increased in the recent few years, especially in the south and west, and it was suspected that it was connected to the defeat of the demon lord. Without him to lead the demons, they scattered around. As a consequence, lots of monsters ended up getting displaced as they were forced from their normal habitats as groups of demons moved through their territories.
"Well, it's starting to get dark, so let's all go to sleep. Are you sure you'll be fine keeping watch for the whole night Miss Scarlet?"
After a while of talking, Mint made his suggestion.
"Yea, I'll be fine. I'm not even a little sleepy."
"...if you say so. Don't hesitate to wake us up if something happens Miss Scarlet."
With some encouraging words from the others, the young adventurer party all went to their tent and Mint lay down on the wide driver's seat on the wagon. I sat down at the campfire to tend to it for a little while, but once I was reasonably sure that everyone had fallen asleep, I killed the fire only to notice that there were charred bits of meat and bones in the flames. It looked like that was how they disposed the rabbits' unused bits.
I lay down on my back to watch the stars above.
The three moons floated high above, each a different primary colour. My eyes gravitated towards the red one, the one my name may have originally come from. The thought that vampires may have originally came from that moon felt pretty ridiculous, but at the same time, I couldn't really dismiss it. This world had things in it that couldn't be explained no matter how much I tried. The dungeon I lived in for almost my entire second life being the most principal example, but my own body was another.
Like, how come I didn't need sleep unlike pretty much every living being aside from bacteria on Earth? Even plants slept, in their own weird way. I think. How was I able to survive on nothing but blood? How can I drink more blood than the volume of my body?
I could only answer those questions with the answer: magic. But that was an obvious cop-out, and wasn't satisfying in the slightest. Not to mention that magic was a thing in this world.
After a while of staring, I switched gears and went back to working on the skill to revive Alicia while paying attention to the presences around me in the corner of my mind. Every once in a while, I threw some mana treats to the fluffballs.
As the starry sky started to retreat, I sat up and dusted myself.
Taking the boar out of my bag, I got to work skinning it, removing the organs, and cutting the meat up into little cubes. Removing another iron ingot, I reshaped it into a pair of large serving plate and a bunch of skewers and stabbed the cubes onto it. Applying some crushed salt and pepper, I filled one of the wide plate with a large pile of meat skewers.
The organs and loose bones were all thrown into the remains of last night's campfire and I ignited it all with magic. The fire didn't take well, so I had to sustain the spell to get rid of the garbage. In the meantime, I formed a simple legged grill from some leftover iron and placed it over the fire before putting the skewers on top.
Moving the meat around as it cooked, the fat drizzled down, causing small up-flames in the fire as the meat sizzled. It was really unfortunate that I couldn't eat any of it, but I liked to imagine that it did wonders for hiding the fact that I was a vampire.
That, and it was strangely enjoyable. I had always enjoyed cooking, and while making food for Alicia was especially nice, making it for others wasn't bad either. It felt nice how the others responded well to the soup I made the night before.
The scent of cooked meat started to drift around, and after a while, I heard some rustling in the tent.
After more rustling, a bonk and a small yell, then more rustling, the adventurer trio came out one by one from the tent. One of them was rubbing a spot on his head and the girl's face was a little red it seemed.
(Not my problem.)
It was most likely prudent to not ask about it. The guy who wasn't rubbing a bump out went over to the wagon and woke Mint up.
"Oh what a sight to wake up to! If only I could be greeted by such a sight every day!"
"Wow, there's so much meat. Can we really have this?"
The two just ignored each other rather than fight for once as I placed the serving plate covered in the cooked skewers as I continued to roast the rest. The last two members of our camp quickly came over and they grabbed a skewer each to eat.
I continued to grill the meat up until all the prepared skewers were done, then cleaned up the ad hoc grill and used plate before putting them into my bag.
Faking a yawn, I went to the back of the wagon and made some space for myself to hide my body double in. Mint asked about eating, but I just said I already ate. Pulling out my body double, I activated [Spirit Form] and started to play a bit with the fluffballs after giving them some breakfast of their own.
(Am I feeding them too much? Spirits can't get fat, can they?)
As I idly wondered about something a bit asinine, I kept an eye below me as everyone else got ready to head out. After they ate, they covered the remaining skewer filled plate and placed it neatly in the wagon before they took turns to clean the used skewers and have a drink at the nearby stream. Once they were done, Mint reconnected the horses back to the wagon and they started back on the road.
The day passed by pretty uneventfully for the most part. A small group of three slimes appeared out of the tall grass at one point, but I fired off some ice lances and took them out mid-hop the moment they showed themselves.
Everyone looked shocked and turned to where my double was laying. In a panic, I rushed back down to it, clipping my body through the wagon and materializing a single arm to wave at them lazily before pulling it under. They all mumbled words of amazement to my embarrassing mistake. I didn't think before killing those monsters as they showed up on my [Sense Presence] well before the wagon got close at it's slow walking pace, so from my perspective, I only attacked when they showed signs of aggression. To everyone else, well, it looked like a pretty super human feat.
If only they knew how inhuman I was.
That evening I fried up the rest of the meat in thin strips and sandwiched them in between the hard bread everyone was carrying along with some ground mustard seeds and some ketchup I found I still had. Seeing how well received this meal was, it made me realize that not only I need more vegetables, but I needed to prepare some sauces as well. If only I could settle for a while somewhere to ferment some stuff, as well as get someone who can taste test, I could make soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, tonkatsu sauce, or at the very least Roman garum, though I've never had it before, so anything I made would be nothing but a blind recreation of a recipe I once read.
As everyone ate, I went and found myself some loam wolves and brought the two back in my bag after finishing my own meal.
Once the others went to sleep, I started work on the wolves. Wolf meat was tougher and gamier than boar meat, from what I've heard at least. I couldn't really tell as I was cutting it up, but I made nice and thick steaks from them, then after emptying and washing the pot that I had used the day before, I made a new batch of ketchup before adding a bunch of honey, the last of my tomatoes as well as several strong herbs and spices.
After letting it simmer for a while, I threw the meat onto the serving plate, extended the edges up and turned it into a wide pot, and poured some of the sauce inside to marinate the meat before magically forming a simple top from another iron ingot.
Iron was another thing I was running out of. This was my last bar I had left. There was plenty of other ingots though, and even a few of those weird metals from those golems I had so much trouble with. The trouble was that I wasn't sure which ones were safe to use for cooking or eating off of. If I needed more, it was probably better to use clay or something from here on.
Taking my own advice immediately, I made a new jar from clay and poured the rest of the BBQ sauce into it and put it and the wolf pelts into my bag before cleaning up the area. The pot of meat was placed in my little spot on the wagon to let sit and I incinerated the wolf remains.
When I finished everything, I activated [Spirit Form] and floated up to play a little with the fluffballs. I wasn't making as much progress on the skill to revive Alicia as I had wanted, so I just wanted to distract myself for a bit before working on it.
(No, it's just procrastinating, no matter how I tried to word it. If I keep doing this, Alicia won't ever come back...but maybe if I only do it today...)
Even knowing full well that I was only making things worse, I did my best to keep my mind off of my lack of progress and just tried to enjoy myself with the fluffballs. They certainly didn't mind at all.
It was quite a few hours into the night. The moons had tracked through the sky quite a distance when I spotted some strange black dot in the distance.
The dot wasn't quite black, there was some white as well, but it was slowly growing bigger. It was definitely approaching me, and it wasn't long before I could feel it's faint presence through my skill. But rather than alarm, I only felt curious about the sight. There was a strange familiarity to the creature.
(Just what sort of thing could it be?)
It looked like a person flying through the air, yet something was off about it. Not in a threatening way, but...in an inhuman way.
The figure had white skin and hair, and was wearing black robes that flapped in the wind. At a glance the being looked like a woman, but a bit...ghastly? It wasn't quite right, but it was the only way for me to describe her. Like she was some sort of spectre flying through the night.
(That's right. She looks like one of those robed spectres from the dungeon with her hood down.)
The realization helped to understand the familiarity of the sight, yet the feeling of it wasn't quite right. It looked similar, yet different. Something about it prevented me from taking my eyes off of it. Not like I would, considering it was heading straight towards me.
As I was distracted by my thoughts, the figure kept flying straight towards me without slowing. The fluffballs had long stopped flying around and for some reason had opened a path for it. It felt like they were watching the UFO, but for a different reason than I was.
At a certain point, I could hear a strange sound sound, like a high pitched scream or yell. It grew louder as the thing approached.
The figure of the pale woman flew towards me at, and by the time I realized just how fast she was flying, my mind was only able to register the bright expression of pure joy on her face before she slammed into me and we tumbled heads over heels. The lack of obvious hostility delayed my reaction, and the confusion from her expression further prevented me from actually responding before we collided.
But despite my expectations, we didn't separate from the collision. The mystery woman hugged my neck tightly as we tumbled, rubbing her cheek against my own as I tried to figure out just what was going on.
"Aaaahh! It's you! It's really you! You'rebackyou'rebackyou'reback!!!"
The screaming in my ear didn't help in the slightest.
"I was sad you know! So so sad! You left me and didn't come back for so long! I thought you were taken and left me behind! But you're back! I'm so So SO HAPPY!!!"
I tried to gently tug her off of me, but her grip was surprisingly strong. Her voice was youthful, but not quite child-like despite the way she was screaming next to my head.
Putting in more strength, I finally managed to separate myself and got a good look at her. It took far too much strength to do so. It should've been enough to rip her thin limbs apart, yet she treated it like nothing more than a firm grip as she continued to smile.
The woman in front of me had hair half as long yet twice as white as my own, her skin even paler than mine. Her face was rounded and well featured, large black eyes and small nose, thin lips but her grin was extraordinarily wide. This person definitely looked older than I was, but she didn't act like it. Her body was covered in thick black robes with sleeves that extended past her hands and the body obscured her feet. It was a bit similar to mine and even had a large hood that was pulled back, but didn't open in the front. Unlike mine though, the ends were heavily frayed like they were a good twenty centimetres longer but were then shredded then worn out even further.
No matter what, I had no idea who she was and why she acted the way she did towards me.
Before I could finish my question, her arms rose up, her sleeves falling back to reveal her pasty white hands as they cupped my cheeks. Tears started to stream down her face as she felt my features.
"You've changed so much, yet you haven't. The years must've been hard on you too."
"I, I don't, what? Who are you? How can you even know me?"
"You've forgotten? It was them, wasn't it? Those damn rot weeds in the church? Or maybe the god they serve?! It's me, your dear Claret. Now that we're together again, I won't ever let you go Master."
The woman's face twisted in anger for a moment before it returned to it's gentle smile again.
"Wha, Claret? I, I'm not your master."
"Yes you are. Scarlet, my master. You've changed these past few centuries, but there's no way I wouldn't recognize you!"
"Centuries?! I'm only three years old! There's no way I could be your master! I mean, the name's the same, but, no, it's impossible!"
"It's not impossible. I always believed that if anyone could do it, you'd be able to escape from the church's god and come back home."
"I, what? No, escape, I, I mean..."
It sounded too much like what I actually did, though escape was hardly a good descriptor for my reincarnation, it couldn't be said that it was entirely wrong either. But that had to just be a coincidence.
"None of that matters. There's no way I could mistaken the colour of your soul. There's not a single one in the entire world a brilliant as yours!"
"My, my soul?"
"That's right. You're guarding it well, but you can't hide it from me. Not for me who still has my familiar bond with you."
I felt like all I was doing was stuttering this entire time.
"Exactly, my master! You fed me, you raised me, and when I grew strong enough, you let me be your familiar!"
The woman, Claret, pressed her forehead against my own as she stared into my eyes. There was something in her eyes I've never seen before. Some sort of longing, some sort of determination. Something...greater.
But after a few seconds of staring, she pulled back.
"You, you really don't remember me? Not even a little?"
"There's no way I can. I just told you I was only born three years ago."
I couldn't remember her, yet somehow I didn't feel wary of her, despite only having just met her. Maybe it was the complete lack of hostility, or the overly familiar way she acted with me, or maybe...
(No, that's absurd. Even if my soul's the same, I'm a completely different person. Nothing should remain of her. Not after what was probably several reincarnations. I definitely don't remember a single thing from before my last life, so there's no way I should be able to remember that life, on the off chance that her soul was the same as mine.)
Claret's hands trembled and she bit her lower lip as her brow furrowed. But as quick as the signs appeared, they disappeared just as fast.
"Alright then! If you can't remember, then I'll make you remember! And if even that's not enough, then we'll make new memories together!"
She pressed her forehead against mine again when a dialogue window appeared in my vision.
'Claret wishes to form a familiar pact with you. Will you take Claret as your familiar? Yes/No'
(A familiar? Then, is it like in the usual stories?)
"Are you alright with this? Are you fine with me?"
"You are my master, Scarlet. There is nobody I want more than you, my master."
"Even though, I might be a different Scarlet from what you remember?"
"That's impossible. I can see it in your soul you are the one and only."
My thoughts instantly moved towards the 'No', but I hesitated. The way she looked into my eyes. There wasn't any wavering in the slightest. Her determination was greater than any I have ever seen, though it wasn't saying much due to my lack of experience. Even still, the way she talked about me, about her master. It made me hesitate to just hit no outright because of her misunderstanding.
"If, if you regret it, we'll end the pact, alright?"
"I won't regret it. Even if you decide to eat me, I won't regret it. I owe everything to you, so I will never regret it. So please, I beg of you, I truly beg of you. Accept me."
The weight of her words was crushing. She was much older than anyone I have ever met, far older than I could imagine, but despite that she seemed to have kept her child-like purity. Her innocence resounded inside of me against my will. I couldn't bear with making this person cry.
'Claret has become your familiar.'