Early on the third afternoon after leaving the second village, for some reason the wagon stopped. It felt like it was only luck that I was paying enough attention to have even noticed it.
There weren't any presences of monsters nearby. They didn't really bother coming close to the wagon most of the time, but I paid a small amount of attention to [Sense Presence] at all times, keeping track of the movements of all but the smallest hits on it that were close to the wagon.
Lifting my gaze a bit, ahead of the wagon, the road plunged into the side of a low lying mountain range. The mountains weren't that tall, but were pretty craggy and there wasn't a whole lot of visible vegetation growing on it.
Below, the adventurer girl walked over to the spot where my dummy was laying.
In a panic I dove down with Claret giving a little 'wheee' as I went. Carefully manoeuvring with wind magic, I stopped myself as I phased through the wagon's bed before floating back up a bit and poking my head in a gap under the tarp near the dummy's head before materializing just my head. The sensation of being inside of the wagon was pretty uncomfortable and perturbed me, but I sucked it up. The dark spirit on my shoulders tightened her grip on me, though she didn't complain out loud.
I managed to get into position just in time, as the dummy rocked back and forth a bit.
"Huh? It's hard...Umm, Miss Scarlet, could you wake up?"
"Mmm? What is it?"
After a bit more rocking, spoke up.
"Ah, umm, we're approaching the Brokecleft Mountain Range, and we thought you should be awake during the day for this bit."
"Gimme a sec..."
Her presence backed off and moved to the side of the wagon where she couldn't see me. None of the others were in a position where they could see my little corner of the wagon, so with some quick movements, I put the dummy back into my bag and finished my partial materialization.
Stepping down from the wagon's bed, I made my way around and was brought to Mint still sitting in the driver's seat.
"Ah, Miss Scarlet, you're awake."
"Yea, is something up?"
There shouldn't have been any real reason for them to get me to come out of the back. I could think of a single reason, though not as to how it was relevant.
"We're approaching the Brokecleft Mountain Range and will be entering the mountain path soon."
I nodded. It seemed like it did have something to do with that, but the why was the question.
"While the mountain path we usually take is relatively safe, it's still much more dangerous than the plains surrounding the mountain range, so instead of alternating day and night shifts, I was thinking it might be best if everyone worked together just in case for this leg of the journey. As an adventurer, you'll probably enjoy the change in scenery as well."
The reasoning felt flimsy, but it was an order from my employer, even if he worded it like a suggestion. It wasn't like I really had any excuses I could readily give either.
"Sure, I guess that's fine."
"Here we go!"
The adventurer trio excitedly exclaimed. Mint on the other hand gave a wry smile to their reactions.
(Maybe it was actually their idea?)
"I hope you're not too tired waking up so early after taking the whole night watch Miss Scarlet."
I was pretty close to finishing my new skill. All the coding had finished and I'd been going through checking it for bugs for the last two days. In theory it should allow Alicia to wake up inside of me, able to use my senses and talk like normal. She should even be able to use my skills, though to what extent I couldn't really figure out since there was a lack of comparison points.
The original skill, [Interpretation], had all the functions I wanted, being able to take in information through my senses and some skills, while being able to produce outputs that can be perceived by the user, it's actual capabilities were to only give simplified outlines of analyzed information. The code to reinterpret data like that was incredible and beyond my ability to understand, but it wasn't necessary for allowing Alicia to connect into the interface so she could wake up inside of me.
But it was best to presume I only had one chance at it. The risk of causing permanent damage to Alicia was something I couldn't afford to ignore, and I needed to take every possible precaution to avoid it. If it was possible to make a copy of her or to test run the skill with a different person or creature, I'd have done that, but it simply wasn't. Even moving Alicia from her current container into a new one to free up [Soul Siphon] was too large of a risk when she seemed to already be stable where she was. Making a copy of [Soul Siphon] And using that had it's own issues, and not knowing the limits of the skill system made pushing the envelope when so much was on the line wasn't something I wanted to risk.
In the end, it felt like the lowest risk was to simply check my new skill for any possible problems as thoroughly as I could before slotting Alicia into the new container.
And when I was so close to actually doing it, being forced into a distraction like this wasn't what I wanted.
But there was no way for me to explain what I was doing. What I've been doing for over a week now, no, for almost three weeks I guess.
(There isn't anything to keep these guys from keeping their mouths shut if I told them either. On the other hand...)
I stole a glance at the spirit hanging off of my shoulder.
Claret tilted her head to the side when she noticed my glance. My hand had gotten halfway to her head before I realized what I was doing and forced it back down.
(Should I tell her? Will I be able to keep it a secret from her for long?)
The dark spirit I had for a familiar wasn't too curious of a being, but at the same time, she hated separating from me. It was hard to say if I could keep it a secret from her for long, or if it was even a good idea. At the very least though, she didn't seem to have the disposition to give away my secret. She hadn't really shown any interest in anything but myself and the fluffballs, and they were all lesser beings to her anyways.
(Well, I'll figure it out after I revive Alicia.)
The sound of the horses neighing brought me out of my thoughts as the wagon started to move again, with the three adventurers and I forming up along the sides of the wagon, the two guys on the left and the girl and myself on the right. We followed the road straight into the small crevice cut into the mountain range.
"I've been looking forward to be able to talk to you properly all this time you know!"
"Ah, is that so?"
"It is! Ah, not only are you so beautiful, but so incredibly strong as well! Is it really true that you only recently registered as an adventurer?"
"That's so incredible then! What were you doing before that?"
"Hunting? You mean like in the western forest? Oh, I mean the forest to the west of Edgeworth Village. So you got strong hunting there then?"
"That's incredible. I heard that the monsters get really strong if you go deep into the forest, even a day in and most C ranked adventurers have serious trouble. It's no wonder you're so strong if you spent your time hunting there! But despite that, your skin is so smooth and clear! There isn't any traces of any scars, is there?"
"That's so envious. Just from the little bit I do, my body's already covered in small scars. I worry if I'll someday get big ones."
"Is that so?"
"That is. How did you avoid any scars anyways? Since you're so good at magic, I guess you did it with healing magic then?"
"Something like that."
Like that, the girl made constant small talk, but splitting my attention between her and checking the skill's code was frustratingly difficult. I did my best to avoid giving off a bad impression, but I couldn't remember anything we talked about, so I could only hope she didn't think badly of me. I also really hoped that I didn't reveal anything that could be bad for me in the future. Though, what's done is done.
The fact that she continued to cheerfully talk to me the entire time suggested that I didn't do anything too problematic. Or maybe this girl just liked the sound of her voice? It wasn't really a sentiment I could understand though.
As we entered the mountain range, the road inclined slightly, slowing down progress even further than usual. We were constantly surrounded by steep hills or sharp cliff sides as the path winded it's way around in between the tall hills.
Even inside the mountain range, there wasn't a whole lot of vegetation. Just some shrubs and wisps of grass growing on the craggy hillsides. While most of the hillside was made of loose gravel and sand, there were also some larger rocks and even the occasional boulder broken off from one part of the hill or another. While there weren't that many boulders of particular size, the few that were around made excellent hiding spots for ambushes.
(Ah, there's one right there.)
As we approached one particular boulder, there was a hit on [Sense Presence]. But the presence didn't make any move as we continued, nor were there any other presences nearby. Keeping an eye on the boulder, Mint kept the wagon moving on.
"Do you see something?"
Maybe it was her longer experience as an adventurer, but she realized that I noticed something. Giving her a glance, I nodded before turning my eyes back to the boulder. The girl put her hands on her long two handed sword, but refrained from drawing it, and instead quietly moved up to the side of the driver's seat and whispered to Mint.
"There might be something behind the next boulder. Be ready for anything."
The aged merchant nodded before turning to his side and whispered a warning to the other two on the far side of the wagon. The sound of the other two's footsteps changed slightly as we continued on the road.
As we passed the boulder, all ready to dive into action, what greeted us was the sight of what looked like an oversized blue fetus with little bat wings sleeping behind the boulder. It's appearance was pretty disguising and it felt like removing it from the world was overall a good thing.
I raised a hand to cast a spell when the adventurer girl put a hand in front of me then shook her head. Unsure what she was thinking, I lowered my arm and just went with the flow. We continued past the boulder without slowing.
"So what was that about?"
I really wanted to know why we let a potential danger away, however small it seemed to be.
"Imps tend to have loud death throes. If you didn't get it perfectly, it's screams would have attracted more of it's kind. A single imp is easy to kill, but dozens becomes quite a problem."
Having to take on dozens of those things would be a pain, and maybe even quite difficult to get through unscathed. I was pretty confident in my ability to kill such a weak looking monster painlessly, it was an unnecessary risk since it was just sleeping.
If it wasn't so ugly, I might've considered it a little cute.
Bringing our guard down from high alert, we continued on the path, making the occasional stop to rest and let the horses drink some water from one of the many streams that flowed through the narrow valleys. I hadn't been paying much attention to them before, but now that I was forced to walk around with them, I had noticed that the horses really drank a lot of water. It almost felt like they could drink more water than I could blood. While by size it was a bit absurd that I could drink that much in the first place, I had the benefit of skills that broke the laws of physics.
I was a little tempted in finding out if the horses had some sort of innate skill that allowed them to drink more water than you'd normally expect, but didn't bother in the end. Any effort into idle curiosity was better put into hastening Alicia's return. Anything else could wait until after that.
We walked past a few other imps sleeping behind boulders or off a bit in the distance. Fortunately there weren't any monster encounters and we closed off the day after making good progress. It seemed like we were well on schedule to exiting the mountain range the next day, but for the meantime, we went on watch. One person would stay up while the rest went to sleep. Of course, I wasn't going to sleep, but had to at least make it appear as if I was.
My watch was the last one, so at the very least, I would get a good six hours or so of uninterrupted time to work on my new skill for Alicia.
So with that, after a dinner of shredded charge boar meat fried with onions and tomatoes and some basic seasoning sandwiched between the tough bread the others carried on them. Despite how simple the recipe had been, the reception had been surprisingly good. I was running out of ingredients to use for flavouring, so I was getting a little worried about the results. It made me wonder if there was something beyond my recipes that was the cause for the good reception.
I really hoped it wasn't them being nice about it or something.
After pretending to go to sleep early, I lay in the wagon's bed in my usual spot and went right to work on my new skill.
"Miss Scarlet, wake up. It's your turn."
Together with a light shaking, the voice of the adventurer boy reached my ears. The mostly ineffective but mostly decent one, not the annoying cat boi.
I got up without a word and sat down where the others ate dinner. There was a lamp that faintly emitted a caustic white light in the middle of the remains of the eating circle. Giving the boy a wave, I sent him off to the tent he shared with the rest of his party.
Immediately after, I raised a thin earth wall between the lamp and myself, a small half dome that barely covered the side facing me.
With a small sigh of relief, I moved on to feel the spirits around me, making sure to give another of the larger portions to Claret. All of them happily enjoyed their meals, bringing a smile to my face as I enjoyed the sight.
The way the dark spirit nibbled on the apple-sized mana treat in both hands before lowering it to chew and swallow reminded me a bit of a chipmunk or hamster. But as I thought that, the image of her cheeks puffing out with nibbled pieces of the mana treat stuffed in them made me want to see her actually do that. If I asked her of it, she probably would've done it without even questioning it. Once my thoughts got that far, I started to itch at wanting to give the order, but before I could come to a decision, she swallowed the last of the mana treat to my disappointment.
I toyed with the idea of giving her a second mana treat just so I can see her with puffed out cheeks before she opened her mouth for a different reason.
<If you don't mind me asking, but what have you been doing lately?>
<The last day you seemed to have been pretty distracted. No, not just the last day, but you looked like you were concentrating on something ever since we reunited>
(I guess it isn't that surprising that she'd notice. Keeping it a secret to my own familiar is a bit rude, and it would be bad if underestimated how important it was to keep it a secret, especially if she got some weird misunderstanding about it. She had already seen some of the strange things I'm capable of anyways.)
<I've been trying to bring back my sister as a skill.>
<Wha?! Sister?! A skill?! Bring as?! Uuuu...>
(Maybe that was too much at once.)
<So, first of all, I have a little sister.>
<Erm...but...you're a vampire my master...>
<Unless if I'm wrong, you said it yourself that vampires are born from concentrations of mana just like us spirits, so the idea of you having a sister is...>
<I said that?>
I had absolutely no memory of that.
<When did I say that?>
<Umm...it was a long time ago, I think it was after you helped a pair of sisters who got lost. I asked why you looked really envious back then, and you told me that vampires normally didn't have families.>
<I...that wasn't me. You're talking about the other Scarlet, aren't you?!>
<Huh? But you're Scarlet.>
<Umm, whatever. Anyways, I guess I see where you're coming from. No, Alicia isn't my sister by birth, but I took her in under my wing and adopted her as my sister.>
<Oh! So you found a way around vampires not having families?>
<Uhh, yea? I guess?>
I didn't really see how it was circumventing anything, but it was probably a waste of time trying to explain it further.
<Anyways, so she died a few weeks ago, but I managed to preserve her soul, and now thanks to you, I've been able to work on modifying a skill to bring her back to life, in a sense.>
<Incredible! Not only have you managed to escape that church's god's clutches, but you managed to save your sister from him as well! As expected of my master! You really are amazing!>
<Umm, yea, thanks.>
It was a bit awkward being praised for an ability I had stolen on a whim, but I honestly accepted her praise. It was true that I was modifying an existing skill, though the end result would be something pretty new. It was likely to be something unprecedented in this world. It was bad to pass it off as something minor.
That being said, being praised so earnestly was a bit difficult to handle, forcing me to avert my gaze as I lightly scratched at my red cheek.
<Ah, you really sound like you're growing even more powerful than that god as well! Maybe one day you'll usurp his position and become the world's new goddess?>
<Don't be ridiculous. That sounds like a pain in the ass.>
<Haha, it sounds just like you to not care about such power Master. So, this Alicia, when you bring her back to life, is she going to look like you, just like how I did when you got me to evolve?>
<Huh? What did you say?>
<You know, your little sister! Is her new body going to look just like yours? Or is she going to look like how she did before? Ah, I can't wait to see you perform your miracle!>
<No, not that, the other bit. About you evolving?>
<Ah, right. You don't have your memories from back then. Well, when you fed me lots and lots of mana treats, I grew so strong I managed to evolve from a lesser dark spirit into a greater dark spirit! Aren't I amazing?>
The dark spirit put her hands on her hips and puffed our her chest towards me. I wasn't sure about how amazing such a thing was, but considering how she acted, maybe it really was? Though considering she just said that she evolved by eating tons of my...her mana treats, I needed to be careful regarding the fluffballs. Having one of them like this was already a bit of a handful. A second would dominate my life.
<Wow, yea. You're amazing.>
I slowly clapped while praising her in a monotone voice. Frankly, it was entirely so she would continue her story.
<Eheheh. But it was entirely thanks to you and your mana treats, so I can't take the credit for it.>
(Then why did you act so proud of it?!)
My smile cramped up as she threw herself at me, wrapping her arms around me and rubbed her cheek against my own.
I forcibly peeled her off of me. The dark spirit puffed her cheeks a bit but quickly deflated them as I prompted her to continue.
<So yea! Thanks to you, I managed to evolve, became your familiar, and had followed you ever since! While the time you were gone were worst of my life, now you're back and we'll never be apart again! I don't want to see a world without your colour ever again!>
As if forgetting what I just did, Claret threw herself back onto me and started to rub cheeks once more. But this time I didn't have the heart to separate us. It was obvious she really loved the other Scarlet, and I was the closest thing to her ever getting her old master back. As things stood, I didn't even want to think what would happen if she was put all alone once again.
<Umm, anyways, what was that about you looking like her?>
Returning her hug, I started to stroke Claret's hair as I asked about the bit that concerned me the most.
<Mmmm...that's right. It's amazing, isn't it? Maybe because I ate so many of your mana treats that when I evolved, I looked just like you did before. The others said that we looked like twins, but for some reason they were always able to pick us apart. It's weird, isn't it? How can they do that if we looked exactly the same?>
<I don't know, but this, you look exactly as the other Scarlet did?>
Lying through my teeth on that one bit, I extracted Claret from my body and had a close look at her face.
<Aside from the eyes and fangs, it is. This is the appearance of my master, my most prided, beloved master...>
The face that I likely wore several lifetimes ago. If that was true, that Scarlet really was a beauty. Her body would've been the envy of most women and the thing most men would have chased far after. Even though my own beauty was easily on another level of the other Scarlet's, hers was real, the one she had gotten fair and square, unlike my own.
As incredible as her beauty was, it was still within the realms of normality. Something that was only as rare as one in a million or something. To be honest, I was a bit envious.
(But even this level of beauty caused her a lot of trouble huh?)
It made me a bit more aware of all the trouble my own appearance would bring if I wasn't careful. I had heard quite a few stories about the other Scarlet after all. Even if they were most likely all exaggerations, they were lessons I should take to heart.
<...Of course I mean her previous looks! Your appearance this time is even more amazing! It's so incredible!>
<It's fine. You don't have to say such things to me. Rather than my own absurd face, it's best you keep your own. The face of your beloved master. So that you can show what the master you loved looked like.>
Tears flowed down Claret's cheeks as she pulled herself into my chest as she sniffled.
I sat there and stroked the gentle dark spirit's silky hair slowly as I thought.
(I wish I could've met her. I wonder what she would've said if she saw me?)