As I was thinking about what sort of excuse to make as to why I was away on my shift during my night watch, my mind went back to how I even got here in the first place.
(The last thing I was doing was working on my new skill and...huh?)
After transferring over the contents of [Soul Siphon]'s container, I had that splitting headache, which somehow lead me to getting into that fight with that monster. Looking at it now, it reminded me of the hydra of legend, with its nine snake-like heads and fat lizard body.
Though one of the heads was separated and laying off in a different direction.
(But more importantly...)
"Alicia, can you hear me?"
"I, I did it!"
My vision grew blurry as tears ran down my cheeks. I did it. I really did it. There wasn't any doubt that was Alicia's voice at all.
<Scarlet, I feel strange. My body won't move, and there's something strange in my head. But I...should I have...died?>
(Umm, right. I need to explain everything.)
"Alicia, how much do you remember?"
<I, umm...the last time we talked, you said something about making me sleep inside of you...>
<Then you drank my blood, like I asked you to.>
She was able to remember the last few moments of her life pretty clearly. It was a good indication that there wasn't any problems anywhere, that both preserving her soul and transferring her to the new container worked in its entirety.
<Then...everything felt warm, like you were hugging me, but even warmer. More encompassing. There wasn't any coldness anywhere.>
Most likely that's what it felt like for her to enter my body so she could sleep the last few weeks until I developed [Inner Monologue].
<After that...I remember crying. A lot, and a lot of crying.>
<Then there were some familiar voices. Even mom's, and my sister's and brothers'. Mister Mercari and his son's. Even old man Russel's voice.>
By all accounts, that shouldn't have been possible. Stuck inside of the skill's container, Alicia should have been incapable of interacting with the world outside. The best hope I had was that she would be asleep during this entire time, but maybe I was wrong?
<After, there were strange people. Nice ones, and scary ones. There was even one that called your name so gently Scarlet. I, I...what was all that? What was that strange thing in my mind the whole time? The feeling is different, but it's still there.>
"I, I don't know for sure, but, I think, did you see my memories from the last few weeks?"
<Your memories? But it was so vivid. You said I would be sleeping, but...were they dreams?>
"You saw my experiences as dreams then? In that case..."
It was a bit embarrassing that she saw everything. Then again, from here on, I wouldn't get a single bit of privacy from Alicia. Not like I really expected to. It was a price I was fully willing to pay. Then again, I hardly got any privacy when she was alive either.
I closed my eyes and rubbed my tears away. We could spend all day talking, but I didn't have time for that. There were things I had to do. We could talk as much as we wanted later.
<It's gone! That strange thing in my mind is gone!>
I looked around and searched my senses, but I couldn't tell what it was she was talking about.
<It's back again. The way it's moving around is disorienting.>
"Do you mean my sight by any chance?"
Thinking about it, the only thing that changed in the last few seconds was me closing my eyes. It made sense that Alicia wouldn't even know how to recognize sight having never had it.
<That's...sight? This is seeing?>
"If it's what I think it is, then that's it."
Sight was such an integral part of my own life, I had no words to describe it, and could only look around in place of explaining it.
The canyon with its sharp walls, the small lake at the centre of it, the monster corpse to the side, its head a bit closer to us. To be honest, there wasn't much to see, but my own standards didn't matter since it was Alicia's chance to experience sight properly for the first time.
<This is sight...>
I felt a little ashamed that despite my vocabulary, I couldn't really say anything more.
After a few minutes of nothing but looking around, I decided to make preparations to head back while chatting idly to Alicia.
I needed to fix myself up at least the bare minimum before we headed back. Checking out the ingredients in my bag, I took out a long strip of leather I hadn't used before. I didn't have enough rabbit fur I liked to use and the wolf leather was too hard and uncomfortable against my skin, what little of it I had left. Instead, I tried out an alternative for the first time.
It had come from some sort of snake monster. It wasn't particularly big, but it was quick and kept trying to bite me. Most likely it was venomous, but its movements were really predictable. They were only troublesome when they snuck up while you were detracted by a larger monster, but [Sense Presence] shut down the possibility of me not noticing them.
The leather they dropped was long and narrow, on top of being pretty thin and soft. It seemed pretty strong as well.
With a quick snip of my claws, the scaly leather was brought down to dimensions. I poked some holes on the end, then cut a strip from the remaining leather to be used as a cord before wrapping the newly cut strip around my chest. The cord went through the holes as I laced it up before pulling hard on both ends and tying it together. The thinness made it a little difficult to handle, but tied very easily.
I hopped in place a couple of times and was satisfied with the stability. My chest didn't bounce uncontrollably, though it still bounced. Nothing would stop that with my size.
Next I took out a sheet of leather from a large pig-faced orc. The leather was thick yet tough, and the sheet was so huge I could easily wrap it around my whole body. Maybe it could even fit four of me inside with its size.
But I didn't need so much. A quick snip cut out a pair of ellipses, to which I added a few holes to. Next I cut a few more cords from the last of the snake hide I was using and threaded them through the holes, then wrapped them around my feet, securing the larger sheets to my soles.
Standing up, my face turned to a frown pretty quickly. The thickness of the leather made standing on them a bit unpleasant, and the thinness of the cords dug into my feet a bit. But it would have to do, as I didn't want to waste more time than I had to.
I took a few steps around and got used to the weird feeling as fast as I could. It would be pretty embarrassing to trip because of my shoes, but it would be even worse to be found out I had somehow lost my old pair. Probably.
Once done, I made my way to the hydra corpse and started pulling it into my bag. Thankfully the throat of my rabbit plush bag stretched enough as I stuffed its head into it, but I ended up reaching its limit as I tried to stretch it to fit the rest of the body.
It was unfortunate, but I had to carve the monster up to put it away. First, I removed each of its necks and limbs and stuffed those into my bag. Next, I divided up the body into strips before stuffing the remainder into my bag, not forgetting the loose head.
I pulled on the shoulder straps of my bag and looked up at the blue sky. The sun still hadn't crested over the lip of the canyon, but measuring by how the shadows were receding from the western cliff side, it was clear that the morning was quickly waning.
(It would be best to hurry.)
But just as I was about to activate [Float] and [Spirit Form], a nagging sensation struck the back of my mind.
<Is something the matter?>
"Ah, umm...I feel like I'm forgetting something. Like there's something missing..."
I rubbed the back of my neck as I thought, only for it to strike me like a fool.
"Claret! It's weird she's not here!"
<Claret? That's...that's that person right? The one that followed the Scarlet from the stories?>
"Yea, I took her in as a familiar...that's right. I can feel her presence through the contract!"
Remembering that feature of the familiar contract, I felt out for her presence. Surprisingly enough, it was quite close. Inside the same valley, just a few dozen meters from where I was. There, I could see a pile of broken gravel piled up making the walls of a small, oddly shaped crater. The inside wasn't visible from where I stood, but her response definitely came from it.
A sinking feeling welled up inside of me as I floated over to have a look.
What I saw was what looked more like a pile of meat and shredded cloth than anything else, but I realized what it was immediately, even though I had no idea what had happened.
I dropped down to her side as fast as possible and fell to my knees in horror. Her entire body was so badly beaten that it was difficult to recognize her as a person rather than some sort of abstract painting made alive. Her limbs were all bent where they shouldn't have been, her torso misshapen horrendously, I couldn't even identify any of her facial features with any level of confidence.
Tears ran down my face, unable to accept the fact that she had gotten so hurt. Leaning over, I reached for her cheek as carefully as I could, but my hand passed right through. Activating [Spirit Form], I tried once again.
Her mouth moved slightly, but it was clear that she couldn't properly open it to make any sounds. My lower lip trembled as I struggled to say anything, but finally I chose not to say anything out loud. She might not have even be able to hear anything due to her injuries.
<Claret? I, how, what...?>
<I'm glad master. You're gotten better. If you had died again, I...I...>
The dark spirit's body trembled ever so slightly, but due to her condition, it was probably already pushing her to her limits.
I thought frantically. There was no way I could let her stay in this condition. The scent was different form normal, but it even looked like she was covered in blood, and was well on her way to bleeding out.
Since this was a fantasy world, healing potions would be the first thing to come to mind, but while I had some suspicious vials and bottles I had collected in the dungeon, I had no idea which ones, if any, were of the healing variety. It was too risky to even try them.
As alternatives, I had healing magic, as well as the one healing trick that worked for myself, and may work on Claret due to her nature being more similar to my own than any normal person's. That was eating.
Rather than choosing one though, I went for both choices to maximize my chances and reduce the time taken as much as possible.
I immediately produced a normal sized mana treat and gently pushed it between the dark spirit's lips.
<Here, it's a mana treat. Eat it. It'll probably give you back some of your strength.>
Her response was weak, but she did her best to open her mouth far enough to let me push the clump of condensed mana inside. Her lips closed as her jaw slowly moved. I couldn't tell if she was even capable of chewing it, but just by having the mana treat in her mouth should help at least a little.
Next, I spread my hands over her chest and channelled my mana to her body as I activated [Aqua Magic] to heal her broken form. A deep green mist spread out and enveloped her body as I concentrated on infusing her with my own energies and prompting them to repair her battered body.
<It's so warm Master. I can feel you throughout my body...>
There was a bit more life in Claret's thoughts, encouraging me. Without regard for myself, I pumped out more mana, suffusing the dark spirit as much as I could with life-giving energy to the best of my abilities.
Slowly, little by little, I could see the effects of my magic working on her body. Or maybe it was the mana treat? It was probably both.
I glanced at Claret's status screen through the familiar contract and could clearly see her HP rise steadily. Correspondingly, her body physically improved as well. The lumpy skin regained their smoothness, the unnatural bends in her limbs restored themselves into the straight lengths that they always had. Her facial features rearranged themselves and she got that innate beauty back from before. Even her clothes knitted themselves back to how they were.
(Or rather, her clothes are considered a part of her body?)
I wanted to ask about it, but my priorities laid elsewhere for the time being.
I continued to feed my mana into the healing spell until I confirmed that her HP had filled to capacity, but even then I wasn't satisfied. Placing a hand onto the ground to support myself, I pushed the other out and concentrated my aura into my palm, condensing it into a shining apple-sized mana treat.
"Here, eat it."
Leaning over, I held the giant mana treat close to Claret's face. Her eyes sparkled at the sight, and with a nod, she grasped it with both hands. Taking a small bite out of it, the dark spirit chewed and swallowed before giving me a bright, ear to ear smile.
As I watched her joyfully eat the mana treat, I had reached the limits of my patience.
"How did, how did you get hurt like this? No, rather, how did things come to this in the first place?"
Claret interrupted her meal to look up at me as she considered my words before retelling what had happened from her perspective during the morning. Her emotions ran strong throughout. The fear was thick as she tried to help me while I was in pain, her despair when she dropped me, her anger at seeing the hydra hurt me, and her pride as she kept the imps away and covered for me with her own body.
(Rather, those weak lights I saw were imps huh?)
But at the end I was gritting my teeth as she gave me such a bright smile.
(How could she give me such a bright smile talking about how her body being crushed to cover for me being a good thing?!)
I wanted to hit her. I wanted to smack her so hard in the hopes of driving some sense into her, but on the other side, I couldn't. Claret had no reason to lie about what had happened, and I had personally seen the results of it. She really put her life on the line to protect mine. In fact, she had almost died, and probably would have if I didn't find her in time.
I hated the idea of her dying for me. I hated the idea of anyone dying for me. But the way she smiled about it hit the hardest. Like she thought it was a given that she should do that, like I somehow expected it from her.
Maybe that's what it meant to be a person's familiar. Maybe that's what her relationship with the previous Scarlet was like. But I wasn't her. I hadn't done anything to deserve such reverence. Even if I had though, I didn't want such a weight on my shoulders. Being responsible for a person's actions were one thing, but for their life? I didn't want such a burden.
My thoughts immediately started to move towards convincing the dark spirit to disengage the familiar contract, but I soon stopped. Doing such a thing was just plain disrespectful for her. Even more so when she was so obviously dependant on me.
While it was better for her to strive for Independence, I didn't particularly mind her depending on me. But I needed her to stop being so reckless with her life. She couldn't see her own life as being insignificant in value compared to mine. It was definitely worth as much as my own.
No, with how selfless she was capable of being even without the power I had, it could have been said that hers was worth more than my own.
But first, I needed to at least curb the worst of her martyrdom tendencies.
As Claret licked her fingers of all traces of my mana, I roughly grabbed her shoulders and pulled her into my chest and tightly wrapped my arms around her.
The dark spirit mewled in delight as she rubbed her face against my mounds. While it helped to alleviate the pain in my heart, it alone wouldn't have done anything to fix things. Or rather, there was the chance that she'd consider it a reward and she'd rush to do it again the second she had the opportunity.
"Claret, don't ever, ever do such a thing again!"
She stopped rubbing her cheeks against my chest and shifted her face upwards as I practically yelled those words into her ear. My arms pulled her against me even tighter. Even in my state, I could tell that they were trembling.
"I, I don't want to lose anything important to me ever again. I, I worked so hard to get Alicia back, and just when I did, you almost disappeared. I don't want such a thing!"
"But, but Master! Alicia, she's your sister, right? She's your precious family that you were finally able to get after so long!"
"YOU'RE MY FAMILY TOO!"
"Just, just because you're my familiar, that doesn't mean you're not also my family."
<I think so too. From what I've seen, you're important to Scarlet. You're family to us.>
After being quiet for so long, Alicia added her own opinion in my mind.
"I'm...family? I really..."
"You are! And there's no way I'll stand someone taking my family away! Not even you Claret!"
"I, I, that means, I...I'm sowwy Mathtaaah~~~!!!"
Claret's arms gripped my back as she buried her face into my chest once again. Her wailing reminded me of the time we first met.
"*Hick* I'm sorry Master..."
"It's fine. Don't worry about it."
Claret was standing there in front of me as she gripped the front of her robes. After all of her crying, the two of us were covered in her bodily fluids, so I took a few seconds to clean us both up.
<Eheheh. I've got a little sister again. And she's such a crybaby too.>
"A little sister?"
The dark spirit tilted her head to the side as if the words were foreign to her.
"Ah, but Claret's older than you, so she'd be your big sister won't she?"
(No wait, if we went by age...)
"If its by age, then I'd be the little sister?!"
"Master would be the little sister?"
When I thought about it, it was definitely true that I was the youngest in age, even if I didn't show it. Then again, with Alicia not having a physical body, she also didn't have a physical appearance at this point in time. So even in appearance I was the youngest looking?!
"Master. The big sister is the strongest, right?"
"Huh? Uh, I guess? It often becomes like that."
<Not always though. I was the biggest sister of my family, but I was also one of the weakest.>
"Huh? If it's not the because they're the strongest, then biggest?"
Something about this line of conversation was bugging me, but I couldn't quite put a finger on why.
"I guess? At least at first they are."
"Then the little sister is smaller right? And Master wants me as a little sister?"
"Umm, rather than want..."
<You act like it.>
It was entirely as Alicia had said. I was trying to tip toe around it on the off chance that Claret might take offence to it, but Alicia didn't even try.
"Then, then I'll be the little sister! If I need to be smaller, then I can cut my legs down to do it!"
As if demonstrating, the dark spirit fell to her knees before she hugged me around the waist.
But I flicked her in the forehead. I couldn't forgive such words so easily.
"No self mutilation. You can be the little sister, but don't you dare harm that body of yours!"
I pulled Claret to her feet then pulled her into an embrace.
"You can be the little sister. Alicia would then be the middle sister, and I'll be the big sister."
<Eheheh. That's right. You'll be both of our little sister, and I'll be Scarlet's little sister.>
(It's a bit odd, as the order of sisterhood is reversed both in age as in height, but I'm the most mature of us all. At least I hope I am.)
While those thoughts flitted through my mind, I enjoyed the sensation of resting my cheek against Claret's shoulder, This enveloping feeling as she wrapped her arms around my shoulders was something I didn't really get to enjoy, playing the role of the older one so often.
As we forgot about everything around us, we enjoyed the new established status quo even though so much of it was nothing but contradictions.
(Ah, but she's more like a pet than a sister though.)
I couldn't help but think that as Claret started to rub her cheek against my own again.