Chapter 5:

There is no such thing as a perfect journey

Toaru Ramen no Hanashi

Alliona, alongside Helen and the small stature attendant was in their fourth day of traveling. While having fair share of minor mishaps along their way, like one of their sack bag was lost by none other than Helen, the mistress' sandals were torn as well, which obviously put her in a foul mood. Needless to say, she is doing her best not to burst and made a fool of herself.Bookmark here

The only adult in the group was regretful, but she realizes that if she lets her brooding mood take over, it will not be beneficial to her younger companions, thus she kept walking in her bare feet in the rough and uneven stony path that resulted a fair amount of scratches and blisters in her once blemish-free sole.Bookmark here

"Umm, milady, you should at least wear my sandals or else..." Alliona said, trying to start a conversation amid the silent trek. She specifically gave a long perturbed look at the reddened feet of Helen.Bookmark here

Helen, with an annoyed grimace, showcased by a visible vein in her temples, refused as expected. She shook her head and said, "I'll be fine, Alliona. We're already close to our destination. Walking on my bare feet is nothing to fret about."Bookmark here

Alliona and the small attendant gazed at each other, looking worried, then resumed their moderate pace as they tackle a rocky slope boasting nothing, but weirdly-shaped form of rocks that serves as shade from the sun. The time of the day was close to noon, but thankfully, the rocky terrain mitigates the scorching temperature by an ample amount. Soon, they found themselves a spot for lunch and also for a good rest.Bookmark here

As aforementioned, one of their sack bags was lost for already a day. It contains most of their food stock and water which brings another dilemma to the equation. Alliona shortly rested her body then took her leave to scour the area for potential sustenance their system needs. The attendant then took initiative to fan her mistress, much to Helen's gratitude. She petted her attendant's head with an apologetic mien.Bookmark here

Fortunately, Alliona's innate hunting skills are on point that day. Without having to spent hours looking for a prey, she managed to find a trove in the middle of semi-arid land quite far from the stony spot she left her companions. A pair of wild rabbits, dancing nonchalantly was easily sniped from a distance, then miraculously, she stumbled upon a puddle of dirty water which she instantly fetched into a pair of claypots.Bookmark here

Returning to the rest spot, Alliona and the attendant shifted their responsibility between themselves. The attendant boiled the dirty water in heat resistant clay basin while Alliona skinned the wild rabbits and stuffed it with a pair of edible fragrant grass she also found along the way before giving it a good rinsing with a careful amount of boiled water.Bookmark here

After a good hour of cooking, the food is ready to partake. Helen, who just woke up from a short sleep found herself being served with an aromatic plate filled with juicy and meaty rabbit thighs roasted perfectly based on how it looks. She was also handed a claypot filled with lukewarm water as beverage. Without her realizing it, tears was falling out of her eyes that naturally shocked her younger companions.Bookmark here

"M-M-Milady? W-W-What's the matter? Do you feel hurt somewhere? Are you ok?" Alliona rushed to Helen's side, supporting her by holding both broad shoulders.Bookmark here

Helen continued to sob quietly. "T-Thank you, both of you. I-I'm sorry I'm useless I ended up losing our food..." she said stuttering.Bookmark here

Both of the youngsters didn't say anything. Instead, they just tried to calm their mistress by rubbing her back gently. Helen calmed after a while and soon, they ate and quickly rested to resume their trek.Bookmark here

At the same time, a significant event is happening elsewhere. After two days of tracking the bandits, the caravan heading to Manzhouli, who had two successful skirmish against the rouge group, finally delivered a denting blow to the desert prowlers. The offensive the caravan guards who came from the capital was different from the usual mercenaries the bandit dealt before. After wiping at least a third of the bandit numbers, the caravan guards gave pursuit while keeping the route straight to their original destination unchanged.Bookmark here

The bandits on the other hand, was forced to concede their looting and ran as fast as they can. With them knowing the desert-like enviroment like the back of their hand, they managed to lose their trackers, albeit losing a few more members in the process. Some of them were killed, some of them held captives, the bandits who were expecting another successful pillage was thrown into panic. As they drowned deeper in despair, their leader stepped up.Bookmark here

"Hey, you maggots!" a figure shouted, with long molars visible from that person's open mouth. "We've got to be flexible. We lost this time, ain't gonna change that. We can't win everytime, but screw hell, we're gonna run it back!"Bookmark here

The leader's charisma was enough to stabilize the low-morale members. The leader gave a long look at the sky and at the direction where they came from. "Bloody capital dogs. I'll be sure to exact this humiliation tenfold."Bookmark here

The bandits' diminished numbers, although alarming, was nothing detrimental enough to put definitive fear to the desert rouges. In the first place, they were a bunch of good for nothings, who valued nothing, even comradeship, just to satisfy their thirst for thrill and suspence. At the height of their success, one failed attempt, will be forgotten as soon as they make another winning pillage somewhere. That mindset was instilled to the remaining bandits as they make way towards a direction opposite to Manzhouli.Bookmark here

Back at the caravan, the capital soldiers who effortlessly claimed victory, then hauled unexpected spoils from the bandits. It was a small number of people, who were held captives and according to their testimonies, were supposed to be ship as merchandise for slave trading.Bookmark here

Learning of such modus operandi, the plot behind the bandit attacks thicken. The captain of the capital soldiers then ordered one of his men, to immediately return to the capital and informed their higher-ups about the discovery of such vile doings.Bookmark here

Back to Alliona's group, it was around dusk when they found a good resting spot to complete their fourth day journeying. The annoyance Helen felt earlier was gone, as she was tended by her attendant, who wears a pained mien as if she's the one hurting, applying some sort of ointment to her shabby feet.Bookmark here

"Thank you. But it's alright, I'm fine. Dear, don't make such face, alright?" Helen lifted the face of her attendant, who blushed at the direct gaze of her mistress.Bookmark here

Alliona watched the scene, with a bit of flustered feelings inside her as well. The once gaudy Helen who she met just days ago, wearing overbright foreign fabrics, wears cosmetics in her face and lips, hanging rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets of gold and silver origins, now sports dirty and muddied rag-like clothing, bruised feet from walking the earth in her bare feet, face and other body parts with visible insect bites and scratches. Alliona sighed, much to the fact she was again mesmerized at the ever-beautiful Helen who showed tenacity and proved her expectations wrong.Bookmark here

Helen then noticed Alliona's gaze from a distance, "Aren't you in a jolly mood, Alliona? Did something good happen?"Bookmark here

Alliona who is still daze then subconsciously blurted, "I'm very, very, very impressed at how Helen-sama contained herself during this journey. And here I thought she was going to be a pain in the butt from the start."Bookmark here

Once she finished her sentence, Alliona snapped out of her stupor, instantly covering her mouth in the process. She then slowly looked at Helen, who is wearing a very literal faux smile. "Oh, now that's interesting."Bookmark here

"Oh no..." Alliona said in her inner monologue, as she lets out a silly tee-hee.Bookmark here

A random chuckle then escaped the petite attendant. She immediately looked away after Helen directed her sights on her. Quivering, trying her best to prevent her laughter, the petite attendant maintained covering her mouth. Bookmark here

"Geez, you two!" Helen reacted, dragging Alliona and her attendant to her ample chest. "You girls, we're going to sleep together tonight."Bookmark here

"S-Sleep together? Milady, you mean..."Bookmark here

"Literally mean, girls. But first..."Bookmark here

A loud growl reverberated. "I'm pretty sure that wasn't just me." Helen said, scratching the back of her head. With blushing cheeks, Alliona and the attendant started sorting their supper. With a sufficient amount of leftover rabbit meat, the attendant whipped skewers from a fallen branch and chopped the meat into smaller pieces. From her sack bag, she took a small clay container and dipped an ample amount of dark liquid into the meat. Soon, the meat have been aligned beautifully in the sticks and was placed close to the bonfire. The aroma was enough to make Alliona and Helen's stomach act impatient as it released a sequence of long rumblings with them not noticing a pool of drool overflowing their mouths.Bookmark here

Without taking that much time to cook, the attendant immediately served Helen and Alliona their share of their meager dinner. Their water serving remains scarce, so they were mindful of their intake. They chewed their food properly and drank only at times they must chug their cups.Bookmark here

"Mhmm, this is just another roasted rabbit meat, but something is totally different!" Alliona said, with her half-filled mouth.Bookmark here

"Ah, you mean the soy sauce? Wait, you mean, you haven't had soy sauce before?" Helen asked, also not minding proper manners.Bookmark here

"Soyuu? Sous?" Alliona confusingly tilting her head amid her chewing. "Is that the dark liquid from earlier?"Bookmark here

Helen pointed a finger, "That's right. It's a type of condiment that brings out innate flavor to almost every cuisine. But seriously, I don't understand how come you haven't had soy sauce before. It's such a staple ingredient in every major city." she said, holding up her chin with her right hand.Bookmark here

Alliona felt a little peeved at Helen's statement that made her pout, "Well, sorry for being a country bumpkin. Hmmp!" she said, shifting her face directly opposite to Helen's gaze.Bookmark here

"Oh, Alliona-chan?" Helen frantically trying to reach Alliona with a shaking hand. "I don't mean it that way!"Bookmark here

Alliona's clever playful mood added a good feeling in their dinner. Soon, they found themselves resting, gazing up the stars in another cloudless night.Bookmark here

"At times like this, you don't even need bonfires." Alliona said, her face bright from the nocturnal light from the full moon.Bookmark here

"I concur. This is enough illuminance." Helen said, with closed eyes.Bookmark here

The three basked themselves in the kind moonlight. Their visages relaxed, their exhausted body slowly recuperating. Only the sound of the gentle wind and some nocturnal animals can be heard from the vast environment. The weather of the night, fairly cold but bearable. Their bonfire, already simmered into ashes. The tranquility had too much authority in the particular timeline, so much that they simultaneously yawned signalling that it is time to end their fourth day. But as soon as they stood up from their spots, a set of rowdy voices were heard closing by the minute.Bookmark here

Alliona and her instincts immediately scooped buckets of sand and dumped it into the remaining ashes flickering behind them. She also instructed Helen and her attendant to go hiding behind the widespread bushes in the vicinity. As the voices gets closer, Alliona made one last effort to grab their belongings, randomly swept the dust where they rested and hid herself below a rock crevice enough for her stature to fit in. Within half a minute, voices belonging to approximately a company of ten people walked in their spots. Helen and her attendant who coincidentally hid nearby Alliona had a clear look to the unknown trespassers.Bookmark here

Rugged behaviours, with torn clocks, some with knives in their hips and some with shamshir-like blades plastered in their backs. They continued their walking until one stopped his tracks and noticed a sort of trail.Bookmark here

After a while, a horse arrived in the scene. The figure asked his stalled companions conversing, "Hey, what's the hold up? I told you we need to get back near that settlement before 2 days."Bookmark here

Answering the rider was the one who noticed something. He told the rider that there were some sort of trail, some sort of evidence that the spot was recently occupied to which the rider gave a flimsy, "So what?"Bookmark here

Without any further discussion, the rider kicked the horse lightly and started moving forward. Following the rough patch of stone route, slowly but surely, the rider rallied the troops to follow. One by one, even the particular member who noticed the peculiarity, soon ditched the notion of a possible encounter of whoever made the trail. But before he made that decision, he took his leisure time to release some pent-up feeling in his bladder. He randomly chose a spot and let his natural liquid flow without reservation.Bookmark here

At the same time, the liquid then showered unfortunate figures below the bush, trying their best to contain themselves amidst the deplorable situation. Helen, in particular, covered her attendant's mouth who was terrified and shocked at the same time. The hot sensation of smelly liquid dropping to Helen's head brought a facile anger to the young attendant who unnaturally made clumsy movements that was easily noticed by the person who just released his nature calls.Bookmark here

Steadily, he reached for the weapon strapped in his hips. His hands, slowly reaching the bush beneath him. Alliona, from a safe spot, committed herself to forcefully drag the man's attention towards her, but fortunately, a good sign showed itself out of nowhere.Bookmark here

A medium-sized creature can be seen making a beeline towards the bush for unknown reasons. It relatively looks like some sort of desert fox, but Alliona gave a hard pass to the details and just shot her slingshot accurately on the creature's blind spot to have it spooked and ran towards a certain direction. Her having good amount of hunting experiences, precisely sniped the spot behind its tail and as per her expectations, the fox-like creature rocketed its way towards the bush passing through Helen and the attendant jumping out the bush and making a run to the other side of the road which naturally surprised the man who prompted an inspection to the movements inside the shrubs.Bookmark here

After he landed on his butt on the hard ground, his comrades who saw the deed, released unfiltered boisterous laughter that contained derogatory slurs as well. The rider, who had enough of the ruckus, went off the horse and gave the others a strong knuckle to their skulls.Bookmark here

"I told you, maggots! We have 2 days to go back to where we came from. We must be there within two days. How many times should I reiterate it before your thick skulls get it, huh?" the figure angrily said, removing the turban plastered on his head.Bookmark here

The moonshine then highlighted the long black hair fluttering in the air. Alliona who sneaked a look from a tight angle, then saw a figure far from muscular, sharp green eyes like a hawk, prominent nose, lips of hazel color, molars of unprecedented lengths and fairly tanned skin.Bookmark here

"Get a freaking move already or I'll kick your ass towards the ravine, you slowpoke!" a woman shouted, blasting off her companion with a kick to his back.Bookmark here

After a while, the lady in question re-rode her stallion with authority and gave another look back at the spot where Alliona and her companions had their supper. Bookmark here

"Good instincts. Even I can't discern their whereabouts, all I know is they're more than two." the lady thought covering her grin with her long manteau. "Covering the ashes with sand was clever, but the design of the trails looks so artificial. Normally, I would've played this game, but I've got bigger fish to fry."Bookmark here

The lady rider didn't move from her spot for a minute. After her short internal trance, she gave her horse a light kick to finally resume their travel. Alliona, for some reason, felt sharp shivers in her spine. She thought it would be dangerous if they stay passive at that particular spot even after the bandits, who just had a losing skirmish against the capital guards earlier that day, left for good. After Alliona confirmed the situation, she immediately called Helen and her attendant silently and told them that they must move away as far as they can while there is still a window of opportunity.Bookmark here

Even though she knew that their current physical state is not favorable, she still insisted the significance of getting a good distance so they could buy themselves a chance of safety and not just a mere reprieve.Bookmark here

Unfortunately, things are moving on a different tune this time around. Elsewhere, the caravan who was originally headed for Manzhouli was met with its fair share of problems. Among the previously held captives of the bandits is a high-ranking official from the powerhouse capital, who was originally on a business-minded tour, inspecting the trade routes and new valuables in the famous markets in the border. He demanded the capital guards to give pursuit to the offenders who imprisoned him for days, maltreating him as if his life is no different from a livestock and on top of that, to convince the majority of the capital guards, offers a ludicrous amount of riches to those who will exact his vengeance to the desert rouges. Moreover, that offer was extended even to the likes of common merchants and his fellow captives from earlier.Bookmark here

According to one of the bandit who was kept alive, his fellow sand prowlers had a protocol per chance they met an unfortunate event of possible defeat, that they are to return to their old hunting grounds and attack the nearest settlement to possibly garner new members and of course, recuperate their losses. It was around an hour before dusk that the high-ranking official's selfishness peaked and ordered the execution of the bandits they caught from their clashes. Without much resistance due to his legitimate authority, the capital soldiers were forced to do his bidding with frowns on their faces. Alongside the merciless brutality, that official in question disbanded the caravan and gave himself the priority of leading the pursuing squadron giving the commonfolks no choice but to voice their opinions. While the official felt annoyed at the complaints he rightfully deserves, he gave in a lenient compromise by his own standards, giving four soldiers to escort those who will not join the hunt of the bandits. For a fact, the distance to Manzhouli was no more than 60 kilometers and that distance can be covered within a day with good weather and luck. Without any better options on the table, the commonfolks, although obviously appalled, reluctantly submitted to the official's pigheaded decision and resumed their way towards the market city near the border. That particular occurrence was around three and a half hours ago.Bookmark here

As Alliona and her companions resumed their traveling, even with the acrid stench on the bodies of Helen and her attendant, they kept a rushing pace and forcefully treaded the ample-lit rocky terrain. Due to their tired systems, they were inconsistent, making wrong turns and decisions thus adding to their body toll. Before long, Helen was caught by a hapless event. "Ouch" she said, grimacing while she holds the lower part of her legs, near the ankle. Alliona and the attendant immediately rushed on to see what had transpired only to see a black scorpion burying its tail deeper into the skin of Helen. The attendant casually took her knife and instantly sliced the scorpion in half with unbelievable precision. Relief was the first feeling Helen and Alliona felt, but as soon as they laid their eyes on the petite attendant, they were befuddled by her terrifying expression. Her eyes were bloodshot and her teeth are gritting, causing Alliona and Helen to attempt a quick remedy to the situation.Bookmark here

Alliona forcefully pressed the portion of the bitten ankle that resulted a weak bleeding. After that, she sucked off the gushing blood and repeated the moveset for a couple of times. After some half-minute sequence, she took off her personal sack bag and opened a rugged pouch. Inside it were herbs she gathered in the past that are known for its healing efficacy effects on external wounds. While Helen was comforting her attendant, Alliona quickly chewed the herbs and spit off the extract to Helen's wound. Afterwards, she bit off her clothing and binded some chewed herbs directly to the wound. Then she tied the fabric, covering the wound to prevent possible infection.Bookmark here

The decision to move forward despite their exhaustion proved reckless and ill-advised. As Helen struggled to get a feel to her feet, Alliona decided to stop their tracks in the middle of nowhere. Their current position is an open space, with sparse bushes, variety of cactuses and large rocks towering to an approximate height of two to three meters. The bright lighting of the moon, soon became enveloped by thick clouds. Strong breezes whipped the enviroment resulting uncomfortable sand whirlings that inevitably hurt their eyes. Without any good cover to shield themselves from the sudden turbulent weather, Alliona helplessly left everything to chance. She covered Helen, who is currently calming the dazed attendant, with a thick manteau-like garment and cuddled herself inside the makeshift enclosed shelter. The tight spacing inside their current housing, despite confining, brought a sense of solidarity. Alliona felt Helen grasping her hands, so tight she felt a bit of pain. The adult continuously petted the head of her attendant, still hazed from the sudden turn of events. Without any words being said, the three could only reassure themselves by feeling the warmth of the person beside them, until they fell into inescapable slumber.Bookmark here

After seven hours of rest, Alliona found Helen gasping for air in her sleep. As she touch the perspiring forehead of Helen, she felt certain signs of a fever. Before she could even have a full body stretch to fully reinvigorate herself to a new day, she is thrown another curveball. Without much option to choose from, she wake up the attendant who unexpectedly slept like a log.Bookmark here

"I need you to watch over Helen-sama, while I try to find water. I'll try to come back as soon as possible." she said, pivoting herself towards the east direction. She run and run, searching for every possible spots that can spare them water, but the situation is not being kind to her. Despite tackling a couple of miles, not even a puddle can be seen in the barren horizon. Just some annoying semi-arid scenery that extends to whoever knows where.Bookmark here

Alliona in her ire, clicked her tongue and scratch her head violently. She let herself go amok, indiscriminately attacking everything in her way. Among the victims of her trance was the cactuses silently basking under the sun, rocks violently getting thrown in all directions and a series of bush that was easily unrooted by her kick from the dry ground. Still, regardless of her running wild, the situation remained the same. Soon, she found herself stopping as she dropped on her back in the sand she's just cursing mere moments ago. She sighed, "Nothing's going my way... damn, this sucks..."Bookmark here

Left with nothing to swear upon, she hesitantly stood up. Groggy are her legs from her unnecessary hell-raising, her stomach growling familiar tune and her throat dry from even the least moisture. As soon as she took her first step on her return trip, an ample "splash" fell on the tip of her prominent nose. It was followed by a torrent of splashes that brought tears in her eyes.Bookmark here

"Geez, you're late!" she shouted, crying angrily.Bookmark here

She immersed herself to the whimsical rain with a gaping mouth. After a while, the accumulated amount can be seen being gulped to refresh the once dried throat of Alliona.Bookmark here

After filling four claypot, Alliona's attention was caught by a certain thing. An odd flower of white color, arrow-shaped leaves, clinging on a cactus Alliona brutally attacked earlier. Her guilt suddenly kicks in as she clasp her hands and posed a prayer-like kneel. "Sorry, beautiful flowers! I didn't mean to uproot you as well."Bookmark here

Silly as it seems, the lone young lady in the middle of a semi-desert, felt self-conscious after doing such stunt. She immediately stood up and put the claypot full of water back to her sack bag and opted to restart her way back. But the images of the white flowers won't leave her mind and thus, despite her attempts to reason within herself that she ought to return as soon as possible, she carefully plucked and undid the vining of the said flower on the cactus.Bookmark here

As soon as she returned to where she left her companions, Alliona immediately offered water to the attendant. "Here you go, have a drink first before everything else."Bookmark here

Surprisingly, it didn't rain in that particular area and by the time Alliona managed to arrive, her wet clothes was back to a crispy dry fabric. The apologetic attendant sipped her claypot with fervor. She must've been really thirsty as she used all the water left to wash Helen's bruised foot. Bookmark here

Helen on the other hand, remains bedridden. Her fever still at its peak, leaving her gasping for air and sweating buckets on the warm ground. Alliona wiped off Helen with a fabric rinsed with rainwater. For a while, she tended to the adult as the attendant cooked their food. As expected, it was still leftover rabbit meat, but this time, there was a trick applied. After roasting the meat, the attendant boiled water and splashes some unknown powders and dried herbs to it. Along the process, Alliona witness the soy being poured to the boiling pot that instantly resulted an aroma that brought her hunger senses back to its vertex.Bookmark here

Shortly, the attendant served Alliona her portion with her usual composed smile. "Here you go, Alliona-san and t-thanks for coming back for us." she said, lowering her head, tears falling from her eyes that stalled Alliona's famished self from gulping the rabbit stew without reservation.Bookmark here

Alliona carefully put the aromatic bowl in even ground and dragged the attendant to herself. "Of course I'll come back. As if I'll leave my cute little sister behind!"Bookmark here

While they were cuddling, Helen regained a small window of consciousness. Seeing the particular scene in front of her, she forced herself to rise from the ground and mingled at the warm embrace. She released a weak laugh, "Don't forget the little old me. I could really use a hug from my two cute companions."Bookmark here

"Helen-sama?!" said both of the younger girls. Although they feel a little bit of solace from seeing Helen waking up, their anxiety remains on high alert. The attendant slowly supported Helen by making her lean on a nearby perpendicularly hump of sand.Bookmark here

"How are you feeling, Helen-sama?" Alliona asks, sitting beside Helen with a claypot of water in her hands.Bookmark here

Helen saw the grimacing mien of her younger companions. At the moment, she can feel the shrieks of her aching body, her hot temperature not due to the weather, her breathing a bit too fast than normal and the numbing pain in her left ankle, having a reddish blemish with visible inflammation to boot. Before she could offer her well-planned answer of dorky nature, her attendant carefully made her drink water that brought huge relief to her current weakened state. Once done, she lets out a sequence of coughs.Bookmark here

As obvious as it is, she's not feeling well enough to attempt a playful mood to ease the anxieties of her younger companions. Soon enough, she succumbed back to lying in the ground as she can't hold her leaning posture any longer.Bookmark here

The young attendant frantically addressed her mistress' emergency. Wiping the large sweatdrops all over the adult's body then putting Helen's head on her lap to alternate a pillow's comfort. Alliona helplessly squatted to keep watch on their surroundings as it is her only merit to alleviate their current dire situation.Bookmark here

Following several hours, to pass time, Alliona absentmindedly tinkered her sack bag only for a white flower with its vining to fall on the ground. The attendant, who was still keenly attending her mistress, slowly reached for the wilting plant. Alliona noticed the grim expression of the young girl, whose exhaustion is likely peaking to its apex.Bookmark here

The tense situation brought a sudden, hefty gloom in their resting spot. The attendant could be seen crouching on the ground holding the white flower in her hand, shivering. As Alliona tried to break free of its clutches, the attendant jumped to her bosom. "Alliona-san! Thank you! Thank you so much!"Bookmark here

Confused on where did the gratitude came from, Alliona could only squint her eyes as she inquires for answers. "Umm, may I ask why did I suddenly get showered by thanks?"Bookmark here

The attendant held the vines carefully in her small hands. "This! This plant can save the mistress!" she said, with a jolly sniffing. "It's not well-known, but this arrowed-flower and its leaves can be used as medicine to lower fevers!"Bookmark here

Alliona, despite having surface knowledge on the intricacies of some herbs could only nod to respond to the raining questions of the attendant asking her where did she find the flower, how's the condition of the land and if there were other peculiar plants nearby it. Before long, the attendant wipe the snot in her nose crudely by her bare hands and proceeded to boil the flower along with a couple of plucked leaves.Bookmark here

After a couple of long procedures of reboiling, straining and pressing the leaves to get out the last ounces of the liquid extract, the attendant finally finished her task. In her hand, a claypot filled with the dark fluid that spells bitterness and nastiness upon initial sight and scent.Bookmark here

"Erm, are you sure it's gonna help Helen-sama get better?" Alliona reluctantly asked the attendant, grabbing her small shoulders.Bookmark here

"Don't worry, Alliona-san. I swear in my life, that this will help Helen-sama kick her blight away!" said the little girl, who proudly hit her developing chest with quite a force that resulted a few recoiling coughs.Bookmark here

"Are you okay?" Alliona asked jokingly.Bookmark here

Pouting, the little attendant played a hot-and-cold attitude. "It's not like I'm embarrassed, okay?"Bookmark here

Concurrently, Helen woke up from her slumber. Still with the unbearable effects of the fever, she asked to be supported to sit on the previous inclined hump of sand. Moments after, she was able to chew a bit of softened rabbit meat, albeit having a bit of difficulty in her swallowing.Bookmark here

"I'm glad Helen-sama was able to put down that much food to her system. She will undoubtedly need it." the attendant said, as she cleaned the bowl used by Helen.Bookmark here

"Did you study to become an apothecary?" Alliona asked.Bookmark here

"Oh no!" the attendant disputed. "But I managed to pick one or two from a co-worker who used to be one."Bookmark here

After a while, the attendant and Alliona then supported Helen as she undertook the dark concoction. In her hand is a bowl, filled by a dark-clad fluid, somewhat slimy in texture, having a thick pungent scent and from her initial sip, Helen expectedly found it repulsive. But due to the insistence of her attendant, Helen, despite her personal dislike of the said mixture, gave it a bottoms-up and instantly gulped the liquid to her throat.Bookmark here

"Ewwww, yuck......" she expectedly said in a hoarse voice. Alliona gently massaged Helen's back to ease the discomfort of the adult. "It's one heck of a drink... It's gotta be the worst of them all! How about you take it as well, Alliona?" Helen said, with a feeble, but still impish smile.Bookmark here

Alliona instantly retorted, "Surely you jest, milady." before averting her eyes away from the bowl filled with a nasty-stench potion moments ago.Bookmark here

"Everything is a challenge, my dear Alliona."Bookmark here

"Umm, milady. Please stop insisting such notion and hope I'll end up doing what you expect."Bookmark here

"But I want..." Helen paused, covering her mouth gracefully with her long, slender fingers. " share how repulsi... I mean, how splendid that drink was, to my fellow companions."Bookmark here

Alliona squinted her eyes with a wry half-smile. "I believe you need your rest, Helen-sama. Don't waste your energy trying to coax me to such farce."Bookmark here

Helen finally relented. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths. She noticed that her condition certainly took a turn for the better, thus a smile emerged from her pale face. Alliona left Helen to her own devices and help the attendant sort a variety of utensils they used to cook their food and concoct the medicine.Bookmark here

"It seems her condition is showing signs of improvement." Alliona patted the young attendant's hair.Bookmark here

"It's all thanks to you, Alliona-san." the attendant replied, flashing a thankful smile.Bookmark here

The slow afternoon passed with Alliona regaining her consciousness. After some thinking, she realized that after Helen's fever subsided, she surrendered to her building exhaustion and slept for a couple of hours. Hovering her sight left and right, she also found her younger companion fast asleep beside Helen, who for better or for worse, made it past the vile clutches of the fever. Her complexion is returning to what it was used to, her breathing evidently becomes normal, the grimace in her face, gone without a trace. All Alliona can see, is a peaceful sleeping mien and hear a weak snoring sound that can barely be heard even with her focusing on it.Bookmark here

Nonetheless, Helen still needs to rest. Getting stalled in the semi-arid environment for a day doesn't help them at all, but it was the only thing they can do at the moment. Alliona soon finds herself surveying the vicinity. While the weather totally had been lenient for a long spell of time, Alliona's vigilance was still optimally maintained. Carefully assessing the situation by climbing a nearby vantage point, all she could see was a horizon that stretches almost infinitely, with nothing but dry scenery extending far and wide.Bookmark here

The dusk is approaching. With everything that happened that day, Alliona hoped they will be spared from another hectic event from the bottom of her heart. In her estimation, it will take another two to three days before they could finally reach their destination. Since the bandit factor had already been eliminated, Alliona emphatically made the decision to ditch the rocky terrain and take the flat route once and for all. Given Helen's weakened condition and her need to recuperate, taking the lesser strained path is the most logical choice for them.Bookmark here

However, in that night, Alliona's expectation will not be met.Bookmark here

*Bookmark here

"W-W-What are you saying?!" Eroi covering her face, beet red.Bookmark here

The boy tilted his head and raised a single eyebrow to show his confusion to his seatmate's reaction. "Umm, did I just say something inappropriate just now?" he said, holding down Eroi's smartphone in his hand.Bookmark here

Gourmet joined the silly fray. He put his arms to the boy's shoulder and said. "Hahaha, of course not! You just stated the obvious."Bookmark here

Bocchan snickered in his seat. "I kinda expected his reaction. But don't you think you're overreacting, Eroi?" he stated, putting his hands on the boy's other shoulder.Bookmark here

"Erm... I really don't get what you guys are saying, but Eroi-san... did I offend you in any way? If yes, then I apologize." the boy respectfully bowed his head with an apologetic tone as well.Bookmark here

Eroi, as the older person, coughed softly to regain her composure. Her blushing still remains, particularly in her ears. "Ahem. W-W-Well... you did nothing of that sort. I w-w-was just not expecting what you said from the beginning." she said, not looking at his conversation partner.Bookmark here

The boy still dumbfounded, took another look at Eroi's old photo. "You mean, when I said the photo is lovely?"Bookmark here

Steam can be seen from Eroi's head. Gourmet and Bocchan continued to giggle comically with their arms wrapped to the boy's shoulder. The boy then continued, "But surely, everyone who saw this will have the same reaction, right, Gourmet-san, Bocchan-san?"Bookmark here

"Pffft!"Bookmark here

Both Gourmet and Bocchan along with the other regulars burst to laughter which added another factor to confuse the boy. Eroi, in her ire, finally snatched back her phone and put it in her mini-shorts pocket.Bookmark here

"Grr..." she mumbled, gritting her teeth in frustration.Bookmark here

The boy sighed, then stood up abruptly. "Everyone! You're being rude to Eroi-san!" he said, in a stern tone that silenced the laughing bunch.Bookmark here

Gourmet then proceeded to smooth things up. "Well, do forgive us, boy. It's not everyday we can see Eroi become a proper lady blushing up to her ears."Bookmark here

Bocchan then petted Eroi's sulky head. "Even she knows we don't mean ill will. This is just some sort of family teasing, right, Eroi?"Bookmark here

Pouting in her seat, but still red in her ears, Eroi murmured. "Mhmmp, you guys are the worst! Laughing at my dark history!"Bookmark here

The boy suddenly held Eroi's hand, much to the lady's astonishment. "I'm sorry, Eroi-san. It's because you were forced to show me your photo." he said, with a sincere frown.Bookmark here

Scratching her head, Eroi then willed herself to her usual perkiness. "Well, no sweat, boy. Like everyone here said, this is just their way to tease a close friend." she said, with a feminine and gentle smile, that made the boy flustered. Seeing the faint blushing cheeks of the boy, Eroi bites her lower lips like a predator looking at a delicious prey.Bookmark here

"Here it is again, Eroi's predator mode." Bocchan retorts, going back to his seat. "But seriously, to think that was already 5 years ago." he added, then slurped his noodles gracefully.Bookmark here

Gourmet popped a vein to his forehead. "No, no, no, no. Don't you think this skit is kinda lacking? I mean, sure, we are teasing Eroi in a friendly manner, but don't you think there's a good reason for it?" he said frantically with matching exaggerated hand gestures.Bookmark here

The boy shifted his eyes towards his first friend in the establishment. "Like what?" he innocently asked.Bookmark here

"Hey, Bocchan. Show him the usual." Gourmet said, after a finger snap to which Bocchan gladly abided. Eroi only sighed in her seat, contrast to her initial disagreeing reaction from earlier.Bookmark here

The boy was handed Bocchan's phone, but true to his amicable nature, he first asked for Eroi's permission. "Can I take a look, Eroi-san?"Bookmark here

Eroi, who is unusually giddy from her just locking eyes to the boy, just nodded.Bookmark here

After getting permission, the boy scrolled Bocchan's gallery. For a series of sequence, there was silence. Still, it did not take a whole lot of time, in fact, everything was settled under a minute.Bookmark here

"Man, I think I'm in love." the boy blurted, with a gentle smile and satisfied expression that made Eroi jumped off her seat like an uncontrollable rocket. At the same time, Gourmet left his seat.Bookmark here

"Okay, maggots. Let's take five!" he said, then went outside, lit his cigar with a matchstick and puffed a circular smoke. "Now, what should I tell them next?"Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.