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A note from Selkie

The Stabby Awards!

 

Hey all!

 

The Stabby Awards are open once again, and this year, I hope to win one! Specifically, best serialized novel.

Since Pirateaba has been told "congrats, you've won too much now you can't win any more", I believe I have a real chance at winning one this year. So I'm going to ask you all nicely - can you please nominate me (and two of your other favorite web novels) for a stabby award? Nominations are here: https://www.reddit.com/r/Fantasy/comments/rtoo7n/2021_stabby_nominations_thread_nominations_close/ ;, and voting occurs later on.

 

If I win a stabby, I'll post a few bonus chapters, and commission some nice artwork! Incentive for you all!

“Ooooh, a road! Let’s go!” Awarthril stopped dead, shifting her weight from foot to foot in her excitement. Kiyaya barked, birds flying up in terror as the sound of a large predator making noise touched a deep and primal part inside of them.

 

I was busy removing yet another sticky seed from my leg. Mistweave was great, until it wasn’t. Sticky seeds seemed to count as “damage” to the material, so it entirely bypassed my clothing and went straight to the source.

 

“I vote roads!” I called out, now trying to get the damn sticky stuff off my fingers. Honestly, as luxurious as traveling with the elves was when it came to camping, the Rangers had it figured out when it came to the actual moving from A to B part of it.

 

Lounging in the wagon beat bushwacking. Or [Rubbery Rope]-whacking. Although, I was only lounging in the wagon when I wasn’t the one driving it. Or Julius wasn’t making me run beside it. Or Artemis wasn’t drilling me by the side. Or Arthur wasn’t showing me some new plant. Or…

 

I might have some rose-tinted lenses.

 

“Yeah, sure.” Serondes was in agreement, and we turned and headed towards the road.

 

Aegion was muttering about how the sides of the roads were “always picked over” and “he’d find nothing good”, but followed along anyways. Cordamo was still wrapped around him, waving his head back and forth like a happy little nope rope.

 

We made it to the road, and it was like a breath of fresh air. I could walk unhindered, and as effortlessly Awarthril and Kiyaya could plow down the plants in front of us, they looked happy to be on clear road as well.

 

“Roads!” Serondes stretched his legs out, giving each of them a little kick. He hadn’t given up his robe, and while things kept catching in them, they inevitably fell out and the robe repaired itself. Not before giving him a little tug, before being a hair annoying. I wasn’t surprised that he liked the clear open space.

 

“Roads mean people!” Awarthril didn’t mention anything about clearing grass out of the way, but I noticed her pace had picked up significantly, dragging us along in her wake.

 

“Hang on.” Aegion said, vanishing back into the tall grass that swayed to either side of the road, like golden waves.

 

I wanted to bet, but I didn’t have much to bet with.

 

“Hey Serondes!” I slipped my hand into his, trying to be somewhat coy. I was probably falling flat on my face, but he’d said nothing negative so far, and I loved him for it.

He lightly squeezed my hand, letting me know I could continue.

 

“I bet three kisses that Aegion comes back with something inedible.” I squeezed his hand back, giving it my full effort in an attempt to feel like it was just as light as his earlier squeeze.

 

“I mean, let’s forget how broad ‘inedible’ is for a moment.” Serondes’s tone was playful. “What do you want if you win?”

 

That only took a brief moment for me to think of it.

 

“A backrub!”

 

“Deal!” Serondes spun me around, sealing the deal with a kiss.

 

Honestly, kinda a worthless bet, given how much we liked kissing.

 

“Awarthril, wanna determine who wins?” I gave Kiyaya some extra scratches with my free hand.

 

Awarthril just half-waved to us with her back turned, reluctant acknowledgement of her role in all this, putting one foot in front of the other on the road we’d found ourselves on.

 

Speaking of the road - it was weird. There was no way it wasn’t made by a skill.

 

Or multiple skills.

 

The road was a single sheet of brittle stone, an impossible formation in an impossible location. Nobody grabbed sheets of brittle rock for construction material, no sheet of rock was that large. The road was also wavy along the edges, and a close look revealed that it was like many overlapping circles. Like someone had casually gone for a stroll, every step radiating the crappy rocks used to build a road.

 

A very straight stroll. There were basically no curves or deviations to the path at all.

 

The road had natural cracks and breaks, long lines running through faults in the rock, yet plants weren’t invading through the holes in the way I’d expect them to. Some persistent skill? It would imply whoever made the road was still alive.

 

Either way, it was cool!

 

“AHHA!” Aegion burst back from the side of the road, holding something that looked and smelled like green moss. Awarthril just glanced at it, and delivered her verdict.

 

“You both lose.”

 

Oh no. How terrible.

 

“Oh, Elaine, we should keep up the lectures. This here is a thrice-chewed moss, named for the fact that most animals that try to eat it spit it back out. Try a bite!” Aegion half-thrust it towards me

 

Oh no.

 

It was terrible.

 


 

We were on the road for just a day, when Kiyaya stopped and sniffed the air.

 

“What’s that?” Awarthril asked Kiyaya. She paused a moment, then closed her eyes, deeply sniffing the air.

 

“Smells like wolf.” She said after a moment. “Could be gnolls.”

 

“Could also be wolf companions! Or werewolves!” I helpfully added in. I’d never seen one, but between how magical Pallos was, and the fact that I’d been offered a related class once upon a time?

 

I’d met a fair number of species at this point, and I wanted to add werewolves to the list.

 

A white blur launched from Aegion’s arm, Cordamo launching himself to take a look. Aegion closed his eyes, and started speaking.

 

“Caravan of wagons. Cleverly hidden. Awarthril’s got it right, they’re gnolls. We’ll meet them around lunchtime. They’re using centrosauruses to pull their wagons. I’d like to look at them, I’ve never seen one in the flesh before.”

 

Of course Awarthril would’ve gotten it right. Blasted perfect elves. Fortunately, I had enough self-confidence to not get a complex or anything.

 

“Meeting them is slightly unavoidable.” Serondes drily remarked.

 

“There is only one road.” I added in.

 

Awarthril couldn’t resist piling on.

 

“Typically, when two groups are heading towards each other on a road, they’ll meet up.”

Aegion just made a disgusted noise, as the three of us traded high-fives. We carried on, with a spring in our steps.

 

In no time at all, Awarthril was waving, presumably able to see them. I squinted, but yeah, no. Nothing. Her eyesight was just that much better than mine.

 

Still, it showed that we were friendly, and with the distances and skills involved, it meant we could slowly approach each other. I know I’d be jumpy if someone suddenly appeared next to me, and jumpy people who shot first and asked questions later tended to live.

 

Like Artemis! Couldn’t wait to see her again.

 

With how wild and untamed the area was, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the gnolls were also jumpy. Especially since Aegion described their wagons as ‘cleverly hidden’.

 

We approached, and I could see their wagons slowly appear in the distance. I studied them as we got closer.

 

The first thing I noticed were the creatures pulling the wagons. They were dinosaurs that looked like small triceratops, with only one horn on the nose. Their frill was oval shaped, with a small gap in the middle, and they were a warm, light brown color. They only had one to a wagon, and with the size of the wagon and the apparent ease they were pulling with, I had to assume they were strong.

 

[Long-Range Identify] returned [Centrosaurus], which was like, level 180 or so.

 

That, or some [Dinosaur Tamer] had guided their skills in the right direction, or they were being buffed by a [Wagon Driver], or there was some expert [Caravan Master], or…

 

The possibilities were endless, and it reminded me of just how much I LOVED magic.

Maybe they’d have a Radiance mage! More tricks to learn!

 

Onto the wagons!

 

‘Cleverly hidden’ was right. The wagons had a flat top, extended forward to shield the dinosaurs, and it seemed like they were growing an entire field up there! Grasses and ferns were on top, exactly the same as all of the surrounding plant matter. and I wanted to give it a butterfly’s-eye view. I bet they’d blend right in with the nearby grasses, making them nearly invisible to the numerous predators that lurked in the sky.

 

Which would partially explain why there were no trees on the prairie-go-rounds.

 

That, or trees were just too damn heavy to cart around.

 

All in all, it was a neat arrangement! A beautiful little travel garden. I should see if the Rangers wanted to adopt something similar. It would need a special revamped wagon, multiple redundant Wood-aligned Classers, and constantly changing the greenery out as the climate changed.

 

Mmmm. Maybe there was a reason we didn’t have any wagons like that. That sounded both expensive, and like it needed a specialized Classer. For a caravan though, it was pretty sweet.

 

We got closer, and Awarthril kept waving to them. Soon, a flag was waving back.

 

“Let’s go!” Awarthril didn’t wait for us before launching herself down the road. Bless her releasing her [Rubbery Rope] and not dragging me along. Aegion followed at a good clip, while Serondes and I took the scenic route.

 

Awarthril - and the gnolls - moved fast. In no time at all, the wagons were circling up, and bright, colorful flags and silks were coming out.

 

I’d never seen gnolls before. They were humanoid - or as Serondes would say, elvenoid - so two legs, arms, one head, bipedal, the works. They looked like a cross between a dog and a hyena, with short, flattened snouts, and a hunched-over look as they walked around, occasionally moving and dipping like they wanted to be on all fours, but remained on two legs.

 

They had medium-length tails, and generally had short fur, in any number of different muted colors. Some had spots. Their noses were constantly twitching, and there was a near-constant snuffling noise in the background of all the other sounds they were making.

 

The sides of the wagons opened up, and some of the gnolls were hanging out there, while others were tending to their dinosaurs. Some broke out some entertainment. I recognized dice, no matter how many sides they had, along with crude cards and balls. Anything to keep oneself sane on the road, a little touch that civilized creatures all shared with each other. The elves would probably call it some fundamental elvish trait or something. Some of the guardy-looking gnolls stayed on alert, using a combination of large boar spear in one hand, and sick, curved knives on their belts. One weapon for large creatures, one weapon for small critters. One of the gnolls came to meet us.

 

In any other world, he’d be a weirdo. Here, his look was probably related to his class and skills. He was coated in large eggshells, the bright overlapping shells creating a dizzying array of looks, colors, and patterns. His fur was a light brown with large splotches of grey, signs of age in a human. Possibly also a sign of age in a gnoll.

 

More obvious was the way he moved, the slow, careful steps of bad arthritis, of age starting to snap at his ankles. It caused me to look more closely at him, and I saw some swollen joints, patches of thin fur, and drooping jowls.

 

With the way the other gnolls were getting out of his way and generally deferring to him, I was guessing he was one of the caravan bigshots.

 

“Krrrrrr. Welcome. Name Thukrur. Lunch-eat?” The gnoll made an elaborate bow. I practically winced at how slowly he moved, careful not to hurt himself. I could practically feel the age radiating off of him, and I felt like I was getting older just watching him. He gestured towards where a chef was busy throwing food into a stew.

 

I bit my lip in excitement. He spoke the same language as us! Someone to talk with! The elves were great, but after the last few encounters where I didn’t speak the language, I’d been feeling left out.

 

Sure, his mastery wasn’t great, but I’d take it!

 

“Hi! My name’s Elaine!” I was trying to deliberately pick easy words, or words I’d heard him say before.

 

“Serondes.” The man in question pointed to himself.

 

Old eggshells bowed towards me.

 

“Healer. Injured. Heal?”

 

“Yeah, of course!” I started to take a step forward, only for Awarthril to grab my shoulder, and babble something quickly in another language to the gnoll. The language was rolling, with a silly number of r’s everywhere. I swear my tongue was cramping up just listening to the language.

 

“Right! Elaine, they’re a trading caravan. We’re going to do some trading with them, and I’ve negotiated some credit with Thkrur here for you, in exchange for your services. Also, the gnolls take hospitality seriously. DO NOT break any rule of hospitality.”

 

Awarthril glared at all of us, promising vengeance upon any one of us who broke any of the laws of hospitality.

 

Remus, for how shitty it was, had its own strong code of hospitality. It was nearly impossible for non-Rangers to travel around without it. Tokens were broken and given to a family resting at a place, a promise that someone with the token could receive similar treatment on the other side.

 

Of course, that only applied to the wealthy, but that was the way of the world. People who weren’t wealthy could rarely contemplate traveling, short of bailing out of one village to try and make life work in a town. High risk move.

 

She gave me a Look, and I could see a flash of Autumn in her eyes. I wanted to roll my eyes at her and tell her ‘yes mom’, but I refrained. She was just trying to look out for me after all.

 

I started with Thukrur, hitting him with [Dance with the Heavens]. It helped some - he rolled his shoulders and popped his fingers, suddenly spry again.

 

It did nothing for his jowls, patchy fur, wrinkled eyes, or dozens of other minor ailments. There was only so much [Dance with the Heavens] could do.

 

We walked around some, Thukrur leading the way. The gnolls all sniffed at us, occasionally laughing in a high-pitched manner. There was some great joke surrounding us that I didn’t get. They tended to wear fur-like clothing like one great big wrap, neatly tied off to one side or the other.

 

Thukrur pointed out four gnolls, each with some obvious, but not life-threatening injury. The first one was sitting on the side of the wagon, blankets covering his lower half. With the way everyone was moving around him, I was guessing he’d been crippled somehow. Probably a broken spine.

 

Second one had a ferocious eyepatch and a mean look. No prizes for guessing what went wrong with him!

 

Third gnoll was missing her left arm, but was energetically running around, helping out with her one good hand.

 

Fourth was flat on her back, eyes closed. Only faint breathing indicated that she was still alive.

 

Well, nothing for it. I started off with gnoll #4, putting my hand on her, pulsing [Dance with the Heavens] through her. I saw my mana barely flicker as the gnoll drifted off into a deeper sleep.

 

That felt good! It’d been ages since I had a proper patient to heal. Lun’Kat barely counted, and the dwarves were practically ancient history at this point. It was like a breath of life for my soul, a warm breeze through my mind. It cleared cobwebs, and helped me refocus and reevaluate.

 

Gnoll number two waved me off.

 

“Eye. Women.” He said, having a worse grasp of the language than Thukrur, but the way his tail wagged made it abundantly clear what he was talking about. Thought he was now a handsome devil with the missing eye, and didn’t want it healed up.

 

I mean, it was dumb. He could always just wear an eyepatch, and wouldn’t run the risk of infection, and have two working eyes as he went through life. However, his stupidity wasn’t hurting anyone else - unless, like, he made a critical mistake in a fight or something because of it - so I wasn’t going to force the issue, and force healing on him.

 

Aegion laughed at that, and offered a fistbump. After a bit of miming, gnoll number two figured it out, and the two of them bumped fists.

 

“Awarthril! I’m going to break out the good stuff!” He shouted, heading towards where Awarthril had put down the Spatial Box.

 

“Please don’t poison them all.” Awarthril knuckled her forehead, clearly imagining Aegion breaking out his ‘good stuff’ and the usual reaction to that.

 

‘Gave everyone an involuntary firehose from both ends’ was generally considered to be breaking quite a few rules of hospitality.

 

Although…

 

“It could be great experience for me if he does!” I cheerfully poured gas onto Awarthril’s worries, chuckling internally as the crease lines on her forehead deepened.

 

“Same stuff as the trolls!” Aegion happily informed Awarthril.

 

She put a hand to her chest and gave a sigh of relief.

 

“I thought that was finished four nights ago!” I protested.

 

Aegion snorted.

“Did you really think I’d let all of a successful brew go, and not reserve a few for myself?”

 

“But…” I weakly protested.

 

“He’s right you know.” Serondes’s words just twisted the knife.

 

I shut up before I could jam my foot deeper into my mouth, and tagged gnoll number three as she ran past.

 

She didn’t speak a word of elvish - Creation? - but the way she threw off her bandages, and was whooping and hollering as she ran around the camp, showing off the new arm to everyone, made it more than obvious what her feelings were on the matter.

 

“I’m going to make sure Aegion’s not about to poison everyone.” Serondes started to walk over to where Aegion had gotten a barrel of his brew out, and was busy making a dozen new friends. Free beer was free beer, no matter the culture.

 

Suuuuuuuuuuuure he was.

 

“You’re just trying to get a drink before it’s all gone!” I accused him, his motives as transparent as Awarthril’s invisibility.

 

“Nope.” Serondes wasn’t convincing.

 

“Save me one!” I called out.

 

No way was I getting any. Not with a caravan of thirsty gnolls, Serondes and Awarthril digging in, and the absolutely prodigious amount that Kiyaya could lap up.

 

Such was my life of hardship and sacrifice for the noble greater good.

 

I easily dodged a die thrown at me, which helped hammer home a point that until now had been abstract. My speed and vitality were doing good things for my reflexes, even before bullet time came into play. Heck, I had enough stats in them to keep up with weaker physical classers!

 

Of course, my definition of “weaker” was around level 200 or so.

 

It was going to be interesting when I got back to Remus.

 

Focus.

 

I looked at the direction of the thrown die, only to see gnoll number one looking in sheer horror at one of his buddies. He tried to smack him, but fell over as his buddy danced away.

 

Said buddy looked terrified at what he’d done, and quickly caught him and steadied him, as gnoll number one frantically babbled something at me that sounded like an apology.

 

I hurried over, and focused on the image of restoring a spine, of reconnecting nerves and restoring cartilage.

 

I got some krrrrrrrr’s, like a purring kitten, as gnoll number one kicked his feet happily, then gave me a bone-crushing hug.

 

Quite literally, I lost a few points of mana.

 

Then he and his friends were dancing, and old eggshells came over.

 

“Good. Take. Two small items, or one medium item, no charge. Discount on large.”

 

I did a double take at the sudden improvement in Thukrur’s language, then wanted to smack myself.

 

At this point, it was blindingly obvious that this was a merchant caravan, and Thukrur was a trader. Knowing a bunch of languages to sell stuff in was basic good merchant stuff 201, and of course his command of the language would center around buying and selling.

 

We started to walk around, Thukrur talking with the gnolls at each of the wagons. Most of the gnolls at this point were either at the stew, the beer, or on guard duty, with just one gnoll at each wagon.

 

They had tons. Clothing, so finely woven as to practically be magic. Exotic spices, so expensive that even a half-pinch counted as a “large” item. A different mobile savannah full of gems wrought into exotic jewelry, another filled with books, a third with pretty clothing, a fourth with fine weapons and fancy weapons. Potions, carefully labeled and kept under protective locks in reinforced cases, dried herbs that made me dizzy just sniffing at them. Proper merchants, moving goods with high value and low volume.

 

Books - all written in different languages. I needed to become a polyglot. Or get someone to translate for me. A language skill or three would be nice, but I didn’t have the spare slots.

 

He left me to my browsing, each wagon guarded by a keen-eyed gnoll who’d gotten instructions on what I was and wasn’t allowed to have.

 

I was leafing through the books when [Bullet Time] activated.

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Selkie

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