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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!

[Bullet Time]. The skill hadn’t activated since the hydra fight, and even then it had barely mattered. I was still all too familiar with the sensation of the world slowing around me, of an early indication that my life was in mortal peril.

 

I didn’t bother questioning the who, the why, any of it. It’d been ages since I was last attacked, but time hadn’t dulled any of my reflexes, nor had it slowed my reactions.

 

I was outside, on the outside of the ring that the wagons had made, looking in at some of the books for sale. There were only a few I could read, and I’d been browsing one of them, seeing if I was interested in buying it.

 

It was a complex political treaty, and it was as dry as it was long. Irrelevant now.

 

I instinctively wrapped myself in [Mantle] as I started to throw myself forward, figuring whatever was coming was trying to hit me from behind. Even if it wasn’t, movement would hopefully foul any shot. Standing still was just dumb. A moment of bullet time later - a fraction of a fraction of a second - I realized my old way of thinking was probably bad, and readjusted.

 

I turned my [Mantle] off, and instead wrapped it around the egg, still in its woven glass basket-sash in front of me. If I was going to be doing any tumbling and falling, I needed the egg protected. Plus, I could heal myself. The only thing I could do with a broken egg was break out a frying pan and some salt.

 

I started summoning [Kaleidoscope] butterflies, the tiny golden flutterings primed and ready to cause destruction and mayhem. I didn’t have a direction for them yet, but once I did?

 

I was stretched out, halfway through my tuck and roll when I felt cold metal violating my back. My spine was the first to go, snapped cleanly in half as the spearhead plunged into my body. I felt myself starting to collapse, my trajectory changing as I lost all sensation in the lower half of my body. My knowledge of anatomy hadn’t been weakened by losing [Medicine], and I was all too aware that it was my stomach’s turn to be perforated, every agonizing twist and muscle ripped transmitted to my mind in slow motion.

 

[Bullet Time]. Great for detailed, up-close analysis of how, exactly, I was being ripped apart. My least favorite aspect of the skill.

 

Now that a spear was piercing through me, I had a lot more information. Like the nature of the attack, and the likely proximity and direction of said attacker. I wasn’t dealing with an Aegion-style snipe, there weren’t poison gases being pumped in, there wasn’t a bird dropping out of the sky. Just a good, old-fashioned skewering.

 

Again. Honestly, I wanted to complain about how often I was being stabbed in the back, but it was just plain good sense. Why attack someone from the front when they can hit me in the back? Why give a warning of an attack? It didn’t benefit them. It was too much to hope that the people trying to kill me were morons.

 

One upside of them being smart though - they were aiming for the center of mass, and not some fancy move like a headshot - which was the only attack that actually scared me.

 

It was a heartfelt attack, in that I could feel it in my heart.

 

Another benefit of being attacked in the same way, with physical weapons? I knew how to handle it. I had training, experience, and reflexes for these types of fights. I knew what the best course of action was, and I’d practiced it endlessly.

 

Uncaring about any books that might end up in the line of fire, I launched my butterflies behind me, roughly along the axis of the spear that was busy going through me. I then fired a pinpoint Radiance beam behind me, aiming for what I thought might roughly be the center of mass.

 

The irony of aiming for the center of mass right after rolling my eyes about the attacker aiming for mine wasn’t lost on me.

 

As I fell, as I burned and bled, I started to turn my head. I wanted a better view of what was going on, to change my Radiance attack from “hit something” to “brain and kill.” As I was falling, I felt a cold corrosion start to spread from the attack, eating at my body, some skill working against me. I had a realization, pieces of a puzzle clicking together.

 

A trade caravan from up north. A surprise assassination attempt. Gnolls who didn’t want to be healed.

 

Shimagu.

 

I finished turning, finished falling, the egg bouncing out of its pocket sash-basket, rolling safely away inside of [Mantle]. I finished feeling the cross of the boar spear slam into my back, the tip emerging from my stomach, only to promptly pin me to the ground. The one-eyed gnoll was leering at me.

 

His face was locked in a vicious snarl, and the muscles and technique suggested a warrior. Not that it mattered. My butterflies were swarming nearer, about to explode. I’d burned straight through his chest, hitting a lung if his anatomy was anything like a human’s. Years of training and combat experience had me reflexively beaming a ray of needle-thin Radiance through his head, aiming for a quick kill.

 

Then I realized - if he was being controlled by a body snatcher, couldn’t the body be controlled, even if the brain was dead?

 

I flipped my Radiance beam to be more like a plane, trying to burn the gnoll clean in half from his left shoulder to his right hip, figuring I’d hit whatever was inside of him and kill that as well. I spared a second smaller “slash” for his neck, figuring that decapitation was also a good move. I wasn’t sure how large a shimagu was, or where they tended to be inside of a body.

 

If I removed enough pieces of the body, if I sliced him into little parts? Sheer anatomy and biology would dictate that the corpse couldn’t move anymore, and I’d be safe one way or another.

 

I didn’t spare any mana for trying to blind him. The only skill I had for that was [Radiance Conjuration], and all of that was busy trying to cut him in half. I was feeling the loss of [Lantern] just a bit.

 

I didn’t have the practice of rapidly flickering my Radiance attacks like Hakka did, and I wasn’t going to start trying now. Old patterns and habits had served me well so far.

 

Which it was doing with remarkable effectiveness. [Solar Flare] was doing work.

 

The gnoll was twisting the spear, trying to rip and shred my internals, turning a localized area of me into paste. The creeping coldness was spreading, and I spared a half-thought towards it - why wasn’t my healing just destroying it?

 

The first wave of butterflies hit, and it was all over from there. Wave after wave of glittering explosions erupted over his body, the loudest noise that’d occurred so far.

 

Hang on.

 

Shimagu.

 

Body-snatcher.

 

Controller.

 

I didn’t need to kill the host!

 

Yet, all of my training and experience had directed me elsewhere, had deeply ingrained lethal reflexes into my psyche, my habits. Someone came at me with a spear? Kill them dead, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

 

I was concerningly good at it.

 

The thought flitted through my head, right as the third wave of butterflies were exploding, each lepidopteran turning into a bright ball of Radiance.

 

Something gave way.

 

Everything happened super fast, practically on top of each other, even with [Bullet Time] speeding my perception up insane amounts.

 

[*ding! You have slain a [Vekrr Caravan Guard Leader] (Metal, 301)//[Hunter of the Open Plains] (Forest, 278)]

 

As I got the notification, he crumbled, and my Radiance “slashes” went right through him, neatly bisecting him and taking off his head.

 

Shit. I was totally going to get penaliz-

 

[*ding! You have slain a [Cruel Tyrant] (Ooze, 311)//[Harbinger of Curses and Corruption] (Dark, 290)]

 

[Reminder: Oaths are binding. -1 to all levels]

 

The words burned in my mind, the System reminder searing my brain as the pain started.

 

The pain inflicted by the System, the penalty for violating the oath, was full-body. It ignored pesky things like “My spine is severed and I can’t feel my legs” - the punishment didn’t care about that. It started off as full-body pain, dialed up to impossible heights, entirely bypassing [Center of the Universe].

 

I screamed as I jerked on the ground, acting like a fish out of water. I tried to hold my head, rub my arms, hug myself, bang on my thighs, anything, anything to get the pain to stop, to get the agony to lessen. The thought of killing myself to end the pain briefly flitted across my consciousness, but to that, I held strong. One enduring thought entered my mind, and I held onto it.

 

It gets better.

 

Dimly, as I spasmed on the ground, I was aware that I wasn’t healing. Not healing properly, at least. I had [Dance with the Heavens] on persistent casting, and in a brief moment of lucidity I tried to pulse the skill again. My mana continued to steadily trickle down. The only thing that I could tell was happening was the pool of blood - my blood - that I was lying in grew larger, as my renal artery did its best firehose impression, trying to dump the entirety of my life’s most vital fluid onto the dirt, mixing it into a disgusting mud.

 

Mud that I was coating myself in as I jerked in pain, hot brands pressed to my flesh. I swear I could smell myself cooking. The creeping agony of a rotting leg trickling through me, the System sadistically showing me how Lyra had felt in her last days, her last moments.

 

I gritted my teeth, grinding them so hard they’d break if it wasn’t for my absurd vitality and puny strength. I bore down on the problem again, focusing my healing on one small part of my injury. I could feel that section closing off, but other parts of my wound started to open up.

 

Then my focus was broken, as a new wave of System-inflicted torture washed over me.

 

The pain of my fingers being clipped off, of a cloth covering my face and water being poured over it, of losing a loved one, of my bones growing into my flesh, nails on chalkboard, terrible smells and awful visions. The System was a sadistic monster, finding dozens, hundreds of new ways to torment me with each second.

 

I was yelling, screaming, trying to make it stop. My cries of pain petered out as I forced more and more air out of my lungs, unable to pause long enough to draw breath.

 

Bleeding.

 

Bleeding.

 

Bleeding.

 

So much blood, all of it mine.

 

Was this the end? Coated in filth, tortured to death by the System as I slowly bled out, my mana pool 80% full and not doing anything?

 

Had the System restricted my skills while I was in the penalty period?

 

I saw the elves finish rushing over, the entire ordeal having only been a moment.

 

So far.

 

I saw Serondes, fist coated in Lava, punching down at me. I wanted to scream, but I had no voice, my (now-ex) boyfriend trying to straight-out murder me when I was down and out. More pain, more heartache, adding into the sheer torture the System was putting me through.

 

A familiar crow perched on his shoulder. My mind clearing for a brief, lucid second as I gazed upon Black Crow’s visage. He was here, at the end, waiting to claim me.

 

Well shit.

 

Serondes’s punch landed, the Lava-coated fist punching straight through my shield, straight through me.

 

The pain lessened, as there was less of me to feel pain, and the bleeding briefly slowed down, as the heat seared and burned my insides to a crisp. The familiar smell of pork reached my nose, and with how fast it happened, I couldn’t tell if it was real, or the System taunting me, reminding me of the people I’d burned alive. Then he pulled his hand back, re-destroying me on the back stroke, and with a snap, like the world coming into focus, my insides all healed up, perfect flesh replacing my destroyed organs.

 

Which launched me into a whole new world of pain. I forced myself to breath, just to curl up and scream more.

 

And scream.

 

Scream.

 

SCREAM.

 

All bleeding stops, either because it’s stemmed or because a patient bleeds out.

 

Screaming, as it turned out, was the same. The only thing that stopped my cries of agony was my voice giving out, refusing to move.

 

Trying to move, adding new pain, new sensations to the ceaseless torture the System was putting me through.

 

When it finally ended, I found myself curled in a sobbing, miserable ball in Serondes’s arms. Tears had rolled down my face, mixed with blood and scrapes of skin and flesh where I’d clawed at myself, literally half-tearing myself to pieces to try and get the pain to stop.

 

Serondes was holding me close, holding me tight, his fancy outfit utterly ruined.

 

“Has it stopped? Is she awake? Elaine? Elaine! My gods, Elaine!” Awarthril rushed over and knelt down next to Serondes, helping lift me up.

 

I was wobbly on my feet, and I couldn’t support myself. Serondes and Awarthril threw one of my arms over their shoulder each, and half-carried me.

 

With the height difference, that had my feet dangling in the air, and after a moment they gave up, and Serondes just scooped me up.

 

“Elaine, come on, speak to us! Tell us something! Anything?” Awarthril was practically begging.

 

“She’s hurt! She just stopped being in pain. I think we should give her a minute.” Serondes bit back.

 

I mutely nodded, a tiny signal that I was aware, and that, like, I hadn’t gone insane from the pain. It was entirely possible.

 

I started to piece together my thoughts.

 

First, where was I?

 

I was… being carried by Serondes. Yeah. That was a good start.

 

Speaking of, Serondes was re-promoted back to boyfriend. The Lava punch had quite literally saved me. Or maybe not? I had been… bleeding. Bleeding quite badly. My injury hadn’t been healing, but the major concern was rapid blood loss leading to death. As much as I liked food, as important as I considered eating, it wasn’t super-duper-instantly critical, the same way missing my stomach, and my liver and kidney being pulped were. And the blood loss. Yeah.

 

Whatever had been interfering with my healing hadn’t stopped me from regenerating blood - or from throwing up a shield to try and block Serondes. Hadn’t been-

 

Shield. Shield had been protecting the egg.

 

The egg!!

 

“....eh…” I half gasped out, my voice failing me. I tried to wriggle free of Serondes’s grip, only failing because I was as weak as a kitten.

 

Awarthril was there in a flash, hovering over me like a mother hen.

 

“Yes Elaine? What is it?” She said, leaning over in an awkward way so her ears were near me, without goring Serondes on her magnificent horns.

 

I tried to swallow, half-coughed, then managed to get enough saliva to swallow and try again.

 

“Egg.” I whispered out.

 

“Egg! Serondes?” Awarthril neatly stepped back.

 

“I have secured the egg Elaine.” Serondes turned around, showing me a pillar of Lava where the egg was neatly nestled.

 

Best. Boyfriend. Ever.

 

“What happened?” Serondes looked down at me, care in his eyes.

 

I paused for a moment. I didn’t want to reveal my [Oath] contents - although they knew I had a restriction skill - but they should know what had happened.

 

[Oath].” I was starting to get my voice back, but I still felt like shit.

 

Awarthril made a pained noise, sucking in air through her teeth.

 

“Ooooh, those can be nasty. It’s why I never took one. Bound to the same ideals forever, and generally the same line of classes? An eternity of it? Noooooo thank you. You’re braver than I am for taking one of those.”

 

I was too exhausted to point out the obvious, that I had no idea that I’d be Immortal when I took the oath, that I’d been a dumb kid playing with magic for the first time.

I weakly pointed at the egg, and Serondes carried me over. I grabbed at the egg, my fingers slipping off of it.

 

Hang on. I was dumb. Or rather, not thinking well because of what had just happened. I pulsed [Sunrise] through myself, energizing and revitalizing myself.

 

Somewhat. Not everything I’d been through could just be waved off with one skill.

 

I reached out again, grabbing the egg firmly and cradling it near me. I slowly rolled it around, checking it over. Everything seemed fine, and I held it close, putting the heat back in, making sure it was all good with [Egg Incubation].

 

I wanted to put it back into the sash, but there was too much dried blood caking every inch of the flexible glass.

 

“Elaine, I know you’ve had a bad time of it, but can you please confirm that no other gnoll has a Shimagu? We’ve got them arranged for you.” Serondes said.

 

That was somewhat ominous, but I weakly nodded my assent. What else was there to do?

 

Serondes carried me over to where the gnolls were, and I winced slightly at the sight. All of them were on their knees, with some having a collar of hardened Lava some of their necks, connected by hard stone to similar manacles around their wrists and ankles. I could see the faint remains of burn scars, and I mentally noted that I should get some good [Cosmic Presence] levels from all this.

 

The rest had a mixture of manacles and Ooze binding and wrapping them up, Awarthril and Serondes having bound and chained everyone down.

 

Cordamo was flying in lazy circles above them, making sure nobody tried anything, while Kiyaya silently prowled behind them, occasionally making some soft growls. Aegion was a distance away, his bow out but relaxed, an arrow ready to be drawn and fired.

 

I wasn’t entirely sure about it, but there didn’t seem to be as many gnolls now as when we first met up with them.

 

The sun was cooperating, and nobody was in the shade. With a thought, I turned on [Dance with the Heavens], increasing the range with [Wheel of Sun and Moon]. I focused primarily on burn injuries, focusing on how the raw heat of Lava caused proteins to denature, on how damage propagated through tissue. I then added in killing, destroying, and removing parasites, and added in an all-purpose “heal” to the end of it, figuring I’d catch any small, lingering problems, and putting the gnolls all to perfect health as my way of apologizing for what the elves had done.

 

I lost around 30% of my mana. The cross-species penalty, the range they were at, the mediocre image, and most importantly, the number of gnolls needing to be healed all contributed. I didn’t get any notifications about killing Shimagu, and I felt my blood run cold.

 

I’d just tried to actively kill an intelligent creature that had done nothing to me. Holy. I’d just gotten so lucky. I didn’t want to imagine what would’ve happened if I’d violated [Oath] twice in a row, back to back like that. And violated it that deliberately, that badly.

I needed to do some thinking on that thought. Why had I assumed trying to heal someone else from a shimagu infestation would cause an [Oath] penalty? Was that right?

 

Well, I didn’t want to risk it right now.

 

“Done.” I croaked out. I might be strong enough to stand now, but Serondes holding me was nice. I wanted comfort.

 

The bindings started to crumble, the gnolls being released. They mostly stayed still, and I stopped paying attention to them.

 

My mind wandered back to the attack, and my inability to properly heal. Well, I had been healing, healing almost everything else besides the attack. I’d been able to heal blood loss - hence not passing out - and I’d still been able to use my skills.

 

Which was suggestive that there had been counter-skills at play. I replayed the incident in my mind, how my wound had kept opening, even without additional help from my assailant.

 

Yeah, I’d bet a bunch of rods that I’d been hit with a half-dozen curse or wound-enhancement skills, and one of them just so happened to be a healing rate-limiter, or something like that. I’d only been able to give a trickle of healing towards the injury, which had fought back against the healing by trying to open shit up more. A neat one-two punch, designed to kill the target in one blow - even if a healer got to them.

 

I almost had to applaud the combination. It was good. Didn’t make me any happier to have been on the receiving end of it, especially with the [Oath] penalty.

 

“Ok, Serondes, bring Elaine over here.” Awarthril beckoned Serondes over, and we went into the tall ferns by the side of the road.

 

A glorious vision awaited me. A hot bath, with a pillar of Lava keeping the entire thing hot.

 

“Right, we need to get you cleaned up.” Awarthril brought out soap and a brush and other implements of dirt destruction.

 

Bless her.

 

I had some serious thinking on [Oath] to do.

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Selkie

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