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A note from Selkie

Book 6!

 

Amazon has released BTDEM book 6 a hair earlier than I expected it to. Whoops?

 

Either way, you can get it NOW! https://www.royalroad.com/amazon/B09Q2SS1BT

 

Help support me! 22 additional chapters!

 

If nothing else, could you please rate it? The early days are super important for a book release.

 

Thank you!

I sniffed experimentally, half-heartedly hoping that Aegion had hunted something down. I was hungry enough to eat a whole centrosaurus!

 

As long as they didn’t taste like pork. Seriously System, of all the things to torment me with? That one had been a low blow.

 

I shook my head to clear it, and navigated out of the little overlapping walls Serondes had erected for my privacy.

 

Best boyfriend ever. At the same time, the image of him punching through me kept flashing through my mind. Intellectually, I understood why he’d done it, but it still bothered me that he was capable of applying what should be lethal force to me at the drop of a pin.

 

It wasn’t logical, but it was there. We should have a conversation about it.

 

My stomach rumbled, reminding me that I’d burned through a good amount of mana, and I’d just been in a fight for my life. It was making demands.

 

Food! Feed me, Elaine! Feed me NOW!

 

With my body in open rebellion, I hustled out.

 

The grassy gnolls had bounced back with remarkable efficiency. Their wagons were all packed up, ready to roll out. Those who weren’t flexible or adaptable died.

 

And -

 

As much as I hated to say it, those who rebelled and tried to fight back against injustice, those who wanted to fight people significantly stronger than they were, also usually died. Sure, it was possible for someone lower leveled to kill a higher-leveled creature or person, but the reverse was usually true.

 

“Elaine! You’re back! Here.” Aegion thrust two mugs into my hands. I had half a moment of hesitation, before my stomach won out, and I started drinking.

 

Ok, the stuff he’d made for the troll party? That was good.

 

This stuff? This was going to ruin me for life. Liquid ambrosia. The nectar of the gods. Divine perfection made liquid. My worries washed away, my minor trembles ceased, and I felt warmth, energy, and a strange feeling I could only describe as goodness radiated through my body, centered on my esophagus.

 

It filled me right up, instantly squashing hunger. It…

 

It…

 

It was...

 

It was better than…

 

Better than man-

 

No.

 

No, I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t finish the blasphemous thought.

 

At the same time, I had to face reality. I couldn’t lie to myself.

 

It was better than mango juice.

 

“Goddesses!” I swore, taking a moment to collect my thoughts. The other elves were heading over, with Kiyaya still protectively at my side. Blasted wolf was big enough to entirely shield my side and back, with the way she was half-curled around me. “Aegion, where have you been keeping this!?

 

“Ooooh, you broke out the Ilan juice! I want a mug.” Serondes butted in, then draped an arm over my shoulders. “Hey Elaine, feeling better?”

 

I snuggled into his arms, appreciative of how he’d stayed with me while I was in agony, how he’d helped. His robes were splattered with mud and blood, a remnant of his diving in to hold me while I was rolling around in the mud, completely incapacitated by pain. I didn’t mind that I was getting dirty all over again.

 

“Yeah. Aegion’s stuff hit the spot.” I murmured.

 

“No. Absolutely not.” Aegion denied Serondes. “You didn’t almost get murdered. You didn’t go through unimaginable agony. Did you hear Elaine at all? You must’ve, you were right there.

 

He gave a small shudder at that, and I felt a little guilty. Just how bad must it have been to hear my screams?

 

No.

 

Wait.

 

Screw that.

 

I was the one doing the screaming, no guilt.

 

Awarthril came over, and Kiyaya bounded over to her, happily letting her know how happy she was to see her again.

 

I wanted a companion like that, a partner like that. Someone who was always super happy to see me.

 

Mmmm. He wasn’t super expressive though. Couldn’t have everything, and he’d gotten serious brownie points for how he’d handled stuff.

 

“Elaine! I’m so glad to see you’re ok! Aegion get you the Ilan juice? Yes? Good. Ok, Thukrur wanted to see you Elaine if you’ve got a moment.”

 

Awarthril’s words were rapid-fire, none of us able to get a word in edgewise.

 

“Alright, sure, give me a moment.” I lifted up my mugs - when had I drained the second one?! - and proceeded to lick the rims of them, getting every last drop. I then took my finger, and started to glide them along the inside of the mug, wanting, needing every little bit I could get.

 

Awarthril made a huffing noise at me, and Aegion took the mugs away.

 

“I’m not done!” I whined at him.

 

“Told ya it was addictive to non-elves.” Aegion smugly informed Awarthril.

“It’s not addictive! I can quit anytime! I-”

 

I realized what I was saying and shut up.

 

Hmmm.

 

Right.

 

No more Ilan juice for me.

 

Although, one more mug wouldn’t hurt...

 

“Ok, ok, we should get going.” Being wrong made Awarthril grumpy.

 

“Let’s spend some time later on, just me and you, ok? I want to check you over.” Serondes half-whispered in my ear. The tone was neutral, and I couldn’t tell if he was being serious, flirty, or was serious and hoping it’d turn into flirty.

 

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. A return to normal was what I needed. Dwelling over what had happened would reinforce it, make it worse. I needed to keep moving forward, and get back on the horse.

 

I also thought the elves had the right idea when it came to taking a break after a fight, or other violent activity. I should discuss taking a break for a few days, to help me process.

 

“Sure!” I tried to be cheerful, but it probably sounded forced. “You do owe me a backrub.”

 

We all followed Awarthril out to where Thukrur was waiting. He was walking along the caravan, followed by an assistant of some sort, checking that everything was in its proper place. The rest of the gnolls were all seated up, the caravan clearly ready to go at Thukrur’s word.

 

He saw us and bowed deeply, the assistant shooting off on some pre-arranged errand.

 

“Er-larne.” He said, struggling with what was clearly my name. “Many sorries. Take generous gift! Many many sorries!”

 

He knocked on his eggshells that coated his body in a rapid, practiced way. I couldn’t even begin to guess what was going on with that.

 

The assistant ran back with a number of wrapped packages in flimsy cloth, the largest one looking suspiciously like a book. I’d know that shape anywhere. Books inside presents had that distinct look, where one side and the top and bottom was flush with the wrapping, and the other three sides were “looser”. I’d know a book from a mile off, regardless of how poorly “disguised” it was.

 

It was like Unlocking Day! Presents, presents everywhere! He handed them off to Thukrur, then ran off. He turned back to me, and with a bow, offered me the set.

 

On one hand, I wanted to object. On the other, I’d have to live with the System torture forever, permanently engraved in my mind, my skills not letting the memory dull or the sharp ache fade. I took them without reservation.

 

“Many thank yous.” I bowed, trying to keep my language usage simple enough that he’d understand.

 

“No no…” Thukrur seemed frustrated at the limitations of the language, and started to rapidly growl in his own language. Awarthril seamlessly picked it up.

 

“The gnolls take great pride in hospitality. Breaking the rules? They feel the need to compensate you, and every gnoll heard what you went through. Every gnoll knows it’s their fault, well, they think that at least.” Awarthril was rapidly translating, and adding in her own commentary. “I think Thukrur might be at risk of a mutiny if you’re not made happy, or if the gnolls think the gifts aren’t generous enough. Or…”

 

She frowned.

 

“Something. Some nuance is lost in translation, and I don’t know every single gnollish sub-culture and their individual rules.”

 

AKA, life was complicated, extra-so when traveling. However, I saw an opening.

 

“If I give him a gift back, or payment of some sort, would that mollify them? Show them that I got so much, that I needed to give something back?”

 

“Maybe. What are you thinking?”

 

“Well, I have this one skill I’m trying to improve for certain reasons.” I patted Kiyaya as I said that, making it clear what I was talking about.

 

“What?” Aegion made it abundantly clear that, for once, my attempt at being subtle had been waaaaaaaaay too successful.

 

“Which skill?” Serondes asked, his words like a knife to the chest. Serondes! You were supposed to understand me! We’re supposed to be able to read each other’s minds! The gods know they’ve been physically close enough to each other often enough.

 

“What do you mean?” Awarthril piled on.

Come on. Really? They had to be yanking my chain at this point.

 

“I want to practice [The Stars Never Fade]. One of the current weak points is not being able to heal companions. It’s a human-centric skill. By working it on other, er...”

 

I almost tripped and said “Humanoids”, but remembered who I was talking with, and their view on the world.

 

“Elvenoids, I can start growing and flexing the skill.”

 

“Absolutely not!” Aegion shouted. “You can’t let other people know you’ve got the skill!”

 

“What, and who, exactly, should I use it on then?” I fired back. “I’ve got a great skill to help people that I want to help, and it needs practice. Or do you have a better idea how to evolve the skill, that somehow involves never using it?

 

Aegion looked like I’d slapped him, which I kinda had. Also, kinda weird for the party animal to be so passionate about this.

 

“What happens when they start telling people? When other people ask? When-”

 

“Enough.” Serondes interrupted. “Elaine wants to do this, she should do this. I think she should always work to become stronger, and improve that skill of hers. Although, I need to know, why Thukrur?”

 

I could kiss Serondes.

 

Actually - I could kiss Serondes! And I did.

 

“Quite frankly I don’t care what happens to Thukrur, and if there’s something incredibly wrong with the skill, I’d rather find out here and now, rather than on someone I love.”

 

Awarthril looked deeply conflicted. In the end she sighed.

 

“It’s your skill, and your life.” Her eyes were involuntarily dragged towards Kiyaya, who licked her.

 

“Can you tell Thukrur about this? Mention that he might get cursed, that I don’t have a good grasp on just how young he’ll become, and all the details? He should go into this knowing what’s what.”

 

“Sure!” Awarthril was only too happy to facilitate.

 

A long conversation erupted between the two, Awarthril growing at Thukrur, and Thukrur growling right back. As time went on, and the conversation got longer and longer, more of the gnolls hopped off from their assigned post in the caravan, to see what the heck was going on. The conversation was clearly engaging and engrossing enough that they stayed, low rumbles traded between them. Ears flickered as tails wagged, and soon enough we’d reached critical mass where every member of the caravan was watching the discussion between Awarthril and Thukrur.

 

Awarthril and Thukrur finally reached some sort of agreement.

 

“If it works, he insists on giving you another gift by the way. And owe you four favors.” Awarthril told me.

 

I half rolled my eyes.

 

“Puh. Is that what was taking so long?” I asked. I would be somewhat annoyed if all that talking had been her negotiating on my behalf. She shook her head.

 

“No, mostly wanted to know what curses entailed, and wanted a brief crash course on Immortality. Couldn’t quite believe what you were offering. Was sure there was a catch somewhere.”

 

That kinda made sense. “Hey random person! Want an extra 200 years of life?”

 

I’d slam the door shut on anyone who knocked on my door and made that offer to me. Sounded like a scam, or a way to rope me into a cult or something. Next thing I’d know, BOOM! Tied to an altar with people chanting in a circle around me or some nonsense like that.

 

They’d need to have a fantastic mango-deal for me to join a cult.

 

Sounded sketchy. Well, I was a generous goddess! You get a body 30 years younger! You get a body 50 years younger!

 

With how stats - specifically vitality - worked, turning a 70 year old with a 50 year old’s body back to 20 was giving them a lot more than 30 or 50 more years of life. It was giving them more like 100, possibly even 200 or 300 more years of life. Vitality slowed down aging a bit, and the more someone had, the stronger the slow. Sure, as far as I knew it was impossible to completely prevent dying from old age just because of vitality, but my knowledge was limited. A small fry in a large pond.

 

I had to imagine it didn’t though, otherwise my skill wouldn’t be such a big deal.

 

“Ok, are we all good to start now?”

 

Awarthril glanced back at Thukrur, and trilled something at him, r’s rolling like rocks. He gave me a solemn nod back.

 

“All set.” She said, stepping back.

 

“Good luck!” Serondes wished me. Aegion was a good sport, and gave me a pair of thumbs up. Cordamo waved his body at me, flapping his wings.

 

I started to walk to Thukrur, and Awarthril whispered to me.

 

“Want some theatrics?”

 

Mirage classer. Right.

 

“No thanks, I’m good.” I softly muttered back.

 

I ended up in a ring with Thukrur, everyone having fallen suddenly silent. Staring unblinkingly at us. The moment was right.

 

He knelt at my approach, and I let him, recognizing the solemnity of the moment. I ruined it slightly by shifting all of the packages he’d given me under one arm, then carried on.

 

Step.

 

Step.

 

Step.

 

I ended up in front of him, and reached out, putting my hand on his forehead. I focused, trying to channel [The Stars Never Fade].

 

Nothing was happening, and I realized - I didn’t have an image. I imagined Thukrur as a young, strapping gnoll, like one of the ones in the ring. Not a kid, a bit into adulthood. Hopefully if I overshot, it wouldn’t be too bad.

 

I felt the skill take hold, but it didn’t immediately go. No, it was like pressure was building up inside of me, like water was steadily building up against a dam, wanting to break free.

 

Darkness radiated from me, but it wasn’t an all-consuming dark. No, it was simply a tapestry, a painting for all those watching to behold. It quickly expanded, taking in everyone into its illusion. Quiet murmurs of concern were quickly squashed.

 

What an illusion it was.

 

Tiny points of light glimmered in the darkness. White, yellow, red, blue, and orange were the predominant colors. As more and more popped in, they started to cluster together, forming the shapes of galaxies. Spiral, elliptical, lenticular, barred spiral, irregular and everything else, all the different shapes a galaxy could form, dozens, hundreds of them appearing around us. They began to spin around us, a representation of the universe around us.

 

More celestial objects joined in. Comets drifted through the image, their long tails shedding harmless motes of light on us all. An all-devouring black hole, a white dwarf star, and fantastical creatures made out of stars flew, ran, galloped, and swam through the cosmos.

 

The whole image spun, faster and faster, stars and planets trading with gas clouds and asteroid belts through the imagery presented. Exploding supernovas one moment, two planets of equal size colliding, stunning rings around gas giants with hundreds of colors, the full spectrum of just, what, exactly was out there was shown to us in a dizzying kaleidoscope of images.

 

Gigantic whale-like creatures “swam” through space, nibbling at planets, migrating between solar systems. They carried whole ecosystems on their back, the universe supporting life on more than just planets.

 

Dark images, impossible shapes that we couldn’t look at, writhing knots of space, images that our eyes refused to focus on, that were impossible for our brain to process.

 

Someone was loudly sick.

 

Then the spinning stopped, and we were looking at a single star, a dim old red giant. Bloated and expanded, it was still burning, but starting to think about the end of its life. It had consumed half the planets in its system in its expansion, but hadn’t reached the white dwarf stage yet - or gone supernova.

 

The building magic inside of me exploded out, streaming towards the depicted star. Slowly, it compressed back, red warming back up into yellow as the star heated up, the light brightening until it was blinding us all.

 

Then with one final flash, a new star - no, the same star, just younger - spun in front of us, sun spots mixing with solar flares showing its vigorous youth.

 

Then the entire image faded.

 

[*ding!* [The Stars Never Fade] has leveled up! 1->2]

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Selkie

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