The images faded, the star slowly becoming more and more transparent, bringing us all back to reality - not that we’d ever left.
Heh. [The Stars Never Fade] was the name of the skill, and what was the first thing that happened? The image faded away. There was some irony in that. Or something.
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [The Dawn Sentinel] has leveled up to level 420->421! +3 Dexterity, +24 Speed, +24 Vitality, +170 Mana, +170 Mana Regen, +48 Magic power, +48 Magic Control from your Class per level! +1 Free Stat for being Human per level! +1 Mana, +1 Mana Regen from your Element per level!]
Thukrur knelt in front of us, blinking the stars out of his eyes. He was young again. His fur had filled in and turned a darker brown from the earlier patchy grey, his jowls were firm and attached to his jaw again, the wrinkles around his eyes were entirely gone. He seemed to have energy again, along with a thousand other subtle signs of youth that I subconsciously knew, but couldn’t quite put words to.
He had his youth back, with all the experience and wisdom of age, not to mention a silly number of levels. I’d place serious money on Thukrur becoming a mover and shaker in the gnoll community, if not the greater world.
Also - I could restore hair with this skill? That had some potential, with how often I needed to cut my hair short, and how I liked it long.
A cooing noise came from my shoulder, the sound of a curious bird. I didn’t feel anything from my shoulder. No weight, no pressure, no claws grasping for support and stability. No wings flapping for support. It was like nothing was there.
A second coo came from my shoulder, and I froze, breaking out in cold sweat. I would’ve instantly soaked my clothes, if Mistweave could absorb sweat. As-is, I felt rivulets of sweat pour down my back and front, pooling on my fingertips and dropping to the ground.
Without moving another muscle, I slowly panned my eyes over.
Sitting on my shoulder was the Grim Reaper herself, White Dove.
I need to stop sweating holy gods I’m going to stink and get her feet wet and she’ll get pissed and I need to stop and make her happy and do I bow? No wait, that might dislodge her. Don’t throw her off, that’d just piss her off. Do I do nothing? No, wait, that…
My thoughts were racing, going a thousand miles an hour as I froze in indecision, unsure of the best way to tackle the situation I found myself in.
I decided that I was not the main character of this event, and the best move I could do was shutting up and staying absolutely still. White Dove had chosen my shoulder to perch on, and the less attention I could bring to myself, the better.
I channeled my inner tree, the rock inside of me, and went absolutely still. Probably the first time in my life I wasn’t fidgeting or tapping my foot impatiently or something.
White Dove opened her beak, and the world stilled.
Her voice was impossible to describe. Light? Airy? Angelic? Death incarnate? A pull on my soul with every syllable, promising peace. An endless void.
Words that reverberated with power. Words that echoed through creation. Words that spoke directly to me, that I could comprehend and understand. That everyone and everything present could know. That suppressed every sound, that dampened every noise and demanded the full attention of all creatures, great and small, who could hear it.
The System was magic. White Dove was Magic.
“Thukrur Kerishester, of the Iron Spears Tribe.” She Spoke, and the world trembled. “[Eggshell Warrior]. [Trader Along Many Roads]. [Raid Leader of the Iron Spears].”
The named gnoll bowed deep, ending up going to one knee. He had some careful words for the Reaper on my shoulder, a tone most respectful in his native, rolling language.
“You have denied me, and for this sin, I curse you. No more shall you smell.
First, scents are denied to you. A wounded subordinate. Your child’s smell. Your wife’s musk.Second, you shall not emit any odors. Your partners will not know when you are near. You will walk invisible to the noses of the others in the market.Third, no more will you be able to smell out deals. Intuition fails you when it comes to potential opportunities.”
White Dove paused, then with one last line, filled with venom and hate, she finished.
“I curse you.”
The curses sounded gentle at first. As White Dove started to list all of the impacts though, it sounded worse and worse. It hadn’t been obvious to me, but it sounded like smell was super-duper important to gnollish society. They seemed to base lots off of smell, given how many things White Dove was listing off.
That, and there were counterpoints. Abstract points.
Like, “not being able to sniff out deals” - sounded like a nasty curse for a trader, and an abstraction of “not being able to smell.”
I was still keeping my eyes all the way to the side, watching White Dove on my shoulder while keeping my head straight ahead and unmoving. I flinched as she turned towards me.
“You. You have stolen time from me. I know you. We shall talk another day.”
My frozen indecision remained, but somehow my body found a way to sweat even harder.
At least Thukrur wouldn’t be able to tell how bad I smelled. Small mercies.
Then White Dove launched herself from my shoulder, flying forwards. In two quick flaps of her wings, like a coin flipping, she morphed from White Dove into Black Crow, before veering off and fading out. On to reap another soul, one unwilling to die.
Awarthril was the first to break the silence, the first one to move.
“Well. That was quite something! Thukrur, are you alright?” She moved over to him, repeating the question in a growl, offering the significantly younger Thukrur a hand.
His nose was twitching furiously, and he accepted the offered hand, pulling himself to his feet. He growled back, pawing at his nose.
My sense of smell wasn’t anything to write home about. All I could imagine was it was like going blind, losing an entire sense.
Still, he had hearing, sight, touch, and the rest, and honestly, I’d gotten by just fine with those senses. He’d be alright.
The rest of the gnolls descended on him, touching him, feeling him, sniffing at him with puzzled looks of bemusement. One tapped the eggshells, and made excited noises.
Four of the gnolls came up to me though, bending over to practically shove themselves in my face.
The gnolls weren’t super tall, but I was short by every non-dwarven metric.
“Me! Me!” One of them yelled in broken Creation.
Another gnoll shoved him.
Third gnoll jumped in, invading my personal space.
“Me! Pay lots. Good deal!”
Serondes smoothly moved in to shield me, as Thukrur started barking out orders in his harsh language. The gnolls were hesitant, but he said something else that got most of them to reluctantly part ways, and head back to the wagons. Only two gnolls were sticking by me, Serondes in the way, clearly hoping for similar treatment.
They weren’t exactly old, or even middle-aged. I quickly checked their levels, and yup, low-leveled - for this area.
Thukrur approached, and he was like a new man. He was stretching, shaking out his legs and arms. He looked at his hands with wonder, twisting and flexing them, then taking a few little hops on the way over. He made it to me, grabbed my hands, and tried to shove something inside of them.
“He’s thanking you for the gift of life you’ve given him, and wants you to accept this token.” Awarthril translated for me. “It’s nowhere close to what you’ve given him, but he hopes you can keep this token to remember him by.”
He said some more words, enthusiastically pumping my hand.
“He’s also hoping that you’ll come visit him in 300 to 400 years, and renew him again, and that he’ll be praying to his patron goddesses to protect you. The ring he’s giving you should help with the protection. Also, feel free to ignore the idiots pestering you to do the same to them.”
He growled at the two gnolls, Thukrur’s ears going flat as his voice rumbled out. I wasn’t the target, but I felt intimidated. I was already on edge because of White Dove, and my vision briefly narrowed as I imagined a fight. I could just see Thukrur lunging at me. I’d drop back, Serondes would throw Lava in the way, and I’d try to drill through Thukrur’s eggshell armor from the ground, shooting between Serondes’s legs.
I shook my head, dispelling the vision. I really, really, needed a good long safe break. I was barely keeping it together. I was starting to crack - no, I was mid-cracking, and frantically applying Ooze to the problem to try and keep it together. The only miracle was that it was happening now, and not, like, when I was being chased by the Shluggoth. Curling up into a gibbering wreck would’ve been the end of me.
One of the gnolls scampered off, but the other stubbornly stayed.
“Me! Heal me! All money!” He barked out, practically vibrating with excitement.
I glanced at Awarthril, who shrugged back at me. She growled something at Thukrur, who grumbled back.
“Eh, go for it.”
I touched the gnoll’s forehead with a single elegant finger, continuing to palm the ring I’d been given. He went still. I felt dozens of eyes peeking over, wanting to see what happened.
I focused on [The Stars Never Fade], remembering to create an image of a younger gnoll.
After a few minutes he cracked his eyes open, looking around in confusion. I felt a hot blush spread up my cheeks.
“Um. Awarthril. Could you, ah, possibly explain that I forgot the skill has a cooldown, and I can’t use it for some time?”
Three elegant elvish hands hit three immaculate elvish foreheads at the same time. Awarthril quickly growled something out, and the gnoll’s face fell hard. He turned, tail between his legs, and slunk back. Thukrur patted him on the back, then faced me and pointed at my hand.
“Ring. Magic. Hide Level.”
He patted my hands again, shaking them up and down. He had tears forming fat splotches on his face, and a stupid grin on his gnollish face. The only key that anything was less than perfect in his world was his nose, which kept twitching, looking for scents, for anything at all. With one last shake of my hands, he turned and joined the caravan. He started barking out orders, gnolls running around to re-fix caravan stuff.
I took a moment to finally look at the ring that Thukrur had thrust into my hands, the one that said would protect me. It was a glossy black ring, looking like it was carved out of a single piece of obsidian.
Serondes looked at Thukrur and whistled.
“That’s one heck of a level.”
I quickly checked, and wow. Yeah. Higher than the elves by a good chunk. Explained why White Dove had named three classes for him. Also explained how their caravan in the middle of nowhere was doing just fine.
The elves crowded around.
“Oooooh, a Deception Ring! I thought they were just stories!” Awarthril cooed. “I want to give it a try!”
“Don’t get caught with one of those in Tympestshard. The watch will be less than amused.” Aegion added in.
“Hang on.” Serondes threw an arm over Aegion and Awarthril’s shoulders. “You’re saying they’re just in stories. You’re saying Tympestshard knows them well enough to have rules. Which is it?”
“Well, all the best parties are in Tympestshard.The smarmy city elves know things there, and aren’t just honest, hardworking country bumkins like the three of us.”
“Ok, oh knowledgeable one, how do I work this thing?” I poked fun at him.
“Fuck if I know. Just throw some mana into it or something.”
With a yell, the gnollish caravan started to move out, centrosaurus pulled the large, savanna-topped wagons down the road. The brittle road snapped and cracked with each move of the mighty dinosaurs, leaving shattered stones in their path.
“Well, there goes the road.” Aegion commented as the gnolls moved out.
I slipped the ring onto my right index finger, and focused on it. I felt it “connect”, in the same way that Inscriptions did, but totally different at the same time.
Inscriptions felt primitive and small compared to the monstrous complexity I was feeling here. A raging storm on the ocean, compared to a cup of water. The full Senate building, compared to a kid putting rocks on top of each other. It was far more complicated and intricate than anything I’d ever seen or worked with.
Hell, everything I’d ever worked with had just been “on or off”. This was a whole new beast, and I didn’t even know where to begin trying to get it to work.
I stopped focusing on it for a minute.
“Hey Awarthril, you said you wanted to look, right?” I took the ring off as I asked.
“Oooh, yeah! I wanted to give you first shot at it though.”
“I couldn’t figure it out.” I admitted, handing it over. “It’s far more complex than anything I’ve ever dealt with, by leagues.”
Awarthril brought the ring up to her face, studying it closely.
“Weird. If I hadn’t gotten told it was a Deception Ring, I’d believe it was totally normal. It even hides its nature.”
“I can’t possibly imagine a thieves' tool called a Deception Ring would exactly broadcast its purpose, or that it was magical.” Serondes drily pointed out. Aegion chuckled as Awarthril winced.
She then slipped the ring on, and closed her eyes.
Nothing much was happening as she focused, the six of us standing around awkwardly. Except Cordamo, who was hovering. Same difference.
I did notice that, impossibly, the ring had resized itself to beautifully slip onto Awarthril’s fingers, just as it had gone onto mine, and Thukrur’s hands without issue. Some minor resizing magic at play.
I started to tap my foot, then realized I had other outlets for my restless energy. I slipped my hand into Serondes’s, and started squeezing.
I felt kissing might be going too far at this point. No need at this time and place. He squeezed back.
Finally, Awarthril opened her eyes.
“Got it! Check out my level!” She called out, and I started to use [Long-Range Identify] in rapid succession.
The colors I got back went through the entire range of the rainbow. She started at white, went to various familiar shades of pink, then down to the dark reds, morphing into orange, yellow, green, lime-green, teal, blue, indigo, purple, and finally into a dark black, before reversing and heading right back to white.
She was clearly having a lot of fun, changing her level around, moving it around like a yo-yo.
“Oh hey, what does this do?” She asked, and went still again.
I watched her, continuing to spam [Long-Range Identify] on her. I couldn’t see anything obviously occurring.
“The ring!” Aegion pointed, and we all looked. The ring was fading in and out, completely solid one moment, transparent to the point of invisibility the next.
“That’s handy.” Serondes commented. “Can I try next?”
“Oh, let me play with it as well!” Aegion jumped in, practically hovering on top of Awarthril.
“Shush you, you’ll get your turn.” Awarthril half-swatted him away.
I half-opened my mouth to object, then closed it, thinking it through.
What was the harm in letting them play with it? I’d be using it for a long time anyways. I could afford to be generous - and check out my cool loot!
“Yeah, go nuts. Although, Serondes, want to start setting up a campsite? I’d like to take a few days to decompress after that fight.” I was remembering the elven habit of taking some days to rest and relax after a fight, to help fight against long-lasting trauma from setting in. I was feeling pulled and run ragged, and I needed a break.
Serondes whistled, and like a scythe going through wheat, a bunch of the ferns and tall grasses by the side of the road fell. Lava erupted, a campsite forming.
I gratefully sank down into a hard chair at a table, and finally unloaded all three of the packages I’d been holding. I started to open them up.
An elegant salmon-colored dress, with a needle and a spool of thread in the same color. The boring book I’d been reading. A diamond, emerald, and sapphire gem, none of them able to store my skills. Still lovely gems though. All things I’d taken more than a cursory look at.
I eyed the book, an idea forming. I’d need to ask Aegion about it. Also ask him to do some tailoring for me.
I was getting some ideas with the dress and Serondes. Speaking of, I needed to have a long talk with him. Should do it soon. Maybe tomorrow.
Aegion was busy playing with the ring, as Serondes was still setting up camp. Awarthril pitched in to help, moving the Spatial Box.
Ok, I wanted to get the book signed. No way the elves had a skill for it, and I’d asked them about a quill and ink before. They had some, but I wouldn’t gamble on it somehow being a magical pen that could do verified signatures.
“Be right back!” I called out, grabbing the book and shooting after the caravan.
In just a few minutes I caught up with them, laughing as I saw Thukrur engaged in a footrace with some other gnolls by the side.
He utterly crushed them, triumphantly throwing his hands up as the rest looked defeated. Decades of “If I were just twenty years younger I’d show these young whippersnappers what’s what” finally turned into “well, now put your money where your mouth is old man!”
There was just a sheer energy and joy there. I debated rewinding people more often. Not out of obligation, but for the sheer heart-warming moments like these.
I wish I could see what happened when he got home.
“Hey kiddo! Your old man is now younger than you are!”
My face quickly fell as I realized an implication.
Thukrur would probably have to bury his own kids. From what I’d heard, there didn’t exist a worse fate for a parent.
On that somber note, I dove down to the caravan, still clutching the book.
“Er-larne.” Thukrur bowed again. “Problem?”
I licked my lips, thinking. I needed to use easy words.
“Quill. Writing. Sign. Skill?” I tried to mime what I wanted. Thukrur got it, and barked out some quick orders. A quill was quickly presented to me.
I wasn’t sure they’d gotten the part where I was looking to make a good signature.
“Sign. Skill?” I repeated. I mimed writing with the quill again, repeating myself. “Skill? Skill?” He had to know skill. It was probably one of the most basic words in any language, something that transcended race and language.
It might even be more important than “Money” to non-merchants.
His eyes lit up, and more gnolls went running around. A grumpy gnoll stomped over, mad at getting interrupted. He had ink stains everywhere besides his paws.
[My Hands are Clean] only applied to hands.
A quick exchange, and Thukrur nodded to me. “Good!”
I interpreted that to mean “ready”. I put the quill to the cover of the book, and wrote my name.
That’s who I was. Just Elaine. No last name. No titles. I wanted to write the Medical Manuscripts again, and give a copy to the elves. My little way of showing “HA! Look what I can do! Look what this little human can do!”
It’d probably get laughed at. “Look at how little they know!”
At the same time, I felt like I had to try.
I quickly gave Thukrur my thanks, and left after he repeated his thanks again, and offered for me to stay for a meal.
Given the chance, he’d endlessly thank me, and I’d never escape. Not that I’d think they’d break out the chains, just out of sheer social niceties.
Anything to avoid social niceties.
I flew back to where the elves had been working.
Camp got set up. Serondes had his fun with the ring, then handed it over. Awarthril plopped down next to me.
“Ok! The ring’s a bit tricky, but super neat. It’s just like using a shoe fitter! The slider’s a bit hidden - it’s around the pillar like you’d find in a self-lighting flame.”
I gave Awarthril a blank look.
“I have no idea what any of those are.”
She pursed her lips at me.
“Well. I know you’d mentioned that Remus wasn’t that nice to women, but not letting you use magic objects? At all? That’s just unacceptable. I’m inclined to go over there and give them a piece of my mind. Let’s see them try to stop me!”
I looked down in embarrassment.
“No, um. We don’t have magic objects like that. At all. In Remus. Only things I’ve used are ‘fully activated’ or not. I don’t think we know how to make anything more complex…”
My voice faded away at the end of that. Awarthril looked horrified.
“None!? Oh you poor dear. Alright, this is going to be like teaching you how to somersault before you can walk, but I’m sure we’ll manage it. First…”