Hilda felt exposed and she didn’t like it. The fiercely independent dwarf woman was used to having a hard shell between herself and the world -- both physically and emotionally. She opened up to only a few people and opened fully to none at all. Even Gloin sometimes complained about her introversion, to which she’d reply, “well, that’s none of your business, is it?” Also, her introverted nature notwithstanding, having an armor class in the single digits while also having less than half her full hit points was just bad practice.
However, tonight she had a solemn duty to perform and armor would profane it. It was customary to perform the ritual of purification in a bathhouse while attended by a decisor’s wife. However, the commentaries did allow for solitary purification for paladins stranded away from civilization. This suited Hilda just fine. She didn’t like to be naked in the presence of others and she liked to be told what to do even less.
“Girl, your hair is floating on the surface of the water: why don’t you shave your head like a decent paladin? Girl, you’re so smooth, why don’t you get a nice religious tattoo like a decent paladin? Girl, why are you standing with your back to me-- ” Argh! Hilda didn’t consider herself an aggressive person (a point hotly contested by everyone who knew her), but it took all of her considerable willpower not to drown the old crone.
The Book of Heavenly Deeds commanded the ritual to be performed in a body of water large enough for a dwarf to be fully submerged in. This was rarely a problem for dwarfs, allegedly natives of a planet with a far stronger gravity, were blessedly short. Their unlikely co-religionists, the stone giants, on the other hand, found this command very hard to follow.
As far as Hilda was concerned, the hardest part was to find a body of water that was free of leeches, mosquitos and scum, not to mention aquatic monsters or marauding lizardmen. Luckily, it took the observant dwarf less than fifteen minutes to locate a clear pool surrounded by trees and thick brambles and yet open to the sky. Having the moon reflected on the surface of the water wasn’t strictly required, but was generally considered to win favor with the Goddess. Hilda, poor and beaten, felt like she really needed that favor.
Her reason for performing the ritual was double: first, there was the usual womanly reason that happened every month. This could wait since Hilda wouldn’t be sleeping with anyone soon. More importantly, there was the class requirement. Every paladin was commanded to purify themselves body and soul upon reaching the fifth level. Failing to do so would at best result in getting stuck at fifth level and at worst being transformed into something hard and brainless… actually that last part may have been made up by her childhood Prayer Master. Still, why take the risk?
Hilda studied the canopy to make sure she was alone. The place was so secluded that even the buzzing and croaking of the forest sounded distant. She tested the water with the tip of her toe. Hot as a bath. Hilda nodded to herself and pulled off her sticky tunic over her head. She then removed her two rings -- the mark of her clan and the mark of her Hundred -- and her holy symbol, which she gingerly placed upon the pile of her belongings to make sure the Goddess noticed it.
Next she spent a few painful minutes unbraiding the complex labyrinth of her hair until it rolled down her back and tickled the backs of her thighs. Long hair was not recommended for paladins and was generally considered ostentatious among dwarfs, but it wasn’t strictly forbidden except by the most strident decisors. Hilda didn’t have many affectations so she was sure the Goddess wouldn’t hold it against her. As to her very strident Captain of the Hundred or her mostly senile Prayer Master, well, they were hundreds of miles away, so screw them. Besides, both had the kind of facial hair that goblins could breed in. Who were they to make up prohibitions about someone else’s hair?
Hilda made the sign of the moon. It wasn’t the right time to engage in vindictive thoughts against religious bureaucrats. She made the sign of the moon again, just to be on the safe side. There, now these assholes could-- Hilda sighed and made the sign of the moon for a third time. There: no more thinking about-- “Shh!” Hilda hissed at herself.
Next, Hilda stooped and looked into the dark water. A crown of stars appeared as gems upon a silver thread above the shadows of her head. That was a good sign. An image of the First Father with a similar halo was by far the most common image in dwarf iconography. There were easily more icons of the First Father looking at his reflection than there were walls in her lair.
Hilda placed the book on a thick branch so she could read the proper blessing between dunks. She’d given up trying to memorize her people’s endless blessings and prayers a long time ago. In fact, she could barely remember her cult’s declaration of faith.
Finally, she crossed her hands above her breasts to avoid the sight of nudity while blessing. Hilda had some strong thoughts on this rule, but now wasn’t the time to think them. Like the goddess didn’t have boobs… Shh! Focus!
“Blessed are the Gods of my Fathers, Majestic Spirits of the Cosmos, who make us holy by embracing us in living waters and fierce by forging us in living fire.” Hilda pinched her nose and jumped into the pool. She pressed her knees to her breasts to make sure she sunk all the way to the bottom and not a single strand of hair remained dry and impure.
She emerged from the water after a few seconds and carefully examined her skin for leeches or drill demons (or blemishes while at it). Nothing. She really had nice skin. Nice butt too. No, now is not the time for vanity.
Hilda applied the feeble self censorship again and recited the second blessing. “Blessed is the God of Stars who gives us the strength to rise and be industrious every morning.” Hilda wondered when was the last time she willingly woke up with the sun. Maybe in a former life…
She counted to ten and emerged from the pool with hot water cascading through her massive sheet of hair. She looked around for some sign from her goddess but all she saw were branches swaying in the wind and a single frog eyeing her, froglike.
Hilda sighed, rubbed the water away from her eyes and spoke the final blessing. “Blessed is the Moon our Mother who commands us to stay pure of body and pure of mind. Bless those who bless her and curse those who curse her. O eternal Goddess, Heal me. Strengthen me. Bless me with mercy for the just and ruin for the wicked.”
Hilda wasn’t sure what drove her to open her eyes while still submerged, but she was glad she did. At the bottom of the pool, spread across the pondweed like a carpet made of silver, lay the moon as bright and beautiful as ever she saw it. The current phase of the moon notwithstanding, the vision under the water was round and perfect, like in the days before the Disaster that made her people cosmic refugees and left the moon forever blemished.
Curious, Hilda swam toward the apparition. Despite the pool being no larger than a communal bath, Hilda felt like she swam for a long time, passing between stars and planets on her way. Did she breathe? Was she drowning? Was she in control of her movement or did the moon pull her with its gentle but inexorable gravity? Hilda felt that not only she didn’t have the strength to swim away, she didn’t even have the willpower to consider it and no saving throw would change that.
Impossibly, the dwarf found herself standing on the surface of the moon, surrounded by endless hills of silver under a sea of stars so beautiful her vision became blurred by tears. Hilda crying over pretty things? Now that was a miracle!
Before her there was a plain ziggurat of gold and iron, flanked by two great golems of mithril so bright it hurt her eyes to look at them.
“Hilda!” one of the statues spoke in a voice like a great gong. Its eyes shone like Hilda’s hands when she used healing magic on her allies.
“Um… Yes? Um… Sir?” Hilda wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do. Courtesy? Salute? Shake the golem’s hand? Speak a blessing? Hide her shame?
“Take off your shoes,” said the second golem. Its eyes burned with the same cosmic fire as Hilda’s hammer when she smote her enemies. “For the plain upon which you stand is sacred.”
Hilda indicated herself with both hands. She had nothing to take off.
Until this moment, Hilda didn’t know how an embarrassed golem looked like. Now she did. Hilda looked past the great golems. At the top of the ziggurat there was a pale silver flame that burned without fuel -- just like the illustration in her book. She never read the whole thing, but she did like looking at the pictures. Hilda’s heart pounded and her throat tightened. This was the moment that would make or break her. She’d have been much happier facing her goddess in shining armor or at least a respectable tunic, but if this is what the deity preferred...
After a few awkward moments of silence, Hilda pointed at the top of the Ziggurat. “Um, should I climb there?”
“Yes.” Said the golem with the blue eyes. “You are awaited.”
Hilda frowned. “Um, do you have some robe or something I could throw on? I’d like to be decent for the goddess.”
“No.” Said the golem with the red eyes. “You are awaited.”
Hilda nodded thoughtfully. So much for being decent in the face of holiness. Or maybe being naked was decent and all the decisors were full of shit. After all, the first dwarfs were forged naked by the gods. Hilda made a few steps and then stopped. “Um, do you know if it’s good news or bad news?”
The golem with the red eyes looked directly at the dwarf. “Get your ass up there or I’ll stomp you!”
Hilda ran upstairs like a spooked cat.