Hilda backed away toward the small bundle that was the sum of all her earthly possessions. She wouldn’t have time to put on her armor, but hopefully she’d have enough time to pick up her sword and shield before whatever was hiding in the bushes attacked.
On the plus side, a quick glance at her stats revealed that Hilda’s little trip to the moon had the same effect as a long rest: she had full hit points and all her spell slots were restored. She also gained a prestige class called “Judge” and had access to some new abilities and spells. Sadly, she didn’t have time to go over her new abilities right now since life wasn’t turn-based. However, in the corner of her eyes she noticed that her Diplomacy bonus had doubled. Ugh. Of all the useless skills…
A spear flew from the bushes. Hilda intercepted it with her shield. A tomahawk whirled. Hilda parried it with her sword. The bushes hissed. A net flew in Hilda’s direction. She sliced it in half with her sword, filling the air with the pleasant aroma of burned rope.
“Your soft flesh will win us great favor with the green dragon!” A voice like a rusty pipe sibilated from the bushes.
“I can find the dragon myself,” Hilda said, crouching to carefully place her sword on the ground and replace it with her hammer. “Green dragons prefer live prey, don’t you know?”
A scaly face appeared through the bushes. It was followed by a heavy club studded with shards of metal and obsidian. Hilda hurled her hammer. The thing flattened against the ground and hissed furiously.
Hilda grabbed the returning hammer and prepared for a second shot, but the lizardman already scurried back into the bushes, its thick tail disappearing in the canopy just as the dwarf’s fingers locked around the sturdy steel handle.
Even before she gained her new prestige class, Hilda had a high charisma score and the diplomacy skill. She took it by mistake when she started her paladin career, confusing it with the adjacent Durability skill. A terrible choice for a committed introvert, but now it could come in handy. She could promise the stinking reptiles everything and then come back when she was ready and make purses out of them. After all, truth was like gold. You didn’t just hand it out to everyone you met...
“I have a companion not far away from here,” Hilda shouted from behind her shield. “He’s much bigger than me. He’s much more meat. He and I were planning to go to the dragon after my bath anyway.”
A barrage of abuse came from the bushes. Fortunately, it wasn’t accompanied by missiles, meaning she had the monsters’ ears (sadly not yet literally).
“If you attack me now, some of you will die and all the dragon will get will be a small dwarf without any worthy treasure, but if you do nothing, you will all live and the dragon will get a big human and a dwarf… If he’s strong enough to beat us!”
“The dragon is strong!” A metallic voice hissed from the bushes. “The dragon can kill!”
“Then you have no reason to throw your life away,” Hilda shouted at her unseen interlocutor. “The human and I will be in the dragon’s lair before sunrise!”
“You lie!” A deeper voice hissed. “You run away back to dry country!”
“I swear by my goddess!” Hilda cried back. “I’m a paladin of the moon, I can tell no lies!” At least not to people who matter, you scaly vermin soon to be made into a pair of fashionable boots…
“So be it!” The first voice hissed, “Beware our--”
Hilda picked her stuff and tip-toed away. The dwarf grinned. Sneaking away with all her clothing pressed to her chest reminded her how Glowin left her room after his first visit. Even now, she considered that night one of her greatest adventures.
Medvak heard the sound of rustling leaves and looked up from the little totem he was carving. Hilda burst through the bushes, looking like she’d just returned from a spa. Her pale skin all but shone in the murk and her incredibly long hair trailed behind her like a majestic cloak. Her regal look was slightly marred by the awkward way she held all her equipment against her chest and her inside-out tunic.
“Where did you go?” He asked, carefully putting down his latest creation on his knee.
“I snuck away to have sex with a tree,” the dwarf said grumpily as she dumped her equipment by the fire. “Now I have splinters in my butt.”
Medvak grinned and pointed at the crabby dwarf with both hands. “Paladin of the moon, ladies and gentlemen!”
“You wanna go kill some lizardmen right now?” the dwarf asked as she took a seat by his side. “I bet you could craft something pretty from their hides. Lizard-hide doors -- could be the next big thing!”
“No,” Medvak said. “I want to go to sleep. We’re safe here. No one will dare attack us so near to the djinn and the dungeon exit.”
The dwarf shrugged. She didn’t look angry, just excited.
“Why?” Medvak went on. “What happened? Are you hurt? Why is your tunic backward, why is your hair wild?” He sniffed. “Why do you smell so nice?”
Hilda fished a few sausages from his basket and skewered them on a branch.
“Nu?” He nudged her with his elbow.
She looked at him sideways. “Nu what?”
“What did you do?”
“Dwarf stuff.” She said. She stuck her branch into the ground near the fire, freeing her hands to grab a beer, which she opened with the handle of her sword. “I gained a level.” She said after a while. “You?”
“Yeah,” Medvak said. “I got some really cool abilities.” Shame none of them had anything to do with the barbarian class. Then again, I was more craftsman than warrior in recent months… Years… um, since I learned to walk. “You?”
Hilda closed her eyes. From the movement of her eyes under her lids, it was clear she was reading her stats. Once again, Medvak wondered what happened in the woods that was so exciting that she neglected reading her new level until now. Most adventurers he knew would read their new level as soon as they got it. Even if it was in the middle of battle. Assholes. Most adventures would also tell him every little detail of their “adventures”, whether he liked it or not. Double assholes and religious types doubly so. Hilda, on the other hand, was about as chatty as the medusa’s boyfriend…
“I’m still a paladin,” Hilda said after staring wistfully into the fire for a while, “but I also have a prestige class called Soffet in Old Dwarf.”
“What does it mean?”
“Hm,” Hilda’s brow furrowed in consternation. “I guess ‘judge’ is the closest word in Common? But it’s got nothing to do with courts and trials. It’s closer to a bard or maybe a warlord?” Hilda squinted as if looking into the wind. “It’s a kind of a non-official leader appointed by the gods. Um, like a commisar in the unidwarf collective?”
“Are you asking or saying?” Medvak has never heard of the unidwarf collective. He imagined a huge hive mind made of dwarfs.
“I got access to a new spell level plus more first level slots, which I expected, but I also got the ability to commune with my goddess every night in the form of three yes or no questions… I guess she’s too busy to have whole conversations with low-level paladins. I also got diplomacy expertise and the ability to inspire my allies.” The dwarf snorted. “Prepare to be inspired a lot, doorman. You're going to open doors very bravely now.”
Medvak shrugged. “Well, if you’re going to be a leader, that makes sense.” He smiled. “It’s funny: an atheist is going to be a religious leader.”
Hilda growled. “I’m not an atheist! A paladin can’t be an atheist!”
Medvak’s smile turned into a grin. He tousled her hair until she swatted his hand away. “If you just greased my hair, I’m smiting you right now!” Hilda blew on a charred sausage and commenced nibbling on it like a rodent.
“I understand the inspiration part,” she said with a mouthful of ground meat, “but what does divination have to do with leadership?”
Medvank frowned thoughtfully. “Hm. You can ask your goddess if a course of action is correct or not. Our shamans have the same ability. They use it to make wise investments.”
Hilda snorted. “I can cast remove curse now. Want me to remove the curse of being too smart from you so you could become a real barbarian? You guys really suck at being barbarians.”
After a few moments of nothing but the rustling of leaves and the whisper of the flames, Hilda smiled. Medvak liked seeing the dwarf smile. It was such a rare sight. Despite her attempt to affect an image of prim aloofness, her smile was always mischievous, like she was trying to hide a prank. Medvak wondered how she was with her family and friends; laughing, telling jokes, reading a book in bed in funny pajamas, kissing her boyfriend…
“You really suck at being a religious fanatic,” Medvak retorded. “Doubting yourself all the time, questioning your Goddess’s every decision… You should have been a barbarian.”
Hilda shrugged. “Maybe? I don’t like telling people what to do. I don’t like being told what to do. All I ever wanted was a nice little home of my own with a wide shower leaf, a six-legged scuttling bed, a phasing kwakwa to cuddle with, a big glass desk to design cool stuff in peace, a little garden with musical mushrooms,” she took a swig from her jug, “really spicy little peppers, glowgrass… Hey, why are you looking at me like this?”
Medvak grinned and bopped her on the nose. “I feel like I’ve completed a mini-quest.”
Hilda slapped his hand away and bristled. “Oh, so I’m a quest now!”
Medvak stammered, “I-- uh-- I didn’t mean to--”
The dwarf crossed her hands under her breasts. “Yeah, well. If we’re such bosom buddies, make yourself useful and braid my hair.” She turned around and straightened her back. Her hair cascaded onto the floor like a waterfall of dark limerence. Medvak didn’t realize before how long her hair was, or how intricately it was braided.
“Maybe your freakishly high Dexterity score can be useful at least for something,” the Dwarf announced. “Some barbarian you are…” she muttered, “should have been a rogue! And make sure your hands are clean! I don’t want any grease in my hair…”
As the deft giant started working with speed and precision that would make an elf hair stylist jealous, not once tugging painfully or tickling her neck, Hilda found she was grinning like an idiot. Maybe one day she will inspire thousands to sail the vastness of space towards a cosmic destiny, but right now, it was very nice to sit by a little fire with a goofy human, lick burned marshmallows off her fingers and listen to the fire crackling and the forest whispering. She leaned against the massive human and was very happy.