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The seven of us traveled along the dirt road, deeper into the forest, and deeper into the dwarven country. The trees only grew bigger, and the forest became denser as we made our way along the ever-winding road.

I’d been a Ranger, and a Sentinel, far too long. My instincts were constantly reminding me that, with the poor light filtering in through the canopy, that my regeneration was likely cut, and that I wouldn’t be able to fly around if needed.

I eyed the sunbeams again, mentally amending the statement.

I’d need to jump from sunbeam to sunbeam, like a spider swinging from one part of her web to another, if we got into a fight. Also, a stiff breeze would make it all go haywire…

I should just stick to the ground.

I wondered what Nolgord was, what the system of government was. SOMEONE had to be in charge of making the roads, after all, and traditionally it was a government that did it. Pooling resources to do stuff no one person could do and all that. Roads were the classic example.

Kingdom? Empire? Republic? Clans? Some other form of government that I was unfamiliar with? I should find out at some point. Some basic, simple questions like that I hadn’t bothered to ask, but now found myself wondering about.

Speaking of roads, their roads were significantly worse than Remus’s roads. I didn’t ask, because I didn’t want to seem to be showing them up, but if I had to guess, the dwarves' border wasn’t exactly high priority, and wood rotted and decayed over time. The sheer expense needed to make the roads out of wood and maintain them would be ruinous, and the money could be better spent elsewhere.

That, or they just didn’t care, not with the excellent craftsmanship of the wagon. I’d take the dwarves oh-so-comfortable ride on the dirt roads over the Ranger’s wagon on Remus’s stone roads.

I eyed a root in the road, carefully watching it as the yaks pulled the cart over the root. I didn’t feel a thing! If I hadn’t been carefully watching, I would’ve never known it was there.

All of the dwarves except for Ned were busy scouting around, guarding the cart, and generally gossiping with each other. I tried briefly to listen into their conversation.

“… thought she could order me around! Me! When I’m of the 87th generation, and she’s of the 93rd!” Fik said, working himself up.

“Not even a carpenter. The audacity of it all.” Drin muttered into his beard, to nodding heads all around.

Ooookay then. I had absolutely nothing to contribute to the conversation, although I’m sure I’d learn a ton from listening in.

Ned was sitting in the cart with me, which I was guessing was special treatment for healers. I hadn’t seen him and Lule discuss anything about what he was supposed to do, he just jumped right into the cart like he belonged, and she hadn’t said a word about it. I assumed it was because he was a healer.

At the same time, nothing about him screamed that he was wealthy. Almost every healer I’d met – myself included – could be described as upper class, by sheer virtue of our class and skills. Even I still looked wealthy, having an entire set of armor, woven with dozens and dozens of gems and Arcanite crystals.

There were no such signs on Ned. My first guess was that since he was stationed at the border wall, he was part of the military. Since he was part of the military, he wasn’t being paid as well, or wasn’t able to properly display his wealth – just like healers at the frontlines.

However, the veneration, respect, social standing, and how they were letting him get away with doing almost nothing, made me think that he was being “paid” with social standing and status, instead of money.

Which was an interesting way of doing it. It meant that every dwarf could access medical care and attention, for the price of some politeness. It would explain why the dwarves all seemed to be on their best manners around me. Not only was I acting as a de facto diplomat, but I was a healer to boot.

“Hey Ned.” I called out to the other healer.

I got a stinkeye, and a stare.

“Healer Elaine the 94th. Is there something I can help you with?” He asked me.

I blinked, taken aback.

“Um. What’s up?” I asked him, somewhat lamely. I just wanted to try making some small talk.

“Trees.” He curtly replied, crossing his arms and looking at me like I was a moron.

Fine, fine. Either he didn’t like me for some reason – entirely possible – or I’d screwed up some tradition thing, and he was mad about that.

Like… oh shoot, I hadn’t said his title or his generation when I called out to him. All other conversations started with that.

Mentally facepalming, I made a mental note to do that every time I started a conversation with one of the dwarves. I wasn’t about to try and restart the conversation though.

“Healer Ned the 92nd.” Lule said, with an unamused voice. “Be polite to our guest.” She rebuked him.

Which had him looking even grumpier.

Well. There wasn’t going to be a conversation here. There wasn’t anything for it, but to dig into the new books Briga sent me.

I put the extra-special book to the side – no way was I reading that in front of everyone – picked up A Tale of Two Trees, turned on a small [Shine] and tied it off with [Persistent Casting] to have permanent light, and started reading.


I was only reading for a moment, and the cart was already coming to a stop. I turned off [Shine], and looked around me, blinking as I tried to adjust to the much darker light levels.

I glanced up, seeing the dusky sky high above. There was no way I’d been reading that long, right…?

I glanced down at my book. My now 3/4ths read book.

Whoops.

I hurriedly packed it away, and got up.

“Hey, Leader Lule the 89th!” I called out, carefully making sure I gave her title and generation.

She turned to me, axe in one hand.

“Healer Elaine the 94th.” She politely said. “Is there something I can do for you?” She asked.

I half shrugged.

“I mean, I’d like to help. Just tell me what you need me to do!” I said, years of experience with the Rangers and training at Academy prompting me. Everyone pitched in, barring unusual circumstances, like injury, sheer exhaustion, or any number of other factors. None of which seemed to apply here, and many hands made light work.

Lule looked at me with a frown on her face, tapping one foot against the ground.

“On one hand, we’re supposed to be doing what you want, within reason.” She slowly said, clearly thinking out loud. “On the other, it’s all sorts of wrong to have you work on this…” She said, trailing off.

I thought fast.

“Because of Tradition?” I asked.

“Aye. And who ever heard of the VIP digging a latrine?” She agreed amiably with me.

“Would it be easier for you if I… didn’t help?” I forced the heretical words out of my mouth, in the interest of having things go easily, and keeping everyone happy.

Well, everyone but me. I was willing to sacrifice a bit of happiness to keep everyone else happy though. Greater good and all that. Was kinda built into me with how I picked up healing as my vocation. Probably should double check that I wasn’t being too selfless at some point.

Still, I didn’t want to step on their honor or their pride or I-don’t-know-what by insisting I help and awkwardly inserting myself into their system. So, I sat in the cart and watched.

It was fascinating.

Rangers would’ve set up tents, a perimeter, a campfire, and a watch. The dwarves were setting up a campsite as well, with one notable, major difference.

They were building a lean-to, on the spot. It seemed way too big for us though.

Drin and Fik were doing the heavy lifting. They went out into the forest with their axes – the same ones they’d kept near them all day as they escorted me – and with a mighty crash, a medium-sized tree was felled, and they got to work. Branches were hacked off, Glifir further measured and cut, and Lule, despite being the team leader, followed Teko’s directions when and where to put logs roughly into position. Once a log was in place, Toke worked some of her magic – her second element obviously being Wood – and the log would bind to its neighbors.

Ned just stayed with me in the cart, practically with his nose in the air.

I didn’t like Ned much.

The lean-to – now much closer to a full cabin – sprang up over the course of almost two hours, as I watched with open-jawed amazement. A careful fire was lit, and at that, Ned left the wagon and seated himself around the fire.

He was sitting on the ground, and I figured I’d just mirror what he did. Seemed to be safe, we were both healers.

Also, I was glad that the impromptu carpentry seemed to be limited to walls and a ceiling. I don’t think I could’ve taken it if they made chairs, tables, the whole works. That’d just be blatantly unfair.

Ned looked around, muttered into his beard, and with great reluctance, went back to the cart, grabbed some rations and a skillet, and started cooking.

I eyed him somewhat doubtfully. I couldn’t tell if Ned was lazy, and reluctantly performing his task. I couldn’t tell if he ‘Traditionally’ wasn’t supposed to be cooking, and was bending for the sake of expediency. Or if he was just plain hungry, bored, or something else.

It wasn’t like I could ask him. “Hey Ned, are you super lazy or what?” No, better keep my mouth shut.

Soon enough, everything was built, and I started to make small talk with the rest of the dwarves as they came in one by one, having finished their tasks.

Lule looked around, hands on her hips, standing above the rest of us while we ate and chatted.

“Good work all of ye.” She looked around the place. “Goin’ to be a wee bit cramped in here though.”

I looked around. The place seemed cavernous enough. All of us would be able to sleep with our arms out, and not touch each other. What could…

“Drin the 89th.” Lule said, and with a grimace Drin got up and left.

My confusion vanished as the yaks were brought inside, along with the wagon. Guess this is why it was more like a lean-to, with a fairly open side. Let the yaks in. I wrinkled my nose as their pungent smell hit me again.

Well. I see why this was going to be cramped.

Also, yak fur closeish to fire? I hoped the yaks had a fireproof coat.

Still, the food was good! Ned’s cooking was solid, and as much as I disliked him, I had to give him props for it.

“Mind if I go hunting tomorrow?” Glifir asked. “Get something fresh for the pot?”

“Aye. Just make sure ye keep yer ears open. Don’t go harryin’ off, and forget about us.” Lule responded after a moment’s thinking.

Glifir got a huge grin on his face, and bumped his knuckles together in the way the dwarves saluted.

We wrapped up dinner, and the evening entertainment began!

Namely, me.

“Trade you a story.” Toke offered.

Stories! I could totally do stories.

I had so many stories.

Actually – I had a challenge for myself. I wanted to out-story all the dwarves.

Combined.

“A long, long time ago, in a land far, far away…”


Being the VIP was good, and bad.

Good: I avoided the scut work like digging the latrine, and yikes, did the dwarves take their temporary latrines seriously. Not needing to dig one out though? A major win in my books.

Bad: Lule insisted that herself or Toke escorted me to the latrine. Which was six different shades of embarrassing. At least it was a hole in the ground, and not one of their six-stage contraptions.

I had figured out how the dwarven plumbing worked. Step 1 was to pick the right gender’s bathroom. Steps 2-6 were natural results of that.

Why dwarves decided that vomit needed its own hole, I’ll never know.

The latrine was bad enough. It was worse when we were on the road.

“Could I have some privacy? Please?” I begged Lule, Toke, and, for some reason, Ned.

“We’ve gotta protect ya.” Lule said, a slight note of sympathy in her voice.

“Never know when a purlovia’s going to get you. Or a raptor. Or a hellhound. Or a vermillion bird. Or a…”

Lule smacked Ned over the head.

“Stop scarin’ her! If a vermillion bird attacked, we’d all be dead anyways.” Lule rebuked Ned.

Which didn’t stop the three of them from looking at me, looking around, as I squeezed my legs together.

Cursing myself ten thousand times for removing the privacy aspects from [Mantle of the Stars], I still threw it up around me. Since it was now a mantle, and now somewhat flexible, I tried to layer it back on itself, like folding a piece of paper. Again. And again. And again.

Then I said fuck it, and blasted a powerful [Shine] all around me. Sure, it sent up an “Elaine’s peeing here!” beacon for the whole world to see, but nobody could actually see me.

Which only slightly mitigated the problem.

[*Ding!* [Shine] has leveled up! 112 -> 113]

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Selkie

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