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A note from Selkie

Shout-outs!

First off, Cinnamon Bun by Ravensdagger! Cute! Adorable! Fluffy! Wholesome!

https://www.royalroad.com/fiction/31429/cinnamon-bun

 

And, in obvious announcements, I'd like to remind people to breathe and read Azarinth Healer. It's only the #1 most popular novel on Royal Road. https://www.royalroad.com/fiction/16946/azarinth-healer

We rolled into Lundar the next day. Tall wooden palisades surrounded the town, taller than most of the walls I’d seen in Remus. Advantage of living in a redwood forest and making everything out of wood – it was easy to supersize things that needed to be supersized. Redwoods were giants, with their biggest downfall being how long they took to grow. Add in skills and magic, and poof! A fantastic material to make everything out of.

I was becoming sold on wood being a superior material to stone. Then again, I doubted that wood could turn into an instant wall. Bulwark was good at turning ground into an instant wall if needed. However, that was something of a niche use, compared to the insta-cabins the dwarves built every night.

Then again, it might not be fair to compare the two. All of the dwarves had the level of a Sentinel, if not necessarily the raw stats to back it up.

Lule wandered over to me as we approached the gates.

“Leader Lule the 89th.” I politely greeted her.

“Healer Elaine the 94th.” She responded back.

Traditional greeting over – I was getting sick to my stomach of Tradition – we could now start the ‘real’ conversation.

“What do you need from me here?” I bluntly asked.

“Normally, we’d just spend the night, then move on.” She said. “However, with you being around, we should pay our respects to the mayor. He’d be offended if we didn’t.”

Ego management. Yaaay.

“Any chance of getting a bath while we’re in town?” I asked.

Months. Literal damn months since I’d been able to get halfway clean. I swear some Formorian guts were still in my ear canal, having been baked, then frozen, then I don’t want to know what. I’d burn half the town down if it meant getting clean.

Lule looked me up and down.

“Slim… but we’ve got a…” She said a word I’d never heard before. This was happening a bunch on this trip. We spoke the same language, but some words we’d used in Remus out of necessity, while the dwarves had invented stuff of their own.

The start of the languages drifting?

“A what now?”

“Big room, hot rocks, pour water on the rocks, bunch of steam. Sit in the steam.” Lule said, using the smallest words she knew. “A sauna!”

It wasn’t a bath, but I’d take anything.

“Cool! Any way you could wrangle a visit?” I asked, deciding to throw my dignity to the wind and give her my best puppy eyes.

She threw her head back and laughed.

“Of course! We’d all like to!”

On one hand, I didn’t want to share. On the other – sharing was a lot easier than burning half the town down.

Welp. When in Nolgrod, do as the Nolgrodians.

Getting into town was easy, we were practically waved in. Lule went forward to meet with the mayor, while Toke led the rest of us to the sauna. She dropped back to me once we got there.

“Elaine!” She cheerfully greeted me. “I’m guessing you’ve never been to a sauna before?”

“Nope! Looking forward to it!” I said, practically drooling.

“Right, so they’re a very traditional place.” Toke started to give me the run-down. “You take your clothes off in the antechamber, grab a towel, and enter the sauna proper. With your gender, generation, level, and occupation, there’s a specific area where you should sit. Don’t worry too much about the rules determining it – I’ll just point you to the right spot. When you’ve had enough, leave through the door on the other side, jump in the pool, then the door will lead you back to the antechamber, where you left your stuff.”

I froze at that, doing some mental calculations.

“No chance I can bring my gear with me? Like, in a bag or something?” I asked Toke.

She made a disapproving hmmmmmmmmmmmm.

“Probably not. But! Nobody would dare touch your stuff! The sauna is practically sacred. It’d be against tradition.” She said, trying to reassure me.

I eyed Toke skeptically. It was probably traditional not to rape and murder, but I’d bet every single coin I had that it happened anyways.

I went deep into the think tank.

Option 1) Take the risk, strip my gear off, and get blessedly clean. Run the risk that nobody decides to snag the unique and extraordinarily expensive gear that I had.

Option 2) No risk, no sauna. Stay filthy, but safe.

The decision was no decision at all.

“Sorry Toke. I think I’ve gotta pass.” I said, steeling my voice.

Fik patted my arm, before hustling his bustle through the door.

“You’ve got the right idea. You never know when thieves are about.” Ned helpfully told me. “Or murderers. Why, 700 years ago, there was a murder in a sauna! Can you believe it!”

I blinked at him. I had no idea if he was trying to reassure me that I’d made the right choice, or was mocking me.

“Was it someone important?” I asked, having no idea where he was going with this.

“Nah.” He said dismissively, as everyone else went in. “Just two woodcutters having a disagreement.”

“In 700 years.” I said, rethinking things as I looked at the sauna. Tradition was that strong?

“Aye. Was a huge scandal at the time. Still. Can never be too safe. That’s why I’m going in!” Ned said, cheerfully going through the door.

I was so confused. Was he saying I was smart for not going in? Or that it was safer to be in the sauna than not?

Where was Ocean when I needed him? Or anyone else, for that matter?

“I’ll protect you.” Glifir said. Long experience with Arthur stopped me from jumping up when he showed up. That, and he wasn’t as good as Arthur. I’d noticed some tell-tale whisps of Mist hanging around, which was a fairly good indicator that Glifir was about.

“Thank you Glifir.” I politely thanked him.

Toke looked like she was going to give me a sour look, then her shoulders slumped.

“I’ll stick around until Ned and Fik get back.” She grumbled.

“Sorry. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s that…” I let my voice trail off.

Inspiration struck me. Mostly true!

“It’s traditional for Sentinels not to leave their gear when in the field.” I said, mentally pumping a fist at that.

I got a bit of a side-eye for that, followed by a grudging nod. It was only a lie in technicality – a Sentinel in the field didn’t leave their gear behind. Heck, even when traveling incognito I kept it on under whatever cloak or tunic was acting as a disguise that day.

Truth was, I didn’t trust them entirely. There was no history between us, no connection. I was a ‘diplomat’, and they were the escort. A purely transactional basis. They hadn’t gone through Ranger Academy, they didn’t have the same bonds forged. I hadn’t grown up here, I wasn’t a dwarf. I wasn’t steeped in tradition like they were, and I did keep stepping on toes.

It’s why I hadn’t classed up. I didn’t trust them to guard me for the day. Silly, when I was letting them guard me every day – but there was a difference between being awake and alert and guarded, and being completely helpless.

Eh, I’d class up when I got back. All this stuff I was doing was going to help my evolutions. Plus, I’d be damned if I got skunked out of my reading time again.

Speaking of reading time – no privacy had meant I hadn’t gotten a chance to read the special book. Oh well.

Toke snapped me back to reality.

“You don’t feel secure being away from your defenses.” Toke said, giving me a solid excuse for all of us to be happy.

“Exactly! I’ve been in enough nasty situations to be paranoid.” I happily latched onto her answer.

Glifir gave me a Look.

“Yeah. Your age, your level, the dead zone?” He said, and whistled. “Don’t worry your pretty little head here though! Glifir’s got it.”

It was a good thing Glifir was the scout. He was so overprotective I could strangle him if I was exposed to him for too long. I could protect myself.

We kept making some small talk for a few hours while the rest of the team enjoyed the sauna. Even Lule showed up briefly, saw that I was hanging out, seemingly happy, and made her way in.

Being the boss had its benefits, and she was the last one out – even after Toke and Glifir had a full trip.

“Ah – Healer Elaine the 94th – was the sauna not up to your standards?” She asked me.

I grimaced at her.

“Didn’t want to spend too much time separated from my gear.” I answered back.

She stroked her beard thoughtfully.

“Let me see what I can do. It wouldn’t be right for you to miss out on a sauna!”

The rest of the team murmured in agreement.

“Aww, you don’t have to.” I said, hoping that Lule would manage to make it happen.

“Nonsense! We’ll figure something out!” Lule promptly replied.

I decided not to mention just letting me bring my stuff in with me. Tradition seemed to be so deeply ingrained into the dwarves that they literally couldn’t think of just… breaking the tradition.

“Anyways, the mayor would like to have a feast with us tomorrow evening. It was the fastest he could make it work.” Lule said.


We were given a small cabin inside the town walls for the night – courtesy of the mayor. It had a cozy fireplace and everything! Super nice, and I was feeling extra-bad, being the only grimy one while everyone else was fresh and clean. It was nice, being inside with a fire, with a howling cold wind rattling the shutters.

Lule came back, letting a cold blast of air in with her. There was much yelling to “close the accursed door already!”, which I might have participated in.

“Aye, pipe down you lot, I’m closing it as fast as I can.” She yelled back, stomping her way in.

“Healer Elaine.” She said, cutting off my generation. No idea if that was a familiarity thing, or just getting lax.

I’d noticed as time went on, everyone was being less and less formal about titles and generations. I was suspecting it was a familiarity thing.

“Leader Lule.” I said, trying to mimic her.

“Still interested in trying out the sauna?” She asked me, getting right to the point.

“Yup!” I had a feeling that she’d pulled some strings for me, and I wasn’t about to throw her hard work out the window.

“Great. I’ve solved your issue.” She said. “Toke. Join us?” Lule gave a standard ‘suggestion-that-was-actually-an-order’ to Toke.

Toke said nothing, just got up and joined us by the door. We huddled up, and headed out into the night.

The wind went straight through my gear, biting me to the bone. Fortunately, the town wasn’t gigantic, and we made it to the sauna.

“How’s this going to work?” I asked.

“Well. I figured if nobody else was around, you could have a private session, by yourself, and not have to worry about your fancy armor. The sauna’s usually closed at night, but we got you in. I’ll be showing you around, and Toke can look after your gear. Now go! Enjoy!” Lule followed me in.

I was touched. The lights – more glimwood – were still on, and I was finally in the sauna.

I had a brief moment of hesitation. I was, after all, going to be trusting someone else with my gear. What if something happened to it?

At the same time, I hadn’t gotten this far by taking no risks – although this seemed to be a superfluous risk, one that I didn’t need to take.

Or was it?

Alright, let me work through this at lightning speed.

I slowly started to unbuckle and strip my gear off. The leather skort was easy – it had to be, for prolonged time in the field – but everything else was a maze of straps. I didn’t even need to think about it, taking my gear off and putting it back on was second nature, but it burned time while I thought.

First – the dwarves seemed to feverently believe that the sauna was sacred, and nobody would try anything.

Second – Toke would be guarding my stuff. Throughout the travels, the dwarves had given no signal that they meant me any harm. A random dwarf might try something, but if the team I was with wanted to hurt me, it’d be better to just ambush me as a group of six, instead of letting me know the jig was up in a two versus one situation.

Third – I was going to be meeting with some important person or another. I reeked. I’d kept my armor clean and maintained – as well as I could – but there was no helping my tunic, my hair, etc. At the very least, I shouldn’t smell so offensively that they’re put off their food.

Fourth – I just liked being clean. I didn’t think a sauna would be nearly as good as a real bath, nor did it seem like I had a chance to do proper laundry, but it was something.

Fifth – Lule had gone through some effort for me. Showing that I could follow along with the Traditional stuff would probably earn me brownie points in her book. I had no illusions that she wouldn’t be whisked away by the dwarf’s version of vivisectionists, and relentlessly interrogated about her interactions with me, and what she thought of me. It’d probably be an insult not to.

I was getting a headache.

Fine.

Sixth – my stuff vanishes? I didn’t need it. I was trained as a Ranger, and I was a mage, not a warrior. The town was in one spot. While the dwarves were much higher level on average than I expected, I had full confidence in my ability to fight – or, more likely, run away – if push came to violent shove.

On the downside -

I’d be fighting naked. Not that it was a problem, although the cold might get to me.

The sun was down, which meant my extra regeneration and flying was down and out for the count. At least until sunrise.

I was horribly outnumbered.

The extra Arcanite was nice. The [Nova] gems were my trump card. The utility gems could get me out of almost any situation. The armor turned blows away.

I was a total badass even without them. I believed in my abilities.

I finished stripping down, leaving my gear in a well-organized fashion, with Toke looking somewhat admiringly, somewhat enviously at it. Wasn’t doing much for my confidence, but hey.

“Right! Here’s a towel.” Lule said, throwing me a large, fluffy towel.

She then walked into the steam room, and I followed.

The room was like a giant corner – two walls, with tiered, wooden seating around a stout iron container. A large basin of water was next to it, and a pile of firewood on the other side. A ladle was sticking out of the basin.

I kept a smirk off my face. For all the talk of the superiority of wood, when push came to shove the stove was made out of metal, and the fireplace back in the cabin was made out of stone.

Lule was stroking her beard, and after a moment’s thought, pointed to a seat.

“It’d be proper for you to be seated there.” She said, and having no reason to object, I put my towel down, and sat on it.

Some arcane muttering, a log thrown into the stove, and a ladle of water over the top later, and the room filled with hot steam. Far hotter than I’d expect, with far more steam.

Skills or Inscriptions at work. My bet was a few powerful skills by the owner.

I relaxed as I let the steam wash over me, and as I started to sweat buckets.

I simply didn’t have the experience with a sauna to be able to tough out the hotter steam, nor did I have a monster amount of vitality to throw at the problem instead. I threw in the towel – well, not literally – after only twenty minutes.

[*Ding!* [Pretty] leveled up! 152 -> 153]

I had sweat pouring down from me as I called out to Lule.

“Hey, sorry, I think I’m done. I’m just not built for this.” I said to her.

She looked… disappointed?

“It was wonderful, don’t get me wrong!” I said, making my way to the exit – not the same door as the entrance. “I just have terrible vitality, and it’s my first time. I gotta work up to something this hot.”

“Ah, no worries. Come on, onto the next part.” Lule said with a grin.

I was relieved. I thought she’d be disappointed that I’d called it quits so fast.

Then again, passing out because I was trying to prove something would be even dumber.

We made it to the next room, which was a large pool.

My eyes went as wide as saucers. I could try to get clean here!

Without a word to Lule, ignoring her predatory grin, I cannonballed into the pool, only to come up spluttering and shivering.

“Why is it so bloody c-c-cold!” I yelled at Lule while holding myself and shivering, who promptly doubled over in laughter, wheezing and pointing at me.

“The look on your face! Going right in like that! Ha!” She said, not answering the question but clearly enjoying my misery.

As deep as the cold was biting, as much as I was risking serious damage to my teeth – not that any damage would stick – the desire to finish getting clean overcame any other objections I might have, and I rinsed in the magically-below-freezing pool, teeth chattering and fingers going blue by the time I hauled myself out.

Still, I was a clean little ice cube, and with Lule’s help we were able to find someone who could magically make the non-armor parts of my outfit clean.

Missing the stench that could raise the dead, in a clean and presentable outfit, I felt “armed” and ready to do the deadliest battle yet since coming to Nolgrod.

A social event.

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Selkie

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