I have always found guidance in my dreams- though, perhaps, not always clear, not always in a form I can understand. But I believe that to be my own failing, as a mortal watcher, and not the fault of That which sends the visions. If only I had more time, if only I could comprehend more quickly, make the connections I need to understand, then I would be able to lead this chaotic world down the correct path…
Spring had begun to make hesitant overtures against the damp grey remnants of an Eastern winter, and I could see the beginnings of tiny green buds on the trees as I rode to the giants’ stones. Nature wound on in her endless cycle, careless of the brief and fleeting concerns of the short-lived races. An enviable disregard for public opinion that I wish I could manage.
There were fewer giants there than there had been on our prior visit, and all of them were the kind I had learned to recognize as stone giants. A few blinked at me as I rode up, slowly, like they were peering out at me from a very long way away, but none stirred past that, and none challenged me. I chose a spot amongst them, sheltered in the curving form of what might have once been a statue, millenia ago, before time and weather wore the features down into nothingness.
And there, truly alone with my thoughts and my faith for the first time in a year, I gave myself fully over to the dreaming, and let the visions come.
Days bled into nights, nights into days, until I forgot the passage of time and my own self and saw…things that were, and are, and might be, the endless paths of future possibility.
A gray plain, grassless, trees withered, the bones of the dead rising, marching, conquering, all we have built left to decay and ruin.
Gates of fire split the sky, spilling forth armies of fiends and horrors spawned from the depths of Hell. At their head, a horned woman, familiar and unfamiliar, a shadow of my own face gazing back at me with a devil’s wicked grin.
Military fortifications built on the ruins of Amastasia’s farm, squadrons of soldiers issuing forth from Cradle in an endless, bloody war of attrition, and the people of the East suffer, empty-eyed and ignored and hopeless.
There is a way through this that doesn’t end in death or madness. I have to believe that. And I will find it. Whatever I have to do. Whatever the cost.
The clues are there, in the dreams, I just have to understand them. Cicada will help me. Bright Lord be kind, we’ll figure it out before it’s too late.
When I returned to Cradle, mind full of dreams and portents, it was to the news that we were to return to the Plane of Fire, to retrieve the treasure of the dragon we’d slain on our last adventure. I certainly didn’t object to the idea of returning to the plane- where better to commune and pray for my answers?- and neither did Zannath, Umbriel, Haldo, or Tarhoon. Especially when the phrase “dragon hoard” started getting batted around.
We all have our own motivations.
This time, we emerged within the City of Brass itself, into a high-ceilinged room containing innumerable teleportation circles like the one we found ourselves in when we arrived, inlaid in the floor and set about with runic markings.
The guards were perfectly polite, but quite firm about exiting the room in short order; I wasn’t able to determine anything about where those other circles might lead. Other allies of the city, surely, but what sort? Where from? Something to look into.
Zannath and Haldo and Umbriel were insistent, so we returned to the same inn we patronized on our last visit to the city, where the innkeep, remembering exactly how much gold flowed into his coffers then, was delighted to provide us with rooms.
Later in the night, when most of the others had slipped away to their varied vices, I remained in the common area with some of the locals, weaving them dramatic tales of our accomplishments on their fair plane, e.g. the slaying of the fearsome and terrible dragon Cathinair, lately a menace to their city. Everyone likes a good dragon story, and between that and the ale and the glowing warmth of the hearth, a downright companionable mood developed.
Which was excellent, as we were about to try and convince total strangers to let us rent their ship to fly out to said dragon’s hoard, without actually offering them any of the treasure.
They balked at first, of course, but it emerged- over another round of ale- that they were having some issues with the fire elementals, who kept damaging their ships out on the Sea of Fire.
Issues that I, a fervent and devoted paladin of the Fire Lord, would of course be perfectly happy to try and work out for them (especially if it kept them from hurting the elementals).
After this came to light, an agreement was quickly reached- a price to be paid, and perhaps returned, depending on the success of the conversation with the fire elementals. We agreed to leave the following day, once everyone’d had a chance to sober up and recover a bit.
I was really looking forward to it.
Our new friends’ ship was a metal marvel, brass gleaming scarlet and gold, large fanned fins along the bottom to catch the thermal heat rising from the Sea. It was large enough for our party and the usual crew to move about, though it was not a passenger vessel normally. I slung a hammock on deck, and was perfectly content, watching the currents swirl below, the creaking of the ship in motion mixing with the flame’s endless comforting roar.
These elementals weren’t fleeing before a dragon, merely wandering idly over the sea, and they were deeply curious, as most such creatures are. The issue comes about when they don’t realize how very flammable people (and ships) can be.
I hadn’t been able to bring Dawn on this mission, and so was initially without an interpreter, doing my best to communicate with the elementals in pantomime and infernal and what broken, child-level Ignan I’ve managed to learn from her previously, until a member of the crew stepped forward and offered his services. Ignan isn’t as uncommon a choice here as on the Prime Material, of course, but I’m still grateful he was there, praise be to Rhollor.
Through him, I was able to explain to the elementals that we were truly honored by their presence and attention, as blessed emissaries of the glorious and eternal Flame, but that we could only so fully embrace the fire in our unfortunately flawed and mortal forms, and that it would therefore be very kind if they would not swarm over the ships and sailors in the future.
They agreed that this seemed reasonable, and that they understood flesh people were a bit weird, but…we seemed so cold. Couldn’t they warm us a little?
Conscious of my innate resistance, and, frankly, unable to resist the temptation to feel what it would be like, even for just a moment, I agreed to at least shake the fire elemental’s hand (or the amorphous shifting firelight that served it as one), as a symbol of our new alliance.
The pain was intense and exquisite, a burning, consuming moment that lasted both an eternity and no time whatsoever, and then was gone as though it had never been, except for the brand it had left on my palm; Rhollor’s blessed phoenix, rising. Songs of benediction echoed in my soul.
The other adventurers also chose to receive ally-brands from the fire elementals (Umbriel’s glows silver, like the blessing of his moon goddess shimmering beneath the scarred skin. The fire reveals the heart of things), and the crew of the ship thought to follow suit, but the first of them to try was badly burned, the brand covering his whole body.
After that, the other crewmen decided having one emblem of safe passage would be sufficient.
Once we reached the place where Cathinair had emerged from the depths, we pulled out the diving suits, and began to prepare for our descent. The crew and ship would remain circling above, along with Tarhoon, who volunteered to protect them from anything more unpleasant than usual.
The fire swept aside around me and closed over my head as I plunged down. My eyes stung at the bright brilliance filling my vision, currents of variegated flame dancing to an unknowable symphony, an uncountable number of elementals, twisting in and over each other. The heat was everywhere, just on the edge of too much to bear, and candle-thin sparks popped and twisted around the joints of the diving-suit. I felt the fire in the brand on my palm, a lesser reflection of the outer glory, and my fingers twitched with the temptation to open the suit, to let the inferno kiss my skin, to join the exaltation of the flames.
For instance: I moved through the blazing sea like a mermaid through water. My companions were not quite so lucky, for the most part. Zannath and Haldo kept catching currents swirling upward, and popping back up toward the surface. I suspect the elementals might have been doing it on purpose after the first couple of times- I could hear the little popping crackles of their laughter as they watched their attempts. But I swam back up, and they reminded the elementals that they were allies, and between us all we were able to get everyone down through the conflagration to the entrance to the dragon’s lair.
The lair itself was a cave structure, and the caves were filled with air (if air so hot I could feel scorching my throat), so we removed our suits and stored them in the first chamber. It would make it difficult to escape in a hurry, but if we had to fight something anyway, we’d all be useless in the suits- they’d been made for protection, not flexibility.
This, it turned out, was a prescient idea, given that the lair was not, in fact, unoccupied. Cathinair had been the head of a whole brood of red dragons, though none as old or powerful as he himself.
We were lucky in that there was nowhere in the cave system for all of the dragons to surround us at once, though we did find ourselves in situations that had us facing several of the canny old thing’s offspring at once.
Fighting more than one dragon, even when they’re young dragons, is still not an experience I yearn to repeat anytime soon. Especially not red dragons. I’m not at my most effective.
Luckily, red dragons are still subject to blade and arrow and blessed radiant damage, and we are, after all, experienced dragon slayers.
I’m not entirely sure we did get all of them, in the end, though we found our way to Cathinair’s glittering treasure room in time. We may wish to go back to check. A red dragon with a grudge is an enemy no one needs behind them.