From the Journal of Tang Zhen

Session 1

June 7, 5086, Hoggelrynth School of Magic, Dinas Mawr

A letter has arrived with the most recent merchant train, inviting me to partake in the festivities which occasion the promotion and recognition of Corla Ruckheim for distinguished service to the city of Dinas Felin. (Mistress Ruckheim had, while staying at the Li Xiang Monastery two years ago, won my respect and gratitude when she helped me to find a missing novice monk who had become lost in a whiteout following his outdoor Meditation of Dissociation.) Though I must not believe that my presence will confer honor, gladly will I pay my respect. Packing my belongings will be the work of two minutes; I take my leave before dawn.

June 9, 5086, Dinas Felin

Ystrad Aeron is dry as I have never seen it. Neirinwy, which two months ago had been running with the power of an ox and carrying all of the receding snow of the south of Brineira, is barely a trickle. Its waters are filthy from use by all of the animals in the north of the Ystrad, who can find moisture nowhere else. I am fortunate not to have taken ill following my sampling of the water, which was necessitated by my exertion yesterday. Had I not taken for hyperbole the merchants' description of the drought, I would have rested the night in the mountain pass. Despite my studies and meditation, Nature continues to find my humility wanting.

Having arrived several days early, I have begun carrying water to the city from the spring at the base of the escarpment west of here. I passed countless citizens of Dinas Felin both ways, all laboring at the same task. I gather, from speaking with some of them, that the spring was only recently discovered, and that fully a third of the city's population had first become so ill from the foul Neirinwy as to still be bedridden. We now relax inside, hiding from the midday sun.

June 13, 5086, Dinas Felin

Several teams of strong men who have been chopping trees around the perimeter of the city, presumably for a fire break, finished their work today and took what they referred to as a well earned rest. I am not sure that fifteen feet is sufficient width for a fire break, but I know little of these matters.

A woman in conversation with a grocer (whom I waited to pay for crusty bread) claimed that a friend of hers, who regularly trades glassware to a druid in the woods southeast of here, had found the druid's home recently deserted, the smaller potted plants and valuable reagents gone. I cannot deny that this troubles me. My place is still here, helping the city folk, at least until tomorrow's festivity.

June 15, 5086, Dinas Felin

The events of yesterday were of such magnitude, excitement, near-tragedy and far-reaching implications that, were I to start with the most important points, the task of explaining their connections and antecedents would jumble this entry beyond comprehensibility. Therefore, let me progress in a chronological fashion, and hope against hope that my ink supply will be sufficient.

As most of the city started to retire for their midday siesta, many guests and officials gathered at a reception hall in the mansion of Governor N. Skeboyee. We checked our weapons at the door. The governor explained that Corla had predicted the drought early. (It seems that the wind has been easterly all season, losing its moisture over the mountainous region of Gabil Dûm.) Subsequent to confirming her hunch with some nearby druids, she had convinced the authorities to construct extra grain storage facilities. More recently, she found the spring that is the city's only source of clean water. In recognition of these and other deeds, she has been honored with the official title of Forester. Corla herself spoke only brief words of acknowledgment and thanks, seemingly unused to addressing a crowd. She then came forth to mingle. Hors d'oeuvre were served, and the party started.

Corla introduced many of her acquaintances to each other. I thereby met the following people:

Governor Nicolai Skeboyee. An amiable man who wears his authority like a burden. I imagine I would fare worse, attempting to govern a populace that is in such a pitiable state. Yet his cares for his citizens have not prevented him, as they prevent no politician, from living in a far better state than they. He smelled less offensive than the rest of us, except for Sir Brannigan - perhaps they have secreted away some drinking water for bathing purposes.

Sir Ferdia Brannigan. Likely the richest nobleman in these parts, which says little. His haughty bearing and disdainful glance (at the knot of Corla's acquaintances from afar) were not sufficient to keep from us his magnanimous gift of a few words of acknowledgment. He shortly resumed bloviating toward some town officials. Sir Brannigan's personal servant, Aengus, clearly knew better than to listen; he entertained himself by paying attention to the rest of the room as he slowly retrieved drinks for Brannigan and his unfortunate audience.

N-Guuk. A delightfully obnoxious and crude dwarf. His company would provide a compelling final exam in Ng Lu's teachings of the Patience of the Tortoise. To hear him talk, one would believe him capable of cleaving a man in one blow from his greataxe. He shows enough muscle to reinforce the idea. He smells slightly worse than the town folk do at present, which is saying a great deal. His red beard must enjoy alcohol nearly as much as he does, for it claims enough of his drink that perhaps its white streaks result from bleaching by whiskey.

Pheldran. An elf with long, unkempt blond hair who made the journey from the northeastern regions of Iand Talath just for this event. He practiced at the Hoggelrynth School of Magic, but finished his magical studies well before mine began. A black cat accompanied him, getting underfoot and occasionally annoying petty officials by uninvitedly claiming the attention and affection of their female companions.

Tam. A quiet priest of Tinandel, the god of travel. He knows the whole area from Tyr Delyth to the western reaches of Iand Talath, and even has some knowledge of Brineira, which is rare for those who have not lived there. Some of his later comments have led me to believe that his knowledge extends into areas well beyond geography.

Delyra. A pretty girl of elven features who appears to be about six years old. I do not know with what actual elven age this corresponds. She is a guest of Pheldran, though, from what I gather, not a relative. I thought I saw her cause a smile on N-Guuk's face, but it vanished so quickly that it must have been a trick of the light.

Dunbarton. A paladin of Faynwan, the god of death. I am ashamed that I flinched upon first sighting him, feeling that his presence could bode no good. I wonder whether the boorish insensitivity of his manners is characteristic of Faynwan's followers. The pleasure of finding this out is one that I will happily deny myself in the name of asceticism, for as long as I can.

As we mingled, Corla took Sir Brannigan aside to explain discretely (though not so discretely that I failed to hear) that the fire break was not nearly wide enough. The teams (apparently under his command, though not his close supervision) had to be put back to work despite their grumbling.

This was not to be.

The door flew open, knocking a plate of eggs from a servant's hand, and a city guard rushed in. The word "fire" spread like a ripple across the hall, leaving in its wake faces frozen with fear. Corla requested that we join her in the southern watch tower. A guard on the platform above us cursed in fear for the building's structural integrity as our mad stampede up the steps dangerously shook the wooden tower. Once atop the lookout platform, we became deathly silent. Far to the south, a curtain of smoke rose thousands of feet into the air. I know not how she calculated this, but Corla informed us that the fire would arrive in ten to twelve hours.

Governor N. Skeboyee reminded us, when we spoke of evacuating the city, that while the healthy folk could reach the pass into Y Mynyddau Gwawr in time, one-third of the population would perish here, unable to move far beyond their beds. Pheldran suggested the construction of a makeshift dam from the lumber cleared from the firebreak; any extra water at all could be useful. The governor agreed, and dispatched an officer to see it done. He then requested that all who were interested in helping to save the city join him in an upstairs room of his mansion within ten minutes. All volunteered, including even the death god's paladin, which intrigued me. I suppose Faynwan does not mind waiting a few extra decades to collect the many souls at stake.

We assembled shortly for what turned out to be a tarot reading. Tawanaq, the governor's seeress, dealt the largest spread I have ever seen, invoking the directions and the elements. I shall reassemble the reading elsewhere, and summarize it here:

North: Seek help from a duplicitous enemy based in water. Find council. Face deception and fatality to gain overwhelming strength.

East: Seek help from a regal but impulsive being of air and imagination. Make haste. Face dissatisfaction and interruption to gain employment.

South: Seek help from a powerful, seemingly useful being of fire who either creates or oppresses good fortune. Hold hope. Face founded fears and death for great happiness.

West: Seek a malevolent, perverse being of earth. Attempt to barter or do business. Face suspicion and disharmony to end hostility.

Within: Seek help from the authorities. Flee. Face catastrophe and mourning to gain desolation.

During the reading, a young man with short, light brown hair intruded. The guards shushed him, and he silently watched the rest of the reading. He turned out to be another friend of Corla's, named Jasper, who had been late for the party but had, with the help of the servants, found his way to us.

We discussed the options presented. Tam recalled a lake to the northwest called "Llun Arven" (Wept-Over Lake), named for swimmers swept over the falls to their deaths. He speculated that the deaths were perhaps not accidental, but rather the work of the being of water whom we would seek were we to journey north. Delyra mentioned that her people live to the east, but doubted they could be of any assistance against the fire. To the west is the escarpment, a good place to search for a creature of earth, but we had no idea what to seek. To the south, a being of fire might be amid, or might even have caused, the wildfire surging toward us. We decided, in the grand tradition of adventurous hubris, to seek the greatest risk and the greatest reward, both of which lay in the south.

The seven of us who had no pressing duties in the city, throughout which panic had already spread, borrowed horses from the southern stables and made haste along the road which follows Neirinwy south. Seeing us off, Corla advised us that, were we to get caught in the fire, we would last slightly longer by holding our breath. The fire would burn our lungs, or the smoke smother us, long before we would suffer from merely not breathing, or from exterior burning. Dunbarton thanked her for that pleasant thought. On the way, we passed a farm that, to nobody's surprise, appeared recently abandoned.

As we approached, Pheldran pointed out some dark specks weaving into and out from the gargantuan wall of smoke. Delyra was the first to notice, after several more minutes, that our perspective had been skewed by the great distance: The "specks" were vastly farther, higher and larger than they had first appeared. They would disappear into the smoke, emerge at a great altitude, then spin, roll and dive again toward the lower reaches of the great billowing veil. Our continued approach revealed them to be immense winged creatures, though in contrast against the sky, even Pheldran's and Delyra's sharp vision could not pick out their colors.

Once we had ventured sufficiently closely that height became a greater barrier to possible contact with the dragons -- for dragons we now knew them to be -- than overland distance was, we halted. The fire was near enough to make any further southward motion a plea for inescapable, painful death. With no choice but to assume that the dragons were the source of potential aid discovered by the seeress' reading, our courage only slightly bolstered by that reading's admonishment to hold on to hope, we made fools of ourselves by shouting and waving articles of clothing in a futile attempt to attract the dragons' attention. Our horses meanwhile became skittish about the nearing smoke, and we started to feel the fire's heat, borne on the wind. I paused from shouting to sip from my canteen, then noticed that Delyra kept very still, in a strange posture. She held a steel hand mirror, and was slowly and carefully twisting it to follow the course of one of the dragons. We all quieted as we noticed. The minutes of concentration thus afforded her felt like unbearable hours; I could hardly believe that the wildfire was not yet upon us. We watched the dragons, and I assume that she must have succeeded in reflecting sunlight into the eyes of one, for it made a sudden wingover turn, left the smoke haze, and passed some hundred feet directly above us.

What happened next I cannot rationally explain. Most of us, save for the horses and possibly Delyra, had enough experience in dangerous situations to not be easily cowed. We were aware of the dragon, and had explicitly attempted to call it to us. And yet, when it passed overhead, a chill passed through my soul, and I knew that I was going to die.

We ran.

Heedless of the branches stinging my face and arms, and of the logs and thorns tripping me, I plunged through the woods. One of the horses nearly knocked me down to get past me, and had I been a great horseman, I might have tried to leap into the saddle. I am not, and did not try. I could, meanwhile, hear parts of a conversation behind me, held loudly in Draconic. Despite the fear, part of my mind engaged itself in remembering my lessons in that unique, arcane language. Then I heard Pheldran replying! The mental stimulation of remembering Draconic, and my curiosity at this development, worked to overcome my fear. I slowed, caught myself against a tree, and regained my breath. I then approached with an attempt at both alacrity and caution; it was a reflection of my early monastic lessons on Wind Walking, but did not notably succeed.

What happened in my absence, I am told, is this. Everybody aside from Jasper and Delyra fled when I did. (Delyra started to run, but quickly overcame her fear.) Once past the group, the dragon turned about, glided just above the road, and came to a stop with a sufficiently gentle flap of its wings to nearly knock Delyra over in its wind. Two other, slightly less enormous, dragons approached from the south. All were of deep red hue. Jasper wondered aloud how to speak with the dragons; Delyra stated that Pheldran could, but he was running away. Then Delyra, gathering her courage and hoping that the larger dragon would understand Common, explained in rapid and excited words that we sought aid in saving the city from the encroaching fire.

"What foolhardiness is this?" asked the second dragon as it landed. Of our group, Pheldran and I alone comprehended the conversation.

"I don't remember ordering delivery," said the third.

Others from our party began returning as they overcame their fear. The horses did not return.

"The fey creatures wants to save the city," answered the first.

"'City'? You mean the village up north? I've burned bigger 'cities' when I was half this size," sneered the second.

"Oh well, at least it's a snack," said the third.

"Hold it," said the larger one. "Do you recognize the holy symbol on that one?" It motioned toward Tam.

"The Staff and Moon of Tinandel. So?"

"So, that means you don't know where these people have been! They could have worms!"

Pheldran, just then returning, laughed amiably and said, "No, you did not in fact order delivery."

The three dragons chose that point to start speaking in Common. Delyra again brought up the subject of saving the people and the city of Dinas Felin. She assured the dragons that there would be plentiful monetary reward involved. "Not that you couldn't just take it all after the city burns, but this way, you wouldn't have to go searching through the ashes for it. And some of it might melt, too, especially valuable works of art..." She went on to tentatively offer our services for future tasks, assuming the dragons had any use for human and demihuman agents.

Her negotiations were interrupted by the proximity of the fire, which we could now see. The larger dragon was hesitant to resume negotiations after the fire was dealt with. "Mortals are so much more stingy with their lives when they are no longer in danger," it sighed. But it agreed, as there clearly would be no deal were the fire to reach us first.

At their command, we each took hold of one rear leg of a dragon. Pheldran tied Delyra to his back, afraid that she would have neither the strength nor the room to hold on to a dragon leg. I was nearly thrown when the dragon carrying me took off. All three dragons then turned south! I heard the larger one mention altitude. We only remembered to hold our breath immediately before we plunged into a hideous hell of ash, smoke, and heat. The heat and the prolonged, blind circling made us dizzy; fortunately, nobody succumbed.

As incredible as the day's experience had already been, nothing prepared me for the sight that followed: We emerged from the veil of smoke at least a mile off the ground, heading north with incredible speed! The entire Ystrad lay below. The majesty of the mountains of Gabil Dûm awed me. The escarpment along the eastern edge of Y Mynyddau Gwawr dwarfed the trees below it, yet we were far above. So high were we, in fact, that I never even saw the contents of my stomach hit the valley floor. Our dragon escort continued to trade altitude for velocity, reaching Dinas Felin (and the ground) in a small fraction of the time we had taken to ride south.

"Alert the city guard," said the larger dragon. "We're going to initiate a back burn."

We landed on the dry Neirinwy riverbed, where it emerges from the south end of the city. We rushed toward the city, hurried words of thanks on our lips. The dragons immediately set about burning the trees closest to the city. Most of the citizens and militia went into hiding at the sight of the dragons. Many soiled themselves. Pheldran ran toward the governor's mansion with Delyra still tied to his back. (I hear that the governor made a gasping, neurotic mess of himself upon hearing the story, before becoming useful.) N-Guuk fetched the guards from the watch towers. From what I hear, he took command of many guards despite having no official rank, using only his intimidating presence. Dunbarton and Jasper organized townsfolk to fill and distribute buckets of water at the new debris dam. Tam gave a copper piece to every child he could find, with instructions to alert every household to the need for fire control at the perimeter. I ran and alerted families myself, giving each one instructions to alert five other families while assigning their more able-bodied members to the perimeter immediately. I then patrolled the perimeter myself, using simple cold spells to smother small fires in the less well defended stretches.

Thanks to our efforts, and those of the forces raised by us, the town guard, and Governor N. Skeboyee, the back burn remained under control, and did not spread into the city. When the wild fire met the back burn, there was not enough fuel left for the former to penetrate the city.

With the worst of it over, we were ready to collapse and sleep on any side street. (The main streets are paved with cobblestones.) However, we still needed to close the bargain with our reptilian benefactors. We, along with some of the higher-ranking and braver city officials and nobles, met them on the north edge of the city. Governor N. Skeboyee offered painfully sizeable rewards from the city treasury, from his personal funds, and from Sir Brannigan's coffers. The reward also included the governor's own magical sword, and Sir Brannigan's magical bracers.

Sir Brannigan, already rankled at the offering of his money, was especially displeased at the mention of his bracers. "I don't have- How did you... Crap!"

As the final part of the payment, Kawg, the largest of the three dragons, accepted Delyra's offer of our services. She, Jasper, Dunbarton, Pheldran, Tam, N-Guuk and I have agreed to work in his employ for an indefinite period. Kawg will release us from our promise when he feels that the debt has been paid. (Given that the debt is eight hundred lives, I foresee a long term of service.) He also stated that our new position will not be full-time. We will have the opportunity to pursue independent goals whenever he does not need us. Delyra suggested that we not be sent on any missions of a sort that would upset our religious or philosophical ideals. Kawg assured us that he had learned long ago not to attempt to divide a servant's loyalties, but then cautioned us not to presume to judge the actions or intentions of a dragon. This is advice I that intend to follow.

That was not the end of yesterday's excitement. But I weary of writing, and shall tell of the orcs in a later entry.

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