The little dagger flickered between the kobold’s hands, nervously blinking in and out of existence. The little creature fretted to itself, scrunched down with its knees up to its chest making the dagger blink, blink, blink.
He had done a bad thing.
But this wasn’t the place to start.
It had started shortly before the beginning, when he was still in the egg. When Aurum wrapped his mighty coils protectively around the sapphire shell and slept.
In that long, early spring of the soul, body still developing from disparate yolk, the kobold had dreamed Aurum’s dreams.
An enormous shadow glides across stormy waters. The rough waves ripple and distort at the enormous silhouette. It is an eagle-shadow, a serpent-shadow; it is the shadow of a dragon, wide of wing, long of tail, its arrowhead prow soaring above the waters. Beneath the frothing surf of the sea, a whale tries to dive, sensing doom in the sudden blotting of the sky.
The dragon descends. It swoops down, claws extended, piercing the barnacle-armored back of the enormous beast. The water explodes in white froth as the whale struggles, kicks; the dragons wingbeats are huge, billowing claps of thunder, the wind beneath them kicking back the ocean to expose the pray as huge ribbons of red swirl into the blue.
Dragon-dreams. That’s all a kobold was. One dragon’s egg in a hundred thousand might hatch into a trueblood heir of fire, but the rest would be left with the strange, slow dreams of the yolk-time, slowly congealing into a form not-quite-dragon but not quite un-dragon. A kobold.
And the dreams were strong in the little soul that forced its way up through the thick eggshell, battering its blunt head against the walls of its prison-womb until they cracked open. The feel of fire bathing the outer shell called him to stir and fight and break free.
Aurum waited for him. The attention of the Dungeon swirled in the air, a palpable presence.
Those first days were full of wonder. The gardens, the Dungeon, all of it was strange and beautiful, full of patterns and shapes the kobold did not understand. It hunched in the dirt to study wriggling insects. It fled from pearlescent spiders. Glass flowers gave up metallic honeys, and vibrant red-glass mushrooms bled like lush meat between its teeth.
And then there was the fight. The earth-shaking battle of titans, where the kobold could only close its eyes and pray to the Dungeon. In that moment, it felt the Dungeon’s voice, praying to itself.
When the storm of violence passed, there was a new world to explore. White trees watched with weeping eyes as he scampered through grey fields, combing the hidden spaces beneath the canopy of blossoms for the scuttling insects that burst like candies between his teeth.
Soon there were other kobolds. They were strange to him, at first; they had been born without an egg, without dragon-dreams. Having been made all together they formed a tight circle to which he was an outsider. But he was the biggest, the strongest, the oldest. If he was not one of them, at least he was their leader; their eldest brother.
They wrestled, chased, explored. They swam in Aurum’s feeding trough chasing after silver fish. In the rare times they crept up the great stairwell, they ran circles around the great Arachne hooting and making noise, trying to make the solemn spider crack a smile.
On the day the trouble happened, they had found a newcomer. A fat, funny creature called a human, a kind of sun-browned blob with a shiny head, who sung back to them, swinging his hat and stomping to the tune.
By the time the Arachne arrived it was too late. They’d taken the verse and spun it into their own nonsense-babble, the human tongue too strange and harsh for them to form the words right. They scampered away, piping up gleefully from the distance with snatches of child-song.
“Soo he han haff ‘is ‘oldenhory,
Oh he han ache hisshime,
For the whole day, it went like that. One would pipe up with a sudden tune, and suddenly from the distance there would come a hooting echo for the next verse-
Hii oont henvee ‘im his sories,
Oar the heasures hemit find,
They were drunk on the tune, on the camaraderie of sharing the secret nonsense-joke. Together, crouched in the tunnels of their home, they hatched a secret scheme. Leaping onto a rock, he gestured with a stick, swinging it to and fro as the mob beneath him chanted-
He ‘an’ave his holdengory.
Allake hwat he ‘eaves behind!
Together, in the dim light of the Field of Lament, he led his troops across the glass bridge to the third island. They snuck on all fours, green-scaled snakes slithering through the grass giggling as they approached the lairs of the enormous stone-spinner spiders.
Bundled tight in webs of pale, crumbling stone were the corpses of giant butterflies, wandering serpents, anything the rapacious spiders could catch and bind.
And they knew a secret.
The piper had learned it, playing his crude flute to the stone behemoths. They began to sway and rock, caught in the admittedly-simple rhythm, lifting onto their hind legs and raising their forearms to the air to shift back and forth in slow, silently reveries of sound.
They were musical.
Now, the kobolds began to sing. Not the coarse, rude song they’d learned from the man, but the other song. The dragon song. The deep and sybillant rhythm that came hissing up from their hearts. They whispered it in the grass, and the piper began to bleat and peep along, until the gray boulders unfolded their arms and swayed.
That was when the seven of them hurried forward, leaving the piper to continue his tune and keep the spiders transfixed by song. They seized the smallest of the stone cocoons, lifting it between the seven of them with grunts and puffs of smoke, beginning to haul it away.
By the time the stone-spinners realized their supper was being stolen, it was because the cocoon was scraping its rocky hide against the musical glass of the bridge. They snapped free of the melody, shaking themselves, and surged towards the seven thieves.
The piper lifted his instrument and blew a long, discordant note.
The spiders thrashed, losing their balance, toppling over. They shivered and kicked their legs in horror as the off-key burst of noise rasped through the air-
The piper turned tail and ran, joining his brothers to shove the cocoon over the bridge where the spiders were forbidden to follow.
And as they retreat to their private den, they paused, turning back, and echoed the chorus-
Isss ‘he adventers hife for meeeeee!”
And then ran laughing into the gloom, hauling their prize with them down into secret tunnels. He had the honor of chiseling it open with his knife, a wash of sticky, pinkish fluid pouring out. Tasting it, he found it bitter and sickly-sweet at once. As they drank, taking turns chugging up the viscous stuff, their heads began to spin and their limbs grew clumsy, like they were controlling their own bodies from a great distance by tugging at strings connected to their arms and legs.
They were drunk.
Sprawled and hiccuping, they started a new game. A naming game.
“Stone-Face!” One cried in their draconic tongue, as he presented himself in a stoic pose, snout turned upwards and yellow eyes gleaming in the little lamps of everlight they’d stolen from the lake.
“Hook-Tail!” He called out, as his sting-tailed sibling crawled along the ground with tail held high like the scorpion that had lent him the appendage.
It went the way, round and round in circles, trying on names and identities like clothes, until the piper stood up and began to wheedle away on his instrument, all his brothers groaning and clutching their ears in mock-horror.
In that moment, he felt a flash of dragon-dream stir within him. Heard those vast wingbeats again, a roaring in his ears, and the vast, sky-breaking cry of triumph as the whale was hauled forth from the struggling waves.
He felt something hot and electric coil in his chest, rising through his throat as he called out-
And the Name stuck.
They all felt it then. The ripple of power surging out of him, swirling around Break-Song as the Name latched on, searing itself into his being. Becoming one with him.
His brothers stared, in horror, and scattered.
The last to go was Break-Song, who looked at him with hurt and betrayal, the thin translucent membrane over his eyes flickering and his breathing coming in struggling, big gulps. He didn’t know what to say, but the long despairing whimper Break-Song let out before fleeing was enough to rend his heart.
He had done a bad thing.
Bad because Naming was the Dungeon’s right.
Bad because it hurt his brother.
His knife flickered in and out of being, and he wished he could disappear with it. That was all that was left. He had to run away.