“Crone Tazzaera, I collected the twigs and firemoss you wanted!” Samazzar called out cheerfully as he trotted into his creche’s cave, arms heavily laden with the dry green lichen.
It had taken him hours to collect the substance from nearby caves. He scaled sheer rock faces and wedged himself into the tight crevices where the plant grew, all while the rest of his siblings played tag or lounged, tail to muzzle, in the meager winter sun.
By the time Samazzar ambled into his litter’s cave, he was covered in scrapes and dirt. He’d tumbled to the rocky floor of the cavern more than once, his thin arms unable to keep up with his boundless confidence.
Firemoss technically grew almost everywhere. So long as a location was dry, dark, and not exposed to wind, it would appear almost out of thin air if given enough time. The tribe used it in most of their fires. It burned cleaner and longer than wood, producing almost twice the heat with half of the smoke that would otherwise foul the air in the tribe’s caves and tunnels.
Unfortunately for Samazzar, this meant that the nearby caverns were heavily picked over. The harsher-than-usual winter prevented even the most enterprising and foolhardy of kobolds from venturing into the nearby forest for fuel, meaning that every cave needed to rely on the moss to feed their omnipresent fires.
Several times already the creche cave’s fire had gone out. Crone Tazzaera was forced to spend some of the meager supply of merit tokens given to her by the Chief to pay other kobolds to collect moss for the pups.
Samazzar shuddered as he remembered those nights. Huddling in the dark, scale to scale with the other hatchlings as they tried to stave off the bone deep cold. Moving helped to warm their muscles somewhat, but it was hard for them to maintain their energy on the thin portions of stew allotted to hatchlings.
Early on, his sister Tasara had died during one such night. The guards that came to collect her corpse from Center Cave, the main hub of the tribe, chalked it up to bad luck. Tasara had always been the smallest of their litter, and the fire guttering out that night coincided with a cold snap that left a layer of ice on the cave’s water basin.
Unfortunate circumstances to be sure, but from the way the guards spoke of it, her death was hardly a surprise. Watching them chatting casually as they carried her tiny still body from the creche had driven home Samazzar’s helplessness. There was nothing he could do to fight the hunger and cold of the long winter but clench his tiny claws into impotent fists.
Life was an uncertain thing in the tribe, especially during the harsh winter months when their gatherers couldn’t venture outside. Deaths in the creches were common. During lean times, entire litters could be lost to starvation and the elements.
“Crone Tazzaera!” Samazzar called again, waiting for his withered caretaker to appear.
That memory was a large part of why he gathered firemoss for the cave while his siblings lazed about. They might not care, but he didn’t want to spend another night in the cold. He didn’t want to lose another brother or sister to the dark.
“Calm yourself little dragon,” her voice called back from the side cavern she used for sleep and her experiments. “I’m comin, I’m coming.
She hobbled out of her alcove, body hunched. Tazzaera’s cane clattered against the stone with each step, a smile on her snout as she called out to Samazzar.
“I suppose you’ll want your reward then, Sam.”
A grin split his muzzle as the Crone hobbled around the corner, most of her weight resting on her gnarled cane. Of course, there was another reason.
From the Crone’s first story about the kobold race’s birthright in the sky, the concept enthralled him. Her words ignited his imagination. To be free of the dark caves, of scrambling from shadow to shadow to avoid predators while his stomach ached for more food. Samazzar vowed then and there that one day, he would be the predator, soaring lazily through the skies while others hid from him.
Magic and blood were the very essence of dragons. His veins carried the barest trace of their former majesty, but still they sang for a return to their former glory. It would be the project of years to restore his bloodline to its rightful glory and claim a space in the skies.
But magic? Anyone could learn magic. Magic was a sealed box that could be unlocked by a keen mind and a proper teacher, rather than something assigned and static from birth. Crone Tazzaera might be old, but in her youth she’d been one of the most powerful magi in the tribe.
“Come,” the Crone motioned with her tail toward the fire. “Sit with me little dragon. Even standing by the fire, the cold wind makes my bones ache. If I’m to train you in the thousand and one mysteries, it won’t be on my throbbing feet.”
“Please stop calling me little dragon,” Samazzar whined plaintively as he set down his double armful of firemoss next to the fire. “I know none of you believe me, but I WILL ascend. You said it yourself, kobolds have the blood of dragons. If we work hard and clever enough, we can trap the right creatures to push our bloodline forward.”
She laughed as she pulled her body onto a stone ledge next to the fire. It was a hissing cackle, breathy and full of mirth.
“Maybe you will Sam,” she smiled at him, a flash of yellow teeth. “Let an old woman have a pet name for her disciple in her waning days. Too many of our people are content with the way things are. Of skulking and hiding rather than claiming what is owed to us by blood. Your optimism is as refreshing as the first rainstorm of spring.”
“Disciple?” Samazzar cocked his head, a twinkle in his eyes. “Does this mean you’ll really teach me? That you aren’t just trying to get me to calm down and play games like all the rest?”
Crone Tazzaera slammed her cane on the ground with a loud crack that woke many of the nearby hatchlings. Briefly they glanced at Samazzar and the Crone by the fire before indolently returning to their naps.
“You gathered enough firemoss for two days, right?” She asked. Samazzar nodded timidly. “Good! At least one of your litter will actually listen to me outside of meal time. I promised that I’d teach you about the mysteries if you brought enough fuel, and although the rest of the tribe might whisper behind my back, none dare call me a liar.
“Well,” She grinned, yellow broken teeth gleaming in the firelight. “No one that want their tail to go unsinged.”
“What do you mean by mysteries?” he asked, his voice wistful as his bright eyes locked onto the crone.
“Magic, little dragon,” Tazzaera grabbed a handful of moss and tossed it on the cave’s fire, causing it to flare higher. “Magic can come from two places, your mind or your blood. At the end of the year, you’ll go through your bloodline awakening and you might gain an ability related to your blood. That is a matter of chance.”
“The mysteries,” she continued, settling back into her alcove now that the fire glowed bright enough to fully illuminate the cave, “are open to everyone.”
“Poets call them the Thousand and One Mysteries.” Tazzaera shook her head dismissively. “While the scholars argue that the true number is far higher than that. Of course, no two sages can agree on the exact number or relationship between the mysteries. All they know for sure is that the mysteries are fundamentally different from a bloodline.”
Samazzar leaned forward, his tail thumping excitedly against the cavern floor as he gazed at the crone, enthralled.
“The power of blood magic is internal,” she pressed onward with her lecture, “limited. A practitioner usually has a set of well defined abilities that they can use, but each use depletes their pool of energy. Their magic regenerates with time, but it can run out at a key moment if overused.”
“The mysteries of the mind,” her voice wrapped around Samazzar, drawing him into an almost trancelike state, “are external and infinite. They borrow the energy of the world around us and can take any form, limited only by a practitioner’s imagination and willpower.”
“I want to learn them all,” Samazzar’s voice dripped with eagerness as he scooted closer to the fire, his ears twitching with barely contained zeal.
The crone burst out in laughter once more only for a coughing fit to wrack her body. She doubled over, shaking and hacking for some minutes before answering. Frantically, Samazzar grabbed a stone cup and filled it from the cave’s basin and brought it back to Crone Tazzaera.
“Learn them all,” she chuckled, taking a sip from the cup. “You should stick to becoming a dragon. At least pick the easier of the two impossible tasks.”
“But-” Samazzar began only for the Crone to shush him.
“Listen well little dragon,” she smiled at him, genuine warmth radiating from her faded orange scales as she leaned forward and rested her claw on the top of Samazzar’s head affectionately. “The mysteries are close to infinite. Every being may pursue any number of them, but each mystery takes a lifetime to properly master. The first thing you learn when pursuing their depths is that each accomplishment unlocks a new path of learning and study. Before long, you will find yourself treading down a neverending course of branching paths without any finish line in sight.”
“Then which ones should I learn?” Samazzar barely contained his excitement as he practically vibrated under Tazzaera’s claw.
“Well,” the Crone patted him once more atop his head before retracting her arm. “If you’re to be my disciple, you’ll be learning the noble mystery of fire. After all, it’s the only major mystery I know something of and it would be awfully hard for me to teach you something that I don’t understand myself.”
“Fire,” Samazzar’s eyes twinkled. “Like a dragon’s breath.”
“Like a dragon's breath,” she chuckled at him. “Maybe someday little dragon. For now? You aren’t even ready to learn a major mystery. Your dreams of torching the countryside will have to wait.”
“Not ready?” his ears drooped as his eyes widened.
“Oh stop looking so dejected Sam,” the crone chided him. “No one can learn a major mystery without learning a number of foundational minor mysteries. Fire is a noble truth, so it requires you to obtain some proficiency in at least three foundational mysteries before you can even begin to learn it.”
“Noble?” Samazzar cocked his head. “Like the Chief?”
“After a fashion,” she tossed more moss onto the fire, causing it to billow high above Samazzar’s seated form. The heat singed his brow but did little to dim his enthusiasm. “The humans and elves were the first to codify the mysteries, and as you will one day learn, those races are obsessed with categories. Every tier and step got its own grandiose name. Major mysteries are divided into five categories: supreme, royal, noble, advanced and base. Each category is defined by the number of minor mysteries a magi needs to learn to the fourth tier before they can learn the mystery itself.”
“There are supreme mysteries?” His eyes shone with excitement.
“I’ve heard rumors that there is only one,” Tazzaera shrugged with disinterest. “I don’t even know its name, but that isn’t uncommon. Magi hoard secrets like a dragon collects gold. The names of mysteries, the foundational truths needed to learn them, the tests needed to advance a tier. All of those secrets, only to be passed from master to disciple in order to prevent a rival from learning a magi’s weakness.”
“But now I’m your disciple,” Samazzar grinned, his tail thumping against the rock floor of the cave.
“That you are little dragon,” the Crone chuckled. “Likely the last disciple I’ll have before these old bones give out on me. I have reached the sixth tier in the mystery of flame, sometimes known as ‘minor completion.’ At my level, I can create fire from thin air and control its form. It took me a lifetime of learning to reach this step, but with my help we can cut out the uncertainty and experimentation that slowed my growth.”
“Transitioning a tier in a mystery isn’t an easy task,” she poked the fire with her cane, pushing more of the moss toward its roaring center. “It requires three things: knowledge, intuitive understanding and a catalyst. Each tier can have any number of catalysts, but as a rule, catalysts are usually an energy source that is symbolically connected to the mystery the practitioner is learning.”
“What do the tiers do?” Samazzar asked, his eyes following the movement of the Crone’s cane as she fiddled with the fire. “I assume that they make you stronger, but-”
Samazzar trailed off, eager for answers but uncertain about disrupting the flow of the old woman’s lecture.
“I suppose it’s only fair that I provide some background,” Tazzaera responded with a dry chuckle. “A practitioner in the first tier of a mystery is referred to as an initiate. Initiates instinctively sense their mystery. Although initiate level abilities aren’t terribly useful in combat, their skills are still beneficial. An initiate of metal can find deposits hidden in a cave wall or sense the weapons and armor of their enemies. An initiate of water can find wells and springs that might otherwise be hidden from view.”
Samazzar nodded eagerly, his tail twitching and his ears erect. His mind spun forward, out of control as he tried to imagine what he’d do with his magic once the Crone began teaching him the mysteries.
“The second tier are known as senior initiates,” she continued, a smile on her face as she took in Samazzar’s excitement. “Senior initiates take this sense a step farther. By sinking their awareness into a deposit of their mystery they can tell its recent past and surroundings. For example, a plant practitioner would know that a creature had recently walked across a bed of grass. The sense is limited, and manifests differently depending upon the mystery, but it uniformly represents a qualitative leap forward from the first tier.”
“Practitioners of the third step are called students,” the Crone began packing her pipe while she lectured, preparing to settle in for a long speech. “Student is the first tier at which a practitioner can actually alter the outside world. They can directly manipulate their mystery, causing it to change shape or move through the power of will alone.”
She reached a hand toward the fire. Samazzar’s eyes grew wide as a ball of flame detached itself from the blazing moss and gently floated toward Crone Tazzaera before landing in the bowl of her pipe. She inhaled deeply before slamming a claw to her chest and coughing out a cloud of smoke.
“I deserved that,” she flashed Samazzar a weak smile. “My lungs ache from the cold. I know I shouldn’t smoke, but on special occasions I can’t help myself.”
Samazzar frowned at her in concern. Crone Tazzaera was one of the few adult kobolds that would actually talk to him. Other than a couple of the guards from Center Cave, he had no baseline for how a grown up should act. Still, even an inexperienced hatchling like him could tell that Crone Tazzera was sick.
“Don’t look at me like that little dragon,” she waved her pipe at him. “I’ve lived a long life and I’m nearing the end of my time. It is what it is.”
He nodded sadly at her words, but the Crone simply ignored his expression as she continued speaking.
“The next two steps,” she drew more smoke in through the long pipe. “Senior student and acolyte, expand upon the learnings of a student. A senior student can amplify or diminish an aspect of their mystery and an acolyte can cause its properties to change in minor ways. For example, if I wanted to I could force the fire to increase in size or change colors, although both usages are taxing and of little use at the moment.”
“Finally,” Crone Tazzaera smiled at him once more, “we reach my current level, lesser completion. At lesser completion, a practitioner earns the title of magi. Although there are at least a dozen steps past my lesser completion, being able to create something from nothing is considered the first and most important touchstone of true magic.”
Samazzar shifted on the hard, warm stone of the cavern floor. His yellow eyes shone brightly in the reflected light of the fire as he stared at the crone. Around them, the rest of his litter napped, disinterested in the priceless information being relayed by the elder kobold. “How will I learn the mystery of fire?” He asked, breathless as his mind replayed the image of the small ball of flame, supported by nothing but the Crone’s willpower, as it floated from the fire to her pipe.
“First you have to learn at least three of fire’s minor truths to the fourth step,” she waved a hand and the flames in front of them leapt into the air, startling the sleeping hatchlings around them. “We will start with the simplest magic I know. Heat.”
Support "A Dream of Wings and Flame"
- United States
- Founding Member of the Zard Skwad
Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night