The sound of claws on stone click-clattered through the dark cavern, pausing only to be replaced by deep sniff. Samazzar blinked his yellow eyes as the scents of the cave flooded into him. Minerals, Fungus, wet fur, and the acrid sulfur bite of fear.
A smile spread across his toothy maw. Fear was good. It meant that his traps had caught something.
None of the other kobolds bothered to hunt this deep. The rats in the deep caves were plumper. Juicy to the point that their meat popped and sizzled over a fire, full of the protein and nutrients that were in short supply during the harsh winters that blanketed the Devil’s Teeth.
More importantly, their coats were thicker than their surface cousins, able to insulate against the deep cold almost as well as rabbit. Rabbit. Samazzar’s mouth watered thinking of the delicacy.
Rabbits meant traveling past the forests that surrounded the kobold caves and out onto the plains below. Forests filled with predators, goblin-kin slavers, and human adventurers. Each and every one, a terminal risk.
As delicious and soft as the bunnies were, the plains they lived in were almost impossibly threatening for a kobold More often than not the tribes folk that ventured out to hunt them were scooped up in turn by the storm crows that patrolled the skies above the foothills.
Only the bravest or most desperate of kobolds actually hunted for rabbits. Usually In the depths of Winter when the stew pots ran thin, or in early Summer when a group of hatchlings, more brave than capable, would venture forth to seek out risky prey. The practice was quietly encouraged by the chief. Either the hunters would return successful with meat and fur for the tribe, or they would disappear, taking some hungry mouths with them.
Instead, most kobolds usually subsisted on roots, mushrooms, groundhogs, and ordinary rats. All things that could be found just outside the caves or in their upper levels. Even if their ancestors might have ruled the skies, today that was far from the case. Almost every snapping twig or shuffle of fur in the night was a threat, something larger and more dangerous than a fragile kobold.
Samazzar meant to change all of that. Deep down he knew that the chief had approved his expedition into the lower tunnels for much the same reason that he allowed the rabbit hunts. The mountains were buried under mounds of snow, and food was running short.
There was little risk to the tribe if Samazzar failed. He would simply disappear into the depths of the mountain, taking a hungry mouth with him. Just like countless other kobolds before, and likely after him. If he succeeded? Many more old and sick kobolds might live to see the melting snow of spring.
Including Crone Tazzaera.
The image of her frail and sick form, coughing as she tried to choke down a mug of mushroom tea filled his mind. She might not have many years left, but she had more to teach him. So much more. Hunger and concern for the crone were as good a reason as any to risk his life to aid the tribe.
Quietly, Samazzar pushed his will into his slitted yellow eyes. Right now his magic was limited to sensing concentrations of heat, but he’d quickly learned to substitute the ability for his ordinary sight. Even in the darkest of caves, the heat difference between the air and bedrock was enough to navigate by. Of course, in the cold and still environment of the deep caves, living beings shone like beacons.
The magic wasn’t much. Useless in combat, but it was more than enough to embolden a desperate and hungry young kobold to make the journey into the deep tunnels. A smile spread across his toothy muzzle as the magic took hold, and the dark cave lit up in shades of red and orange.
Ahead, there was a cluster of writhing color in the pit he’d dug and baited the previous day. At some point, an underground river had a groove in the cave floor that had later filled with dirt and detritus over the intervening years. It took him most of an afternoon to excavate the crevice and cover it with a thin layer of sticks and grass, but ramshackle or not, Samazzar was inordinately proud of his first trap.
He scurried to its edge, careful to keep his wits about him as he took in the huge plump and squirming silhouettes of his quarry.
Cave rats were elusive and dangerous prey. They had an almost supernatural ability to avoid traps set for them by kobolds, something Samazzar had always suspected related to their instinctive fear of fire. Whenever kobolds journeyed into the deep tunnels, they carried torches. Their race might have superb low light vision, but they still needed some light to navigate, unlike the creatures fully adapted to the depths.
Much like their ordinary cousins, cave rats instinctively feared flame and smoke, avoiding them every turn. Before venturing into the lower tunnels, Samazzar spent almost a full day bathing himself in water boiled over a fire before rolling back and forth in wet soil, trying to eliminate all scents from his compact body. By the look of things, it had worked.
Without the smell of smoke and pitch clinging to his body and traps, the cave rats didn’t know to shy away from the collection of stalk grubs he’d baited the pit trap with. Now? They were at his mercy, injured by the wooden stakes lining the bottom of the trap, and unable to climb back up the sheer rock walls of the trap without impaling themselves once more on the downward facing spikes ringing the pit.
Of course, even injured, cave rats were still a threat. Each of them was almost the size of a kobold, and although they were blind from birth, their sharp teeth and claws could cut through Samazzar’s scales with ease.
More often than not, when cave rats and kobolds encountered each other, Kobolds were not the predators. Cave rats might hunt by smell, but they hunted in packs. Great carpets of fur and teeth that could strip a kobold to the bone in minutes if one wasn’t careful.
Samazzar was careful. There were too many things he wanted to accomplish to risk his life unnecessarily to hunters or rockslides. Unfortunately, it was a dangerous world. Sometimes, risks were necessary and all a kobold could do was try to minimize the danger.
He peered over the edge of the pit, at the writhing mass of injured cave rats clawing at each other, roused into a furor by Samazzar’s scent. Smiling, he hefted the long spear he’d created for just this occasion.
Perhaps spear was a charitable term for the weapon, but Samazzar was still quite proud of his invention. It was little more than a long wooden pole, one end sharpened to a point and hardened in a fire. More importantly, it had a yoke and six leather harnesses that could be affixed to dead rats, enabling him to drag his bounty up from the depths.
He jabbed the spear downward into the pit, retracting it quickly to avoid the snapping jaws of the cave rats. Even injured, each and every one of them would be more than enough to defeat Samazzar in an open fight, but then again, that’s why he made sure to not get tricked into an open fight.
Twenty minutes later, Samazzar was strapping the last of the four dead cave rats to his spear. He’d made sure to wait until their bodies began to cool before fishing them out of the pit one at a time with the shovel end of his spear. A rat might be able to play dead long enough to escape an ordinary kobold, but they couldn’t fool his magic.
Grinning to himself, Samazzar placed a new handful of stalk grubs in the satchel he kept suspended over the pit, pausing briefly to pop one of the sweet morsels into his muzzle. Then, with a cheery spring to his step, he placed the yoke of the spear over his shoulders and began the two hour trek back to the residential caves.
Finally, tired and panting Samazzar dragged the four rats to the gate barring the entrance to Center Cave. After whistling the password, he set down his yoke and stretched his aching shoulders. Almost thirty seconds later, he whistled the password again. This time the eyeslit in the gate slid to the side. Samazzar shielded his face against the sudden torchlight that stabbed out from the opening into the tunnel’s darkness.
With the creak of a winch, the door, a series of laminated wooden planks, slid into a recess in the rock. A pair of kobolds, clad in ill fitting breastplates of cured leather, battered iron helmets and holding lovingly maintained war picks, their points sharpened to a razor’s edge, squinted out at Samazzar as they tried to acclimate their eyes to the darkness.
“Hiya Roggsar, hey Pakklen!” Samazzar waved cheerfully at the two of them as he dismissed the heat magic, returning his vision to normal. “I’m back and I brought food.”
“Holy shit,” Roggsar muttered, his yellow eyes glancing past Samazzar at the four cave rat corpses. “That’s enough to feed the entire tribe for a week. I can’t believe that actually worked.”
“Welcome back little dragon,” Pakklen elbowed Roggsar in the side, knocking the wind out of her companion. “You managed to pull it off after all. In a couple of minutes you’ll be swimming in merits. Make sure not to forget your friends at the gate when you’re rich and famous.”
Her muzzle curved up into a friendly, toothy grin, as she walked out past the gate to help Samazzar untether the rats so that they could be brought to the butcher.
“You should stop calling me little dragon,” Samazzar pouted, his muzzle scrunching up. “I keep telling you to call me Sam.”
“And I keep telling you to call me Pak,” she responded smoothly, shifting the cave rat up onto her shoulders.
“Gods above Sam,” she staggered slightly under its weight. “How did you carry four of these up from the lower tunnels? These things aren’t light.”
“They’re a lot easier to drag than carry,” Sam chirped cheerfully as he slid another rat, slightly bigger than his own body, over his shoulders. He took a step forward, almost collapsing entirely under its weight as his tiny arms shuddered and struggled to keep the cave rat aloft.
“I also stopped to rest a lot,” he finished ruefully, opening his mouth to pant from the exertion.
“I can tell,” Pak answered, carrying her rat past the track in the ground that marked the boundary of the gate. “Roger, keep watch over the other two. We’ll get the little dragon to the butcher so he can collect the spoils from his little expedition. He’s certainly earned it.”
Their trek through Center Cave had a carnival air to it. Many despondent kobolds, too cowardly to hunt beyond the picked over upper tunnels perked up. Food had been low for days, and the appearance of the rats meant that unsavory decisions regarding life and death could be delayed for at least another week.
One by one they followed Pak and Sam as they carried the rats to the butcher, a surly old kobold, whose scales were already beginning to curl and grey. No one but Chief Duromak knew his actual name. As far as the rest of the tribe was concerned, he went by ‘Chef.’ Sam wasn’t sure if the butcher had named himself or if the moniker referred to his other job, as the overseer of the tribe stew pot, but it hardly mattered. Any questions would only earn a grunt in reply.
Pak led the way to the butcher’s station, a slab of stone on a slight angle with blood grooves chiseled into it. By the time they arrived, Chef was standing silently, a metal cleaver, meticulously polished and sharpened, in his hand. Without a word, Pak laid her rat down on the slab and Sam placed his next to it.
Chef’s cleaver chopped down, slashing through the fur and skin of the first cave rat and burying itself into the wooden cutting board beneath while Sam and Pak went back for the other two. By the time they returned, the crowd was whispering excitedly, and the first rat was skinned and quartered. Chef poked at its meat a couple of times with the bloodied cleaver before grunting with satisfaction and nodding.
Without speaking, he reached into the pocket of his leather apron and pulled out a handful of merit strings. Each string held twenty round wooden circles, every one one of the wooden rings a token representing a deep and hearty bowl from the tribes’ stewpot.
Sam stared at the seven strings dangling from Chef’s claw, his jaw slack. One hundred and forty bowls of stew. More wealth than he’d ever seen. Enough to buy a skinning knife made of real metal, or maybe even a bow while still keeping his his belly full for months.
“Sorry,” he shook his head. “I need two of the pelts. A friend needs a coat.”
Chef squinted at him, wiping the bloody cleaver off on the leather of his apron. The moment dragged on for an eternity as the kobolds behind him whispered amongst themselves. Finally, Chef just grunted and put one of the strings back into his pouch before sliding half of the tokens off of the other.
“Thank you Chef!” A smile brightened Sam’s muzzle. “Hopefully the meat can help a lot of people. I’ll be back with more soon!”
Sam spun around and grabbed Pak’s arm before she could leave.
“Pak,” Sam slipped the half full merit string into her claw. “Thank you for helping me with the rats! I don’t know how long it would have taken me to carry those over on my own. I was wondering if I could ask you a favor?”
“Spit it out little dragon,” Pak laughed, causing the string to disappear into an unseen pocket in her hidden armor. “With a gift like this, I’d be a right asshole not to at least listen to you.”
She cocked her head to the side, a wicked grin flashing across her muzzle.
“I’m not having your eggs if that’s what this is about,” she teased back, a glint in her yellow eyes. “You’re cute, but I draw my line at hatchlings. Maybe in a couple of years.”
Sam stomped his foot on the cavern floor, an almost canine whine to his voice. “Stop teasing me Pak! I told you to call me Sam, and plus this is serious.”
“Fine, fine,” Pak laughed. “Tell me what’s so serious. I need to get back to Roger at the gate before he wanders off and lets the entire upper tunnels into Center Cave.”
“Thanks Pak,” Sam chirped. “I need to run off to meet up with Crone Tazzaera. She hasn’t been able to earn merits in almost a week and I want to make sure that she’s all right. In a couple of hours, Chef is going to have two pelts from the cave rats set aside.”
“Tazzaera needs a coat,” he looked a little worried, sheepishly scratching the back of his neck. “She tries not to complain too much, but I can see how the cold is getting to her. I was wondering if you could get someone to turn those two pelts into a coat for her. I would do it myself, but I’m going to need to head back down to the lower tunnels to set more traps now that I know they work. If I’m lucky, I might be able to keep the stewpot full all winter by myself.”
Pak looked at him incredulously before shaking her head, a wistful smile on her muzzle.
“And here I thought those pelts were for you,” she reached out a claw, taking Sam’s in her own and shaking it. “You have my word Sam.
“You know,” she paused, his claw still in hers, “little dragon might not be so sarcastic of a nickname for you after all. You’re probably my favorite pup from this litter, but I still don’t think you’ll be able to reclaim our bloodline. That said, if any of our kin is going to manage it, my merits are on you.”
“Thanks Pak!” Sam beamed at her. “It means a lot to me! I’ve got to run though. I need to make sure Tazzaera has enough merits for the coming weeks.”
“Plus,” his yellow eyes glinted in the torchlight. “She promised to teach me more magic if I came back in one piece. What kind of dragon would I be without magic?”
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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