“Crone Tazzaera!” Sam’s voice echoed through the creche cave as his clawed feet clicked rapidly against the stone floor.
He burst into the creche cave, a toothy smile painted across his muzzle. A dozen or so of his brothers and sisters were running back and forth, playing tag. Dussok, the biggest of his siblings, yipped pitifully as he tried to catch the smaller and fleeter hatchlings. Despite his best efforts, each swipe of his claw or tail saw the other pups duck and slip away.
Near the creche’s outside entrance a trio of kobolds packed together handfuls of snow before throwing them at each other and running away. Samazzar smiled at their shrieks of laughter as he looked for their caretaker.
Not seeing the crone, he approached her sleeping alcove next to the fire. Unsurprisingly, Takkla was napping, her nose beneath the tip of her tail, next to the low flames. She yipped quietly in her sleep, rolling over to let her legs pumped futilely while she dreamt of running.
Sam frowned as he looked at the supply of firemoss. The cave was almost out, and it certainly looked like no new fuel had been collected in the days that he was away. Tazzaera must have been rationing the moss to make it last this long.
“I’m back Tazzaera!” He shouted again, this time much closer to her alcove. Takkla awoke with a start from where she had been sleeping, nose to tail, glaring at him with distrustful but bleary yellow eyes.
“I heard you the first time little dragon,” the Crone’s voice grumbled as she tottered out of her alcove, the click of her cane punctuating her voice. “Give an old woman a minute to breathe. You’ll hound me into an early grave at this rate.”
He grinned as the crone made her way to her stone ledge by the fire, his tail thumping excitedly on the stone floor. Sam’s claws twined through the string laden with wooden merit tokens. Money might not solve every problem, but it would go a long way toward fixing the issue of cold nights and empty stomachs.
Tazzaera pulled herself up onto her seat, her muzzle a grimace of agony as she swung her injured leg up beside her. Takkla yawned silently before curling up in front of the fire once more, already bored with Sam’s return.
“I hope you’ve brought more firemoss little dragon,” Tazzaera’s panted with exertion, her voice heavy with pain. “The cold makes my injuries act up, but there’s nothing for it. I’ve had to trim down the fire in the past days because the rest of these louts just spend the days napping or playing. No one willing to do an honest chore without me hounding them for hours.”
She glared at Takkla, but the hatchling slept peacefully, undisturbed by her caretaker’s frustration.
“Better!” Sam scampered forward, his clawed hands thrusting most of his accumulated merit tokens at the Crone. “I learned how to trap cave rats! I’ve paid to have a coat made from their hides for you, but in the meantime this should be enough to keep the creche warm and fed.”
Tazzaera counted the tokens, her eyes widening. Finishing, she smiled widely and slipped the tokens into the pouch she kept at her hip.
“This will certainly help Sam,” the Crone replied, closing her eyes contentedly and sighing. “I fear that next week’s allotment from the Chief will be even lighter. It’s good that someone in your litter is actually taking responsibility. Without you this entire mess of rabble would probably be out starving in the snow right now.”
“Hey!” Sam frowned slightly. “They’re just hatchlings.”
“That they are,” Tazzaera chuckled. “But as you’ve demonstrated, some hatchlings are more dependable than others. With ten more of you we could probably cut in half the tribe’s deaths from hunger and exposure.”
“Well,” Sam scratched the back of his scaled neck sheepishly. “I wish I could play tag too, but you said that I would need to work hard if I wanted to be a dragon. As much as I like tag, it isn’t nearly as fun as flying sounds.”
“Fair enough little dragon,” she shifted slightly on the ledge, stiffening slightly and hissing as her leg bumped a stone. “Now, tell me. How did you go about earning all of these merits?”
Sam plopped himself to the ground, legs crossed in front of him and his tail curled around his body, the tip twitching on his lap.
“The other hunters and scavengers think that the rats are stupid,” Samazzar whispered, not wanting his secrets to be spread wide. “They kinda are, but I noticed that even the normal rats have big noses. They can smell our food stores through a wall and burrow into it if we aren’t careful. Then I realized, every expedition into the deep tunnels uses torches. Even I can smell the smoke on the scavengers when they return.”
“The cave rat swarms hunt by smell,” Sam grinned. “Their eyes barely even open. Of course they can smell the smoke. Once I started making traps that weren’t covered in soot, the rats just fell into them.”
“Honestly?” He glanced around conspiratorially. “The biggest problem isn’t even hunting them. It’s dragging the bodies back. Cave rats are heavy and the deep tunnels are far away.”
“But how do you see,” Tazzaera tapped the side of her muzzle with a greying and cracked claw. “Without a torch there’s no light in the deep tunn-”
She stopped, the claw hovering next to her cheek. The crone smiled wickedly at Sam.
“Heat magic little dragon?” It was a statement rather than a question. Samazzar nodded enthusiastically.
“If it’s dark enough,” Sam smiled toothily as he puffed out his chest, “you can use heat magic to tell the difference between open air and rocks. Rocks glow a little darker than the air. As for the rats themselves? I can even see them through the cave walls!”
“That would do the trick,” she sat, staring off into space as she pondered Sam’s words. “Still, if you’re exploring the deep tunnels, there are more dangers than just cave rats. I don’t suppose you know how to find dead air, do you little dragon?”
“Dead air?” Samazzar’s ears drooped. He’d never heard of the concept but it didn’t sound good.
“The Chief didn’t warn you about it before he sent you into the depths, did he?” The crone asked with a click of her tongue. “Of course he didn’t.”
She waved a hand to forestall his response. With her other claw, crone Tazzaera began rummaging around in her pouch. Finally, her face lit up in triumph as she pulled out a large, pink, floppy disc, clearly made from some sort of preserved animal flesh.
“Here,” she tossed it to Samazzar. “The opening is on the bottom. If you blow into that, it’ll inflate. Get started while I explain what’s happening.”
He glanced quizzically at the crone before shrugging. Sam put the opening to his lips. It tasted foul. Salty with just a hint of sulfur. Biting his tongue, Sam filled his lungs and blew into it, causing the disc to expand slightly.
“During our last lesson,” Tazzaera withdrew her pipe from her satchel, and began filling the bowl, “I explained to you the concept of minor mysteries. Before you can expect to learn the noble truth of fire, you must learn its foundation. Fire requires that you learn three such mysteries. Decades ago, my master taught me the mysteries of heat, ember, and good air. If all goes well, those are the magics I plan to pass down to you little dragon.”
“You can stop blowing,” her words seemed to come from a distance. “Pinch the opening so your breath doesn’t escape.”
Sam nodded blearily, his head fuzzy as the room wobbled. The disk was now a sphere of pink and brown. He held it in front of him expectantly, glancing from the crone to the sphere and waiting for her instructions.
“Good air is an important concept for an explorer,” an ember flew from the fire to her pipe, lighting it. “I’m sure you’ve noticed that the fire responds to wind.”
He nodded enthusiastically. When Tazzaera was too tired to use magic, she often made him wave a large leaf at the fire. Each billow of air would cause the flames to rise higher.
“Of course you did,” the crone smiled at Sam. “Just like a kobold, the fire needs to breathe. If you cover it in dirt or pour water on it, it is the same as burying or drowning you. The fire will suffocate. That said, not all air is good.”
Sam frowned slightly, cocking his head at the Crone.
“Don’t worry too much little dragon,” she chuckled at him. “In the upper caves it is barely a concern. I’ve had years to think on the matter, and I believe that there are many types of bad air. I am sure there is a mystery to each one of them, but I simply cannot tell the difference. Good air on the other hand?”
She smiled, broken yellow teeth shining in the firelight.
“Good air is what you and the fire breathe in,” she inhaled as if to illustrate the point. “Bad air,” the Crone exhaled a ring of thick smoke, “is what you and the fire breathe out. Just as smoke stings your eyes and clogs your lungs, bad air will do the same.”
“But how do I tell good air from bad?” Sam asked, his eyes shining as he stared at the Crone.”
“Good question little dragon,” she smiled back. “In the upper caves, if you can feel wind, that usually means that you are in a pocket of good air. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always penetrate to the deep tunnels. There are patches of air that are stale and stagnant. If you are carrying a torch, they will choke the life out of it long before they can suffocate you.”
“For most scavengers,” the crone continued, puffing contentedly on her pipe, “their torch is both a light source and a warning that they’ve found a patch of dead air. If it goes out, they know to run away as quickly as their claws can carry them.”
“Of course,” Tazzaera mused philosophically. “Some kinds of bad air will ignite when they encounter fire. Still, a fatal explosion is a warning of sorts.”
“As for you, little dragon,” her eyes flashed mischievously, “put your lips on the sphere. The mystery of good air isn’t as simple as heat. The only way you’ll truly come to understand the concept of bad air is after you’ve tried to inhale fouled air, and end up choking on your own breath.”
“What,” Sam glanced at the elastic and fleshy sphere in his hand with some worry. “What actually is the sphere Crone Tazzaera. I haven’t seen anything like it before.”
“Orc bladder,” Tazzaera grinned at him. “Now quit stalling and put it in your mouth.”
“But-” Samazzar blanched, trying to cleanse his memory of the salty taste that still lingered on his tongue.
“But nothing,” she snorted. “Power isn’t a gift. It is something seized from nature by the inquisitive and bold. If you truly want to be a fire magi, a task this unpleasant will be nothing compared to what lies ahead. Before long, catalysts will require that you risk your life. Be thankful that I found a safer way of illustrating my point. My master forced me to stay in an airtight cage until I passed out. Three times.”
With a gulp, Sam closed his eyes and put the bladder against his lips. His claws released the spigot and he breathed deeply from the sphere. Almost immediately, black spots filled his vision and Samazzar began to panic.
Intellectually he knew that there was nothing to worry about, but his lungs screamed at him, rejecting the stagnant gas. Everything in his being screamed that he needed to remove his lips from the bladder and take a breath of fresh air.
He inhaled again. His tail vibrated with worry in his lap as the corners of his vision went dark. It felt like his lungs were being crushed under a cave in’s worth of weight.
“Enough, Sam,” crone Tazzaera barked, “drop the bladder and breathe deep. I’ve surrounded you with good air.”
He barely even felt the bladder fall from his claws as he took great gulping gasps of air. His vision cleared, and Sam felt giddy as energy rushed through him. He giggled, practically euphoric as he stared at his claws.
It was strange. He’d lived for months and never really looked at his claws. One after another, tik tik tik, they touched the palm of his hand, pressing against his delicate scales. Another giggle escaped his muzzle.
“Focus!” The Crone’s shout brought Samazzar back to reality. “Just as a fire with too much air overheats and burns its fuel, good air overwhelms kobolds as well. Breathe deep and compare what you’re feeling now to the sensation of dead air “
“In your lungs, you hold the breath of life,” she tapped ash from her pipe as she stared at Samazzar with laser focus. “Most air is a mix of dead air and good air. Harness the taste, the energy you’re feeling right now. Isolate it, understand it.”
Samazzar closed his eyes. More than anything he wanted to move. To run, dance or climb the very walls of the cave itself. Instead, he let Crone Tazzaera’s words flow over him. He focused on the dull crushing panic of the bad air, and compared it to the sensations coursing through his body.
Realization struck him like a lightning bolt. Good air was life, and euphoria. Bad air was dead and flat. It tasted of stale paranoia and claustrophobia. Something inside him popped like an overfilled bubble in a bowl of stew.
Sam’s world shifted. He could feel the good air swirling around him, colored with a hint of crone Tazzaera’s will. Everywhere else, the air was blended, a mix of good and dead. The only exceptions were the smoke of the fire and nostrils of the nearby kobolds. Each time Takka exhaled in her sleep, small puffs of dead air displaced the usual mix. As for the fire? It billowed dead and poisonous air.
He looked around in wonder, tasting the mix of gasses with his new senses as Tazzaera watched on with a smile. A second later, the cocoon of good air around Sam collapsed and the sparkles and giddiness that filled the world faded back to normal.
“Good,” the Crone nodded approvingly. “Even for a kobold you learn the mysteries quickly. It took me several tries to understand the essence of good air.”
“What do you mean ‘for a kobold’?” Sam cocked his head to the side. “Do kobold’s learn mysteries quicker than other races?”
“After a fashion,” Tazzaera confirmed. “As a general rule, the shorter lived races learn magic quicker. Scholars are unsure if it is a matter of ability, or just that the urgency of our fleeting lives spurs us to take risks that the longer lived races do not. It’s still not a fair deal. Even if learning is slightly easier for you and I, it doesn’t outweigh the millenia elves have to study and perfect magic.”
Samazzar nodded thoughtfully. He opened his mouth to speak before his muzzle scrunched like he’d bitten into a sour grub.
“What, little dragon?” crone Tazzaera asked him. “Why the unhappy expression?”
“I just realized,” he sighed, grasping the tip of his tail in both claws while he fiddled with it nervously. “The next step is going to be sending me out to gather more cave rats.”
“And this is why I teach you Sam,” the crone’s muzzle split into a mischievous grin. “You’re the smartest of this indolent lot. Wake up Takka and take Dussok with you. If you need help carrying the rats back, the least those two can do is help you with the heavy lifting. Just make sure to watch out for the bad air. The deeper you go, the more likely you are to find a dead zone.”
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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