“I killed someone,” Takkla stared at her claws like she expected to see blood on them. “I just remember thinking that he was going to hurt Dussok, and everything went red. The next thing I knew, there was a leg in front of me and I bit down.”
“You didn’t kill anyone,” Samazzar crooned soothingly as he rubbed her back with his claw. “You injured someone to stop him from hurting a friend. That didn’t kill him. What killed him was the punishment for his crimes. He wasn’t able to walk, and even the small mercy of exile would have been enough to inflict a terrible death upon him.”
Dussok glared at Sam as Takkla buried her muzzle in her claws. Sam blinked, glancing from Dussok to where Takkla was suddenly wracked with quiet sobs.
“Samazzar,” Dussok’s stern tone earned a wince from Sam. “There is a time to talk, and a time to be quiet. You seem to labor under the belief that only the former exists. Right now, it is time for the latter.”
Sam crumpled. As much as he wanted to cheer Takkla up, nothing seemed to be working. He looked down at his claws, folded neatly in his lap, fretting silently as he curled his tail around his body.
Dussok sighed, rubbing the scales on Takkla’s back as she continued rocked back and forth. A full day had passed since the encounter at the gates to Center Cave, and she’d been inconsolable since.
Around the creche, their littermates ran back and forth chasing and tackling each other into giggling balls of scales and claws. They were playing a game Sam didn’t even know the name of, let alone the rules. A flurry of snowballs rained down on a contingent of the other pups as a gaggle of other hatchlings tittered and packed snow together near the mouth of the cave.
The food and merits provided by Sam, Takkla and Dussok had raised the creche’s spirits. The lethargy brought on by hunger and cold weather were burned away by the bright cheerful crackling of the cave’s fire. While they were out, the Crone had hired some other Kobolds to hunt down enough fire moss to keep them warm for weeks.
The click of Crone Tazzaera’s cane on the cavern floor drew Samazzar’s focus from his exuberant littermates. He looked up from his claws, smiling as he noticed her hunched form slowly making its way from her sleeping quarters over toward the fire where the three of them sat together.
“Both Samazzar and Dussok are right you know,” despite the noise of the playing hatchlings, her quiet voice carried easily to the three of them. “You didn’t kill anyone Takkla, but not all injuries are visible. The mind is a curious thing, and it’s easy to suffer blows that are almost without origin.”
“You might do the same thing every day for a year,” she pulled herself up onto her ledge by the fire, “and you might not have a problem. Then one day, you stop and reflect on your actions and the horror of what you’re doing smashes down on you like a collapsing cavern.”
“On the other hand,” the Crone coughed into a claw, her entire body wracked by the action. “Sometimes it isn’t even a single event. Guards kept under stress, unable to sleep as they protect the gates against the horrors of the deep caves day in and day out suffer from the same ailment. Sometimes it all adds up and justbecomes too much for them.”
“What do we do to help Takkla?” Sam glanced at his friend as she hugged her scaly knees to her chest. “It doesn’t feel good to see her like this.”
“Takkla?” Crone Tazzaera cocked her head at them. “All three of you have been through a lot. She’s just the one with the most visible scars from it.”
“But I feel fine?” Sam didn’t mean for the sentence to come out as a question, trailing off with the final syllable. He didn’t understand what the Crone was talking about, and his confusion readily displayed on his face and in his voice.
“Of course you do little dragon,” the Crone responded with a phlegmy laugh. “You don’t even know how to properly fear death. Why would almost dying impact you?”
“On the other hand,” she continued, frowning with concern. The Crone tapped her cane on the floor before pointing it at Dussok. “How are you holding up Dussok? I know you feel responsible for the other two. That can be a heavy burden to bear. Have you had trouble sleeping? Any strong bouts of emotions or irritability?”
Dussok simply nodded, his muzzle and the corners of his eyes tight.
“I was afraid of that,” Tazzaera sighed. “Treatment would be simple if we had access to someone with some mastery of the magic of the mind. Unfortunately, all you have available is me.”
“I’ve overcome my share of trauma,” the elderly kobold sighed, shifting slightly on the ledge as she made eye contact with Takkla and Dussok in turn. “There’s no one way to do it, but I’ve found three things that help. The simplest is time, but self reflection and quiet meditation can do the trick as well. If neither of those are an option, hard work to distract yourself can work in a pinch.”
“Samazzar tells me that the two of you want to learn the secrets of heat,” the Crone continued, taking Takkla and Dussok’s nods in stride. “That’s good. One of the most important aspects of learning magic is meditating and reflecting on the core of the truth you seek to discover. The techniques used to try and make you understand what heat truly means will help you process what you’ve been through.”
Silently, Dussok raised one of his claws.
“None of that Dussok,” Tazzaera waved a yellowed and cracked claw of her own. “If you have a question, just speak up.”
“Crone,” he nodded respectfully to Tazzaera. “What do you mean by that? Heat exists. It feels good on my scales when I curl up next to the fire. I don’t understand how there can be any ‘secret truth’ to that.”
“Right now you understand words,” the Crone chuckled. “Temperature, heat retention, and evaporation describe abstract concepts. To learn a mystery, you need to strip the words aside and look into the core of what the magic seeks to do. When the time comes for you to use magic, you won’t be using the crutches of words. You’ll be acting on instinct and intuition as you shape reality itself through the lens of your mystery. The first step toward learning a magic is to train your understanding of what it truly is until it becomes as much a part of you as your claws or tail.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Dussok frowned. “A phenomena either exists or it doesn’t. A word either accurately describes it or it doesn’t. How am I supposed to conceive of something that exists without words?”
“This might be a problem,” Tazzaera mused, yellowed claw tapping her scaly chin. “Dussok, you’re just about as smart as Samazzar, but unless you change fundamentally, you’ll never be half the magi he will. Do you know why?”
“Is it a matter of natural aptitude?” Dussok questioned. “Perhaps he has some sort of inborn talent or skill that makes him a natural prodigy?”
The bigger kobold cocked his head to side, brow furrowed thoughtfully as he tried to work his way through the crone’s logic.
“No,” she shook her head. “There is no such thing as magical aptitude. There is only comprehension and creativity. Unlike you, Samazzar lives each moment with the same sense of wonder as a hatchling breaking out of his shell and seeing the sky for the first time. For him, everything is new, magical and possible. No matter how tall, all mountains are scalable so long as he can find the right trail to the summit.”
“Sam is an extreme,” Tazzaera continued with a chuckle. “Honestly? I worry about him sometimes.”
Samazzar frowned, ears flicking backward. For the life of him, Sam couldn’t understand why Crone Tazzaera was worried about him. He was always careful when he went off on his adventures to gather resources for the creche.
“But you,” she pointed her cane at Dussok once more. “Without a paradigm shift, even learning the simplest of magic will be difficult. Your psyche is too pragmatic. You focus on what you can directly observe and subconsciously reject everything else. Even if you can intellectually understand a truth, the very core of your being will push it away.”
“That sounds like natural aptitude to me,” Dussok responded, a hint of stubborn challenge in his voice. “After spending time with the little dragon, I understand exactly what you’re speaking of. There is something about him that makes the impossible possible.”
Dussok shrugged. “At least until it doesn’t, he overreaches and gets himself and those around him killed in some kind of horrible fashion,” the somber kobold finished.
“Was that a joke?” Sam flicked his ears as he stared at Dussok. “I’m not angry, I just honestly didn’t think you were big on humor.”
“As I said Sam,” a hint of a smile flashed on Dussok’s muzzle. “You make the impossible possible”
The fire flared behind them, transforming from a quiet crackling hearth into a roaring inferno in a second. The flames stole the air from their lungs as a heavy dry heat slammed into them. Samazzar’s mouth opened on its own, his tongue lolling out as he panted frantically to try and struggle against the pulsing waves of warmth.
His eyes flickered around the circle. Dussok and Takkla’s scales shone like rubies under the fire’s bright light. Crone Tazzaera sat up straighter on her ledge than Sam had ever seen her hold her hunched form. She held one claw open above her head, her eyes reflecting the dancing inferno.
Tazzaera’s hand closed with a click as her yellowed claws tapped into each other. The fire disappeared leaving only embers. Sam shivered as the heat dissolved like a dream. The icy grip of winter caressed his scales, the warmth radiating from the rocks surrounding the fire pit his only comfort.
“Do you feel that Dussok?” Crone Tazzaera practically cackled the question. “The way the air tries to boil you alive? Can you taste the way it robs the moisture from the air? How about the way the heat fights your lungs as you try and draw breath?”
Around the cave, their littermates squealed in alarm as the heat and light from the fire disappeared, dampened by the Crone’s magic.
“How about now?” Tazzaera ignored the other hatchlings’ worry as she continued ranting at the big kobold. “Can you put words to the absence of heat? It’s cold, but that word is too simple. It doesn’t do the bone aching chill that’s seeping into the cave justice. ‘Cold’ has nothing to do with the heat stored in the rocks around you, protecting you from the icy night. The word doesn’t encompass the way the frigid air gnaws at you as it worms underneath your scales.”
She drew her claw in a line through the air. The fire sprang back to life with a pleasant crackle. The other kobolds looked from the restored flames to the Crone before shrugging and returning to their naps and games.
“Do you understand now Dussok?” The Crone leaned forward, her yellow eyes lidded in the flickering light of the cave as she stared at Sam's companion. “Words are useful, but they are abstractions. General descriptions that cannot possibly encompass the wonderful and majestic truths of the natural world.”
Samazzar nodded fervently, an almost reverent awe reflected in his eyes. Even now he could feel the sudden shifts in heat. Before he’d always focused on the heat itself, the way it felt on his scales and how he’d struggled under its weight. He’d never even thought to contemplate the way that heat interacted with the rest of the world.
His focus had always been himself, how the heat and cold impacted his diminutive body. He had never even thought about the depth of the mystery, how heat and cold ebbed and flowed from every object in the creche.
Sam’s eyes sparkled as Tazzaera’s words led him down a new path. He activated his heat vision, letting a broad smile slip across his muzzle as the dull cavern erupted in a rainbow of reds and oranges. Suddenly the colors were so much more than a way to hunt rats and navigate the deep tunnels. Their pulse and flow hinted at knowledge about the mysteries, just out of the reach of his grasping claws.
“I suppose,” Dussok frowned, running his claw over his own scales. “I still don’t see why I need to understand something so theoretical and ephemeral in order to use magic.”
“Because you do,” Tazzaera replied with a shrug. “The two steps to learning any magic are comprehension and baptism. You need to understand the truth you seek to master on an instinctive level. Only then can you expose yourself symbolically to the power of the mystery in order to seal your bond to it.”
“What comes next?” Dussok asked, glancing contemplatively at the fire.
“If you were Samazzar?” She snorted drawing Sam out of his introspective trance, “we would just need to baptize you.”
“I know Dussok” Tazzaera shook her head, a hint of a grin on her muzzle. “It’s hardly fair. Look at Sam, he’s already managed to deepen his understanding of heat magic from just that demonstration.”
Sam blushed, his ears flicking backward as his tail slapped on the cave floor.
“Do you mean I’m ready for another baptism?” He asked hopefully, his eagerness overcoming the embarrassment over being singled out by the Crone.
“If only,” Tazzaera flashed a mouthful of chipped and yellowed teeth at him. “Each tier of magic represents a qualitative increase in difficulty. Both in the complexity of the mysteries you must comprehend, and in the power of the baptism. At higher levels, you’ll need to gather rare and dangerous materials connected to your mystery, alchemically treat them, and then risk your very body by exposing it to their energy.”
“Oh,” Samazzar replied, his ears drooping.
“Neither of you should worry too much,” the Crone replied with a chuckle. “Most magi don’t simply comprehend what they need in one attempt. The traditional method is to learn how to filter out the rest of the world and focus solely on the mystery that you’re trying to comprehend. My original plan was always to teach you how to meditate.”
“After all,” Tazzaera looked at Takkla with some sympathy. “Half of our goal isn’t magic. It’s teaching you hatchlings how to deal with the terrible weight of the world. A side effect of the technique is that your concerns tend to melt away along with outside stimuli. It’s just as effective at helping you master your own feelings as it is at revealing the mysteries of the natural world.”
Samazzar found himself nodding, almost involuntarily.
“Good,” the elderly Kobold continued after looking at each of them in turn. “The first step is to cluster around the fire and close your eyes.”
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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