Takkla, Dussok and Samazzar’s saved merits were more than enough for them to rent their own modest cavern about halfway between Center Cave and their former creche. With a little help from Dussok’s increased strength, the three of them built a trio of small huts around a fire pit so that they could have a little privacy from each other.
Each day they worked on their own projects. Sam spent his time back in the creche reading through Crone Tazzaera’s texts and taking occasional lessons on introductory alchemy in between the old kobold’s frequent naps.
Dussok built himself an obstacle course in the rear third of their cave and stocked it with large rocks of varying weights. As stodgy as the big kobold could be, Sam woke up almost every morning to his littermate’s grunts of exertion. Dussok was serious about getting his body into peak shape, and he was willing to put hours and days of effort in to reach that goal.
Takkla usually set herself up next to Dussok’s training area. Sometimes she would curl herself nose to tail like a hatchling, taking long naps while bathing in Dussok’s comforting presence. More often than not however, Samazzar and Dussok’s infectious enthusiasm pushed Takkla past her inherent lethargy and drove her to improve herself as well.
Her training wasn’t as intense or exacting as either of the males’, but Takkla still made a point of spending an hour or two a day learning how to make and set traps. Then, unless she collapsed into an all afternoon nap, she would move on to more traditional weapons training.
Takkla excelled with thrown weapons such as knives, javelins, and nets. It helped that her bloodline ability let instinctively know the distance and height difference between herself and a target to within a scale’s breadth from just a glance. Unfortunately, Takkla’s slight frame and cautious nature meant that she didn’t make much progress with melee weapons like spears, picks or clubs.
Each afternoon, the three of them would pay for four bowls of stew and bring the spare to Crone Tazzaera in the creche. After eating, they would settle in and study magic, doing their best to tune out the crowds of new hatchlings that looked upon the newly minted adult kobolds with starry-eyed awe.
Once the four of them settled into their routine, the weeks began to blend together. They’d earned enough merits to avoid the deep tunnels for a time, instead focusing on self-improvement. No matter how profitable trapping the cave rats was, the memory of their fight with the millipede still loomed large in Sam’s memory.
Even if Dussok was a little stronger or if Takkla were slightly more skilled with traps and ranged attacks, it didn’t change the danger inherent to the deep tunnels. The tunnels might represent a fortune in fur and meat, but it hardly mattered if Sam didn’t survive long enough to spend it. They might be able to avoid apex predators and track their own prey more efficiently, but every journey past the gates of Center Cave was a risk.
Samazzar kept that thought foremost in his mind as he sat before the towering fire in their former creche, Takkla and Dussok to his right. Crone Tazzaera stoked the blaze with a wave of her hand, forcing the nearby hatchlings, each barely taller than his skinny waist, to scurry backward.
Sam couldn’t help but wonder if that is what he’d looked like fresh out of the egg. Scales soft and fresh, eyes wide as they tried to understand this strange new world they’d been born into.
“Concentrate Samazzar!” Tazzaera barked at him, rapping her cane onto the stone overhang of her ledge. “You’re close little dragon. Don’t let your focus fade now. Can’t you feel the heat on your scales? The way it caresses you and drives away the night air?”
He closed his eyes. Crone Tazzaera did something to the fire. He could almost see her magic as tendrils reached out from her and embedded themselves in the fire pit.
The heat was a force beating down on him, going from red to white in his magical vision as it overwhelmed his senses. The air itself seemed to boil as the heat from the fire radiated outward.
His tongue fell from his open mouth, instantly dry as Samazzar tried to pant the excess heat away, failing spectacularly. He gasped for breath as the dry air assaulted his lungs, his body struggling to absorb the scant good air left after the heat blanched the rest from his surroundings.
“Look inward little dragon,” Tazzaera’s voice was the only thing that existed in his throbbing feverworld. Mirages coiled around him as the flicker of flames seared Sam’s scales, threatening to boil him alive. “Compare the heat of the fire to the world around you, then look inside your own body. The heat hiding in your blood. The warmth generated each time you flex a muscle. Even your beating heart itself is powered by heat.”
Sam struggled to follow her words as the inferno of the Crone’s magic clouded his senses. Trying to view Dussok and Takkla with his inner eye was like attempting to make out the details of a candle with the noon sun behind it. Even his own body was barely noticeable, but ever so faintly he was able to make out the impression of his heat against the sweltering cave.
“You are so close to your baptism,” Crone Tazzaera’s voice rasped across his scales. “Let the warmth boiling off the fire flow over you. Your heat and the outside world are both trying to tell you a story. Listen to it.”
He bit his lower lip, the iron taste of his blood almost unnoticeable under the beating heat of the fire. At some point both Takkla and Dussok had moved away from the fire, unable to contend with the Crone’s magical reshaping.
She was right. He was almost there. Sam could feel it. There was some realization that danced like a forgotten word at the tip of his tongue. He could all but hear it, like a familiar melody being played far enough away that he only perceived snippets of the whole song.
The heat disappeared, drawing a gasp from Sam. His eyes blinked open, perplexed by the sudden change.
The fire was nothing more than embers, a collection of white hot coals that glowed angrily in the firepit. Belatedly, he realized that the cavern was still incredibly hot. The only difference is that the fire was no longer searing the very muscles from his bones.
“Quickly Samazzar,” Tazzaera’s voice labored under the stress of suppressing the flame. “You are so close. If we are lucky, we will handle two awakenings at once tonight.”
She tossed her herb satchel to him. Reflexively, he caught it, struggling to right himself after it threw Sam off balance. Tazzaera had added something to it since he’d last inspected it. It was much heavier than he remembered.
“Listen closely because we don’t have much time,” Sam frowned at the tremor in Tazzaera’s hands as she strained to control the fire while she spoke. “Every level you learn in a mystery requires a progressively more drastic baptism. Even if your knowledge of the magic is sufficient, you still need to expand your connection to the mystery. That means ritualistically exposing yourself to the core of the secret you are trying to learn, often to the detriment of your own body.”
“You are close to awakening the second tier of heat as well as the magic of embers,” Tazzaera continued with difficulty. “Inside the satchel you will find my ceramic alembic as well as a vial of water collected directly from Shimmer Falls and two portions each of Gregor’s Wort, Shadeleaf, and tallow. I need you to make an oil of burn resistance as soon as possible.”
Frantically, Sam dug into the loose cloth bag, pulling out the chipped but sturdy double bulb of the alembic, sealed amphora of water and other physical ingredients. He frowned, digging deeper into the container, unable to find any other alchemical tools.
“By the stars boy!” Tazzaera thundered as Samazzar practically shoved his snout into the satchel during his panicked search. “In case my discomfort wasn’t obvious, I want to make it clear. I am in distress and you need to hurry!”
“What,” she hissed, “is the hold up?”
“Where are tongs?” Sam asked, staring up at her with wild eyes. “Is the crucible rod nearby? How am I supposed to get the alembic over the fire?”
“With your claws!” Her eyes flashed the same white as the coals. “Use a layer of tallow to insulate them if you must, but part of unlocking the magic is connecting with your mystery in a way that goes beyond your natural limits. Something that will make the heat part of you.”
Hesitantly, Samazzar picked up the alembic. He closed his eyes and exhaled, a nervous shuddering breath.
That was all of the doubt he allowed himself. Sam’s claws moved with a speed born of experience. The Shimmer Falls water entered the retort pot, followed shortly by expertly measured portions of the Gregor’s Wort and Shadeleaf. He sliced off a clump of tallow and it splashed in after the plants.
A quick glance around him revealed the worried faces of Dussok and Takkla, but nothing to stir the solution with. Shrugging, Sam stuck in his taloned finger, wincing slightly as the dissolving Shadeleaf gave him a mild chemical burn as it broke down the tallow. He swirled the liquid with brisk circular motions until the ingredients were nothing but an indistinguishable slurry.
He slathered what remained of the tallow up and down both of his claws, knowing that it would help, but that the help wouldn’t be nearly enough. Before he could second guess himself, Sam grasped the alembic in both claws and scurried to the edge of the fire before holding the heavy ceramic vessel over the white hot coals.
It hurt. The tallow covering his scales glistened in the dim light cast off by the embers, doing its best to make the flames bearable, but by the stars above did it hurt. More than when he’d drank the sabotaged salamander blood. More than when he’d been beaten up at the gates to Center Cave.
He could almost smell the flesh cooking from his bones as the white hot agony radiated from the coals. Still, he made no sound, preferring to bite his tongue rather than shame himself with a strangled scream in front of the hatchlings.
“I know how you feel little dragon,” Tazzaera’s voice had softened. “I had the same reaction when my master made me complete a potion bare clawed over an open fire. Even with oils and unguents it took me days to heal the blisters. Magic has its risks and costs. You can’t simply take from nature without giving back something of your own.”
“Nnnrgggh,” Sam didn’t even remember what he meant to say as the noise tore itself from his throat.
“I’m sorry Samazzar,” Tazzaera chided, her voice distant. “But you can’t lose focus right now. You need to activate your vision to monitor the heat in the alembic, otherwise you won’t be able to tell when it boils. As painful as this is, it will all be a waste if you let the ingredients burn and spoil.”
He didn’t respond verbally, instead blinking his eyes against the tears of pain as he activated his meager heat magic and glared at the water in the retort. So long as he paid attention to the uniform way the heat spread itself through the solution, Samazzar would be able to tell the exact moment the ingredients began to boil. There was a reason why most alchemists were at least partially inducted into the mysteries of heat.
Seconds passed and the pain grew in Sam’s claws. The heat from the coals assaulted the entire front of his body, making even his loose loincloth feel as pleasant as boiling oil clinging to his scales.
Then it happened. First one, then another small bubble of slightly cooler gas began to rise from the retort. Quickly, it began to collect in the condensation bulb of the alembic. Sam stared at the gathering gas, willing it to evaporate and move faster with every ounce of his being.
Finally, there was enough. He pulled the alembic away from the coals and staggered a handful of steps away before setting it on the cavern floor.
Sam fell to the ground, gasping for breath as he stared in horror at his twisted and burned claws. The scales were discolored and loose, some already flaking off to reveal the scarred and blistered flesh beneath.
His breath came out in ragged sobs as the pain from the burns began to filter into his senses. Waves of pain dulled the room around him, and his vision began to narrow into a tunnel.
“Snap out of it little dragon,” it sounded like Tazzaera was at the end of a distant hallway. “We will have proper medical treatment for your wounds in a minute, but for now you need to be prepared to use the oil of burn resistance as soon as it is ready.”
“But it’ll take at least an hour for the gas to cool and condense,” Sam responded, trying to blink the tears from his eyes. “There’s no way I’ll be able to use the oil in-”
He stopped speaking, eyes widening as he felt Tazzaera release her magical hold on the fire and shift her attention to the alembic. The flames sprang back into being in an instant as the interior of the condensation bulb’s temperature dropped almost to the levels of the steadily thawing snow outside the cave.
Something inside him snapped. It felt like a door that until that moment had been cracked open, was instead flung wide. Energy rushed through Sam as suddenly he knew everything about the heat in his body. Even the very air of the room around him seemed to whisper its story to him as the Crone worked her magic.
“There,” Tazzaera said smugly, a twinkle in her eye. “Now that the oil is complete you’ve reached the senior initiate level in heat magic. That means you can tell what has influenced your mystery in the recent past. Not terribly exciting, but it will be worth it once you reach the student stage and you can actively control the source of your magic to a limited extent.”
“Now quit dawdling,” she chided Sam. “Coat your claws with the oil so that you can learn the magic of embers.”
“What next?” Samazzar hissed with pain as the oil of burn resistance worked its way through his cracked scales and into his raw and blistered flesh.
“Next,” Tazzaera grimaced as she dampened the flames with an act of will. “Grab an ember from the coals. With the oil you’ll be able to feel its heat, but it won’t actually burn you. You should be well past the knowledge threshold to learn the magic, so it should just be a matter of handling the coal for a minute or so as a baptism.”
Sam gritted his teeth as he thrust a claw into the fire pit. Maybe at the beginning of the night he’d have hesitated more, but it would be foolish to object at this point. After everything he’d been through, what was a little more pain?
He blinked as he brought the white hot coal up to eye level. It was blazingly hot, but the oil did its work. Despite the heat, the only pain was from the rough surface of the ember against his charred and pitted claws.
Tazzaera slumped on the ledge, spent, and the fire returned to normal. Samazzar stepped away from the edge of the pit, rolling the ember around in his claws, marvelling at its heat and beauty.
When the epiphany unlocking the magic came, it was almost anticlimactic. The tingle and instinctive knowledge flowed into Samazzar, but after the all-consuming flood of entering the second tier of the heat mystery, it was nothing more than an underwhelming splash.
Sam sighed with relief, throwing the ember back into the fire. His hands ached and his head pounded, but he’d succeeded. Admittedly, he’d spent weeks studying, but two tiers of magic in the same night was an accomplishment that would let any student of the mysteries hold their muzzle high.
“Come over here little dragon,” Tazzaera’s exhausted voice called him back to the present. “Let’s get those burns treated. I have something to prevent infection and promote healing.”
“You did a good job tonight Sam,” Crone Tazzaera’s eyes were bright with excitement despite the way her body slumped, wrung out and spent. “Your rate of growth is awe inspiring, but more than that you have the will needed to make a proper magi. When I sat beside the fire, tears drying on my face as my master gave me the same instructions I gave you today, I hesitated. It took me three tries to fight through the pain and complete the alchemy. I’m proud of you, and more than that, you should be proud of yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
A warmth welled up in Samazzar’s chest that had nothing to do with the 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