The breath burned in Samazzar’s lungs. He fought the urge to struggle against the claw holding him beneath the water’s surface. He knew from experience that Crone Tazzaera would keep him under for a set amount of time, and struggling would only burn up the reserves of good air in his lungs.
That was why he was under the water after all. Tazzaera was trying to isolate him from the good air of the creche so that he could focus on the gas in his own lungs.
His panic built. There was something about literally being able to observe your reserves dwindling that really brought the issue home. Before he began learning magic, when Sam held his breath at some point his lungs would begin to burn and he would be wracked with unspecified anxiety related to drawing in fresh air.
Right now, he knew exactly how much good air was left. A quarter what he started with. His heart hammered in his chest, rattling against his ribs as it urged his escape. Every instinct in his body told him to thrash and fight. That he was dying or almost dead.
Sam bit deep into his tongue, drawing blood. The pain helped him cut through the panic shaking his tiny body. Even if he didn’t learn enough about good air, he would not let the fear rule him.
Kobolds might be small and weak. It might be best for Samazzar to run and hide the instant he spotted a predator, but he refused to be a slave to that instinct. He might run, but that would be his choice. A dragon might temporarily retreat, but it could not live its life trembling in the shadows.
Sam felt his consciousness begin to fuzz as the last of the good air left his lungs. For a brief moment his magical perception fluttered. Then, for some reason it identified diffuse good air in the water itself around him. Not much, barely enough to notice but Sam would bet his tail that it existed.
His starved mind gave up processing the confusing input the second Tazzaera’s claw left his chest. Samazzar splashed to the surface gasping for breath. Relief filled his tiny form along with the air as he clung to the side of the water filled trough, barely aware that Crone Tazzaera was standing within an arm's reach.
“Not enough,” she clicked her tongue in disappointment. “You’re almost there little dragon, but you aren’t yet at the level where you can undergo the baptism for good air.”
Sam blinked dumbly at her, still struggling to fill his lungs properly after being submerged.
“I think we’ve hit your limit with this exercise,” Tazzaera sighed. “I can only dunk you so many times and expect a different result. You’ve learned what you’re going to learn. Now it’s just a matter of finding another way of getting you the understanding that you’ll need.”
“Crone Tazzaera,” Sam’s voice came out in shallow gasps. “Near the end I sensed that there was good air in the water. Is that something real, or was I imagining things?”
“Oh you’re certainly onto something,” Tazzaera nodded her head approvingly. “It usually takes a practitioner much longer to notice the good air in water, but it’s there. After all, no living being can persist without good air. The fish have to breathe something.”
“Maybe that’s the last bit of understanding I need to undergo my baptism?” He asked hopefully.
As much as Sam liked using his new magic, the actual process of learning the secrets of an aspect and undergoing a baptism in a mystery were arduous to say the least. Already, the Crone had dunked him five times in the trough before telling him to meditate on heat and embers while he dried off by the fire.
Tazzaera looked him over thoughtfully as Samazzar did his best to look pathetic. It wasn’t that big of a stretch given his small waterlogged and scrawny form. Finally, the Crone just grunted.
“After a fashion,” she agreed. “Understanding the way good air exists in certain other objects would be enough, but right now you don’t actually comprehend the entirety of it. You’ve only taken your first steps down that path.”
“But-,” Samazzar’s face scrunched up in confusion. How couldn’t he understand, he’d seen it.
“Don’t be like that little dragon,” Tazzaera chuckled, reading his face like one of her books. “You’ve caught a glimpse of a wider world. You don’t actually comprehend anything. If I asked you right now to describe what good air existing in water means both theoretically and for how water interacts with other natural elements, how would you answer?”
“I,” Sam frowned, shivering slightly from the water soaking him. “I’ll be able to breath water once I reach a high enough tier in good air magic?”
He’d meant his words to come out confident, a statement of what he knew, but at the end, his voice lilted upward turning the sentence into a question. Tazzaera stared right through him, her face impassive.
“I suppose you could Samazzar,” the Crone continued after a moment. “That’s not really the sort of knowledge that allows you to advance to the next step, but it is a useful application of the magic. Unfortunately, a minor truth like good air can only be learned up to the fourth tier naturally. There are rumors that more powerful practitioners of a major mystery can specialize in one of that aspect’s minor truths in order to advance them past this point. So, theoretically, at some point once you surpass me, you could choose to learn how to breath underwater.”
“Then what am I missing?” Sam cocked his head, his ears flicking backward in confusion. “I don’t understand why I’m not ready to undergo the baptism yet.”
“You could try,” Tazzaera shrugged. “You might even succeed, but as you know a baptism is no small matter. To get to the second tier you need to expose yourself to the aspect you wish to advance in a way that immerses you completely in it while also risking serious harm.”
“Even if you’re ready,” she continued, hobbling away from the trough toward her ledge by the fire, “a baptism is a risk. If you aren’t ready? At your level it isn’t a death sentence, but the chances of you getting injured or crippled are quite high.”
“Then what should I do?” Sam asked, climbing completely out of the water and quickly slipping on his loincloth. “I feel like I’m falling behind on learning about good air, and I can’t afford to let that happen. There’s too much for me to accomplish to slow down now.”
“Slow?” Tazzaera snorted. “You’re a sprinter upset at the prospect of having to slow down to a jog. Even though they’re only minor truths, you’ve been soaking up information faster than I can teach it. It’s just that good air is hard to conceptualize. I know it took me at least four months to move from initiate to senior initiate in its mysteries.”
“No little dragon,” she waved a claw at him. “You just need to find a way to expose yourself to good air in a new way in order to take the final step. I was thinking of sending you out into the deep tunnels to gather materials and gain experience anyway, but this seems like another goal for such an expedition.”
“An adventure?” Samazzar’s eyes sparkled, his earlier mulishness evaporating. As much as he loved studying with Tazzaera, he had to agree that things were starting to get stale. He could only stomach being submerged in water or baked next to a fire so many times before he started going slightly stir-crazy.
“I suppose calling it ‘an adventure’ is the most positive possible spin on it,” Tazzaera agreed affably. “Luckily, you’ve learned almost as much alchemy as you have magic in the past month. Moving forward, you’re going to find that the extremes you will need to reach in order to push your intuitive understanding to the next level will be beyond what your body can take. Maybe if you are able to evolve your bloodline into something more robust that will change, but until then potions of resistance and healing salves will be your best friend.”
“Like the oil of burn resistance you had me make to learn the second tier of heat magic,” Sam nodded eagerly.
“Exactly,” Tazzaera responded, rustling around in her ingredient satchel before pulling out some scraps of parchment, a quill, and some inkstone. “If you are going to learn the mysteries of fire, little dragon, you’ll need the ability to interact with heat without consequences. Further, past a certain point ordinary heat and fire isn’t going to be enough. Either you’ll need access to special fuels or objects that concentrate the natural essence of an aspect.”
“Here,” she handed him the scrap of parchment. Sam fell upon it, devouring the descriptions of ingredients that the Crone had hastily jotted down, circumventing hours of studying her alchemy tome with a couple strokes of her pen.
“Although you can progress through the initiate stages of a mystery without outside help,” she spoke authoritatively, as if she was reciting the words of an absent master. “To progress to the third tier and the student stages, it takes more than just pluck and hard work. External assistance is needed. For some with an archmage or grandmaster on hand, it is simply the aid of their mentor, but for the rest of us creativity and resourcefulness play almost as much a role in increasing magical power as your comprehension of the mystery itself.
“The most important element is to gather the firespores,” Tazzaera continued while Sam re-read the list. “The rest of the ingredients will be useful, but if you want to advance either heat or ember to the third tier and become a student in those mysteries, you will need either the spores or a number of much rarer and more dangerous reagents. The second most important is the accordion sponge. Although the firespores can pull double duty as an energy source for your baptism in heat and ember, you will need something specifically devoted to the essence of good air in order to evolve that aspect. Accordion sponges can hold immense amounts of gas making them a perfect medium to absorb a specific air essence such as good air.”
Sam cocked his head, frowning slightly as he tucked the scrap of parchment into his satchel. None of the ingredients were common, but he recognized everything on the list other than firespores and the accordion sponge. The rest were liquids, plants or minerals available in the darker and more dangerous places of the deep tunnels. Not impossible tasks, but certainly items that would be worth dozens if not hundreds of merits if they ever even appeared for trade or barter.
“I don’t understand Crone Tazzaera,” Samazzar plopped his small frame down next to the fire, letting the heat wash over him as it began to evaporate the water drenching him. “I recognize everything else, and they’re all ingredients in common healing and resistance concoctions. It makes sense that I would brew something from them in order to expose myself fully to a mystery that I’m trying to comprehend. That said, I don’t even know how to recognize the firespores or the accordion sponge.”
Tazzaera sighed deeply and motioned for Sam to retain his seat while she shuffled to her cave, the click of her cane echoing over the sound of the hatchlings playing in the distance. A minute or two later she returned, her heavy alchemy book tucked under one arm as she struggled her way back to the ledge. After pulling herself up, she flipped the book open and rapidly turned the pages until she found the entry she needed.
“Firespores are the spores of a rare mushroom known as crimson caps,” Sam settled in as Tazzaera began her impromptu lecture. “Crimson caps only grow in high heat and low light settings, often deep within the earth although they aren’t terribly uncommon in upper volcanic tunnels. Crimson caps can be recognized by the dull yellow color of their stalks and their dark red caps. Usually, the top of their stalks will have orange or gold bands, each of which signifies approximately a decade of growth by the mushroom. Care must be taken in harvesting the spores given their extreme heat. Unprotected skin will burn, and exposure of the eyes or lungs may lead to lasting injury, infirmity, or even death.”
“If the book is warning me not to expose myself to the spores,” Sam asked uncertainly. “How can I use it as part of a baptism? As much as I want to advance to the next level, I’d prefer to do that without blinding or killing myself.”
“Shush,” the Crone waved a claw at Samazzar irritably as she paged through the tome looking for another entry. “There we are, accordion sponges. Found in deep lakes or slow moving rivers, accordion sponges can be identified by their light blue bodies encompassed by a series of dark grey or black ridges. As the sponge absorbs gasses, the body will expand becoming lighter in color.”
Sam opened his mouth to repeat his question. At least this time the entry didn’t warn against exposure. Still, he wasn’t entirely sure about retrieving the sponge if it only grew at the bottom of a deep lake or river.
“Before you venture forth on your quest,” Tazzaera cut him off. “You will need to equip yourself. Dried food, a knife, and basic alchemical gear are all a must. You should expect to be gone for at least a month, and in that time you will need to hunt and make the potions you will need to collect the other ingredients.”
“What about a bloodletting kit?” He asked excitedly. “If I encounter something with draconic blood in the tunnels, it would be a shame if I couldn’t take advantage of it.”
“Sure,” the Crone snorted. “I’ve taught you enough that you should know the risks inherent to trying an evolution on your own. Still, the world is stacked enough against you that I’m not going to be what stands between you and your dreams. I have some spare quills and Moon Reeds on my desk. Make sure to pick them up before you leave.”
“As for the firespores and the accordion sponge,” Tazzaera continued, raising her claw to silence Samazzar’s potentially unending stream of questions. “Bring them back to me and I will teach you how to temper them. The process is involved enough that I wouldn’t suggest trying it on your own.”
“Is that why you’ve had me studying potions of fire resistance, oils of burn resistance, healing salves, and potions of deep breath?” Sam asked excitedly. “To prepare me for my adventure?”
“Yes little dragon,” she answered, an affectionate smile on her muzzle. “Even more than that, the potion of deep breath will let you spend up to ten minutes at the bottom of an underground lake. Given how close you are to ascending to the second level of the mystery of good air, that might be enough to provide you both the knowledge and the baptism in one go. Think of every opportunity and chance encounter in the deep tunnels as an opportunity to expand your horizons. Who knows, with your comprehension and luck you might even be able to come across a mystery or alchemical ingredient I haven’t predicted.”
“Great,” Sam sprang up, excitement flickering like flames in his large yellow eyes. “I’ll run back to the cave and grab Takkla and Dussok right away. They don’t mind training, but I can tell that they’ve been bored out of their minds. Going back into the deep tunnels is exactly the sort of challenge they need to help keep their senses sharp.”
“No,” Tazzaera replied with a smile that sent shivers down Samazzar’s spine. “Send them to me. Their training so far has been productive but haphazard. If they truly want to make the most out of their bloodline gifts, they will need the help of someone experienced to harness them. Luckily for the two of them, I am here.”
“I am sure both of them will have a wonderful time while you’re gone,” the Crone’s jagged teeth flashed in the darkness of the cave. Suddenly venturing alone into the dangers of the deep tunnels didn’t seem so daunting anymore.
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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