ALL I KNOW ARE SAD SONGS: in which the voice of the dragon speaks

Mist and the cold chilly air of the peak filtered in as we stepped out. There were strange chemical smells mixed in with the natural ones, like brimstone, smoke, and manure. It was both very clean (the alpine freshness of great altitudes, rock laced with rain) and very gross (noxious things that smelled more like something Helli might try to put together from suspicious liquids and corrosive metals).

“Well, I hope they have snacks outside,” Iago said.

“Let’s see what’s out here.” Felegum had probably meant this in the supportive send-a-scout-out way and not the go-forth-my-son interpretation that Iago took.

A voice boomed from somewhere unseen, echoing across the halls. “Who goes there?”

“Iago!” said the monk. “Hello, voice, I am Iago!”

“Have you brought the shipment?” the voice asked. “You will feel my wrath if not.”

Kobold skeletons littered the sides of the plateau, perhaps a reminder of the consequences of “if not”.

“We have a shipment here somewhere.” Iago patted himself down as if such an item might present itself.

“Deliver what is owed to me by the mewling sycophants below,” the voice said again.

Iago sat down. “I’m going to sit here a bit.”

“Lies!” the voice boomed again. “You are imposters! Have you destroyed it?”

At this point, Zeno and Felegum were almost audibly wincing at this exchange, so the bard took things into his own hands.

“The door?” he asked. “Yes. The shipment, no.”

“Have you brought it?” the voice boomed again.

“Oh, a new danger!” I don’t know what Iago was seeing, but he felt very inclined to comment on it.

“I tire of this,” the voice said and smoke threaded through the doorway back to the rest of us. “You will deliver to me this shipment.”

There was something weird about the smell of this smoke. Granted, I’d never met a dragon that actually breathed fire before. Well, I guess Tem’s boss kind of counted, but I didn’t think I’d stuck around to watch her immolate anything (and if she had, then like, jail for her for a thousand years for further messing up Csipherus). This might be what dragonfire smelled like. I didn’t expect it to smell like Tem’s breath too much, though this was more like tar than anything living.

While I was puzzling this out, Tem had already come to her conclusion.

“Reveal yourself, impostor!” she called, striding forth into the room with surety of purpose. “Your contraption lies in ruin and so shall you.”

I had to hand it to her: that was a pretty good line.

“Oh!” fumed the voice. “That will be the end of you!”

What followed was a very unpleasant interlude with poison. This was surprising on multiple levels– this dragon was red, which meant that it did the fire thing, not the poison thing. I had no idea what flavor corresponded to that, but I’d been assured it wasn’t this one.

Also, all things considered, it didn’t hurt as badly as I’d been prepared for a full strike from a dragon to.

“You’re not even that great at the poison game!” Iago critiqued from the floor.

“Tem,” Zeno said impatiently, “why don’t you tell them why we’re actually here?”

“Deposit the dragon’s shipment!” the voice came again, insistent.

Zeno sighed. “Look, friend. We know the dragon is dead. We’re here to help with the problem.”

He gave Tem a smack, possibly of encouragement, to get her out there and chatting up whatever this speaker was.

“Oh my god,” the voice came again, this time much smaller and relieved. “We were scared and nervous.”

A small body scrambled over the silhouette of a massive dragon and down the hoard. It was a very sad kobold.

“Are you okay?” Zeno asked.

“Oh,” the kobold said, “it’s fine. The gas just goes right to the ground, I’m fine.”

“Oh no, I meant like, emotionally.”

“Oh!” The kobold shook his head. “No, absolutely not. I’m devastated. I have been making contraptions to keep up this ruse to keep my people alive.”

Felegum, no doubt sensing the source of civilization was close at hand, snuck nearer. “Have you tried democracy?”

“Oh no,” the kobold replied with polite firmness. “My people only recognize and worship deities.”

With all this being said, it felt like we were probably safe to come more fully into the door versus peeking around the door. Before us loomed the gigantic dragon corpse, as well as a very convincing silhouette and the hoard. Jars with massive organs were placed around the body, which itself was pretty well along the decay process. On further inspection, the replica dragon appeared to be made of paper and metal and was actually pretty convincing.

“What happened here?” Zeno asked.

“Well, the dragon was dead.” The little kobold wrung his hands. “And I knew I had to do something.”

He had been delivering a shipment to the peak, just as we had been. Just as with us, the kobolds at the carnival below had not expected him to come back; there was a high probability that delivery personnel wound up as snacks. He had been preparing himself for that prestigious end, not to find the deceased body of the Firedrake. From that day forward, he became the Voice of the Dragon.

Tem moved forward to investigate the hoard, but the Voice of the Dragon (VOD, for short) stepped in. “Please do not.”

He sighed. “When I got here, only the heart was removed. Which, if you know anything about dragons, you know that’s like the least useful part.”

“But you’d mentioned that there was a civilizing force,” Felegum pressed. “Is that from eating the dragon parts?”

Both Iago and VOD looked horrified. “They would never,” Iago said.

“It gives us purpose,” VOD explained, eager to get off the topic of consuming their once-god. “It wants as much wealth as possible. Us kobolds get smarter the closer we are to the dragon.”

This was actually pretty neat. I kind of wanted to know more about how that worked.

With a sigh, VOD turned to the paper-metal dragon. “Well, we can load the ballistas. It’s about time for the great wyrm to fly once again.”

Tem, perhaps thinking as we all initially were that VOD was about to launch the dead body of the Firedrake over the peak and out into the wild blue yonder, picked the kobold up by the neck.

“Tem, no!” Zeno yelled.

Luckily, VOD was very capable of defending himself and smashed Tem with a blast cepper cray before wriggling to safety. This truly smelled awful. Tem, who had received this at close range, did not seem to be able to see or breathe super well.

She coughed. “You dishonor him!”

“You didn’t even know them!” VOD fired back from the safety of a pile of goods.

“I think,” said Felegum, settling into Therapy Mode, “that our purpose is to investigate the murder here.”

This was a newer thing for Felegum. I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened when he was in Paripas and unable to speak, but apparently a lot of people had spoken to him about feelings, discussing them, and processing stuff, and now that he could talk again he would periodically switch from his aspect of genocide to this newer one of trusted counselor. It was still taking me a little while to get used to.

Apparently it was also a bit of a shift for VOD too.

“Oh,” the kobold said after some thought. “Well. It was dead.”

“Did you see anything in the sky?” Felegum asked.

“No,” VOD said. “Except for…his formerly leathery wings.”

“Praise be,” said Zeno.

“Praise be,” replied VOD, before he gave way to grief.

After more careful converstion from Therapy Felegum, we learned that the emotional load of keeping his civilization alive had indeed taken a toll on VOD. He reminisced fondly of how the Firedrake would care for his people, whether that was seeing that the kobolds at the carnival had good living conditions (for kobolds). The sick and elderly would be brought to the peak where either the Firedrake would heal them, if it was within his power, or eat them if it wasn’t.

And sure enough, where VOD pointed there was a little fireplace with kobold-sized chairs for those creatures to hang out in comfort by their dragon. VOD laughed and brought up how they used to have little saunas in the rain sometimes when the Firedrake would come down and heat their water.

All things considered, it had sounded nice. Like a home.

VOD said that at the beginning there were only seven kobolds serving the dragon, but these days that number reached into the hundreds.

“It’s pretty scary to go through such a big change in your life,” said Felegum with true compassion.

Here, I tried to make an illusion of the Firedrake– to the best of my ability, given that I had a basic working knowledge of dragons and also a massive body to go off of– as a gesture of comfort.

Logistically, this was more challenging than I’d given it credit for: I tried to get a parallax going to make it look like the dragon was flying very high up, but VOD said it still looked pretty small in a sad voice. Given that I could only work within fifteen feet, yes, had to be creative.

The little kobold looked up at it, unsure.

“We have…resources,” Tem, an untrained grief counselor, said. “It’s not unheard of for kobolds to be very sad when their dragon dies. My order knows this, and you kobolds are not the first to experience this.”

“Yeah,” said VOD petulantly, “but all the kobolds I’ve heard of end up dead or subjugated or mindless. I don’t want that. I liked what we had.”

Thought, freedom of will. Still serving something, but being aware of the finer things, like collapsing inns and subpar fair food. I could appreciate that.

“I mean, I have theories on why I’m okay and I know about the dragon, but like–” VOD had to pause to swallow down his anxiety– “I don’t think that it would work for the others. I think that they would know and just lose everything. My whole world, my family, would fall apart. No more cemporium.”

He asked us for help trying to get the paper and metal dragon together and onto the ballista. It was his hope that showing the other kobolds the Firedrake flying away and taking an extended vacation would perhaps provide more of a cover as well as renew their faith in them.

Obviously we helped. It was about two or three hours of effort to get the paper-metal dragon together, but we did it. I talked about possibly using the dragon dating service as a cover. Like, maybe the Firedrake didn’t want anyone coming in because they were seeing someone. And then if we could convince another dragon to come over permanently to look after the kobolds, well, we could just say they were the result of that union.

I thought it was pretty slick.

Iago brought up that he had a dragon friend too. He mentioned that I could reach out to them and ask if they’d be willing to hang out at the peak. This, I replied, was nuts. Absolutely crazy. I was not going to contact a red dragon I didn’t know. That felt like a road to ruin.

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea to have those things in your head. They’re super powerful,” I said, remembering that Ojutai hadn’t gotten back to me yet on the weird lightning stone yet and wondering what the hell time it was anywhere else in the world.

With the dragon safely loaded and prepared for a morning flight (where we figured it would be most easily visible to the kobolds below), we set about to trying to fix the door for VOD. That was a little harder, but we managed to get it mostly to a point where it would guard him. From there, we discussed next steps and Iago kindly made us soup.

As the soup was cooking, Felegum swept around the dragon, no doubt looking for ways this massive death could have been accomplished. With the sun finally setting, Tem also began her own ritual. She began burning a ton of incense as VOD muttered in the background, “Already did that, but whatever. Doesn’t hurt to do it again.”

Tem cracked one eye open. “It is a gesture of respect and honor.”

VOD hummed noncommittally.

“I have my own ways,” Iago said, and poured some white wine onto the ground.

By now, Felegum had recruited Helli to help him scout things out. One corner of the peak clearing especially interested them.

I finally decided to just do it. I took out the copper wire and spoke to the lizard that formed before I could second guess myself.

“Yo, it’s Set,” I said, magically speaking to Milto. “Weird problem. Do you know any dragons who’d be okay protecting a kobold theme park on a mountain?” I paused, then shot my shot. “Also, are you single?”

Milto’s laughter returned almost immediately. “It’s a good thing I’m up this late. Are those two questions related? Can you perhaps provide some additional details?”

I cursed under my breath. Again with the night-time. I’d thought maybe Janwald was far enough away from Csipherus that the time difference wouldn’t be as pronounced. Oh well.

I cast another spell to Milto, explaining that we were investigating the murder of the Firedrake and that helping the kobolds keep their sentience would be ideal. Milto agreed to come over for a short term while we tracked down another dragon to live here permanently (“I haven’t had a vacation in a while!”) though he did not answer my question about his relationship status. He said it’d take him a few days before he could get there, but that he’d do it.

I thanked him, basically all my spells gone, and informed the others. The soup at this point was full of tantalizing onions and potatoes. I had to hand it to Iago– I was a little skeptical of eating food out of something that lived on his head, but this was surprisingly decent.

I ate, watching the sun set in the direction I thought Milto was, until Felegum told me that it was the opposite way.

Zeno drank and threw his head back. “Ugh, we weren’t supposed to actually do dragon matchmaking!”

“Calm down, Kel,” Felegum said. “Isn’t this the whole point of being an adventurer?”

VOD curled up in the eye socket of the dead dragon to sleep, looking very sad and very small.

Zeno sighed, either at this or the entire mess we’d gotten ourselves into. “No.”

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