The Shadeback

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Chapter 9: Calm Before the Storm

Zenatheus decided to simply carry Thomas into Thomas’s bedroom instead of waking the boy. Zenatheus knew it would be a literal pain to do it but stubbornly picked the ten-year-old up, hefted him into the hearthroom (hiding behind a table leg now, Ragwort hissed and lashed at Zenatheus’s boots as he passed), then heaved his apprentice up the stairs.

While Thomas rested peacefully on his bed, Zenatheus slumped against a wall, panting. “I think I must have stretched something,” he grumbled to himself.

Hmmnnymmm, hummed Shadeback, materializing on the headrest. Zenatheus yelped in surprise, and then cursed at the dragon.

Shadeback flicked his tail. He cast a fearful glance downward at Thomas. They could kill him, he whined.

“I know,” Zenatheus snapped. He stared at his sleeping apprentice. His tone was gentler when he next spoke. “Do you think I should send him home to his folks?”

Shadeback hopped down onto Thomas’s chest and curled up protectively there. A hand subconsciously came up to settle on Shadeback’s flank. No, Shadeback hissed, then began to purr for Thomas, who smiled in his sleep.

Zenatheus pulled a stool up to the bedside and sat there. “You love him too much to let him leave for an extended time, am I right?”

Shadeback eyed him, as if considering whether or not he should go over and bite. Yes.

Zenatheus studied the baby dragon. To Shadeback’s surprise, he asked: “Would you like to know all the words?”

Yes. Shadeback’s scales lifted excitedly with a rattling noise. Indeed, they had grown from a leathery, skinlike hide to genuine, rough dragon scales soon after he had grown a tooth.

Zenatheus touched a finger (bravely) to Shadeback’s snout and poured his own memories into the hatchling. Instinctively Shadeback pressed his head into the palm to which the finger belonged and returned the favor. When the deed was done they looked at each other with a new understanding. Both then withdrew.

You killed The Shadeback, Shadeback observed, but only to save the village, and your heart broke in two afterward… you acted in the name of good. I am your dragon as much as I am Thomas’s. Thank you for sharing your life with me.

“You are welcome; thank you for sharing yours with me, as well. And I am honored.”

Shadeback dipped his head. You are welcome, too. He regarded him. Thomas does not know much about you. I will not tell him what he should not hear.

“Thanks again.”

It was nothing. He shifted uncomfortably and drew his wings gently over himself like a black blanket. Thomas’s hand fell away, leaving Shadeback frowning.

“You have many questions,” Zenatheus guessed.

Shadeback nodded.

“As do I.”

Shadeback’s eye ridges met. What could the sorcerer possibly have to ask? Shadeback hoped he wasn’t about to get in trouble for a few, undiscovered, mischievous things he’d done.

“But I shall answer yours first.”

Shadeback gave him a respectful look. My first question is: what sort of memory is the voice in your dream? I know you have an idea.

Zenatheus pursed his lips. “I’d rather not speak that answer out loud…” Alright, I do. I believe that the voice was once…The Shadeback.

Shadeback blinked, tilting his head. I wonder if your theory is correct, old sorcerer… now for my second question. Is The Shadeback really my father?

Zenatheus clenched his hands into fists subconsciously. It’s very likely.

Shadeback licked a paw thoughtfully (his paws now had claws). How… interesting. My final question: who are you really, Zenatheus? Most of your tale is true – what you’ve told Thomas, that is. You’ve even blocked some of your memories from my mind. And I can see while delving into my new knowledge that there are certain dragons that can become human, and also that one of the most ancient and mighty of these creatures shared a name with you. Care to explain?

Zenatheus’s knuckles turned white. “I’d prefer to leave that question unanswered, Shadeback. Now, are you hungry?”

Shadeback’s tongue lolled, immediately quite distracted, as he often was. He followed Zenatheus out of the room and down the stairs, tail wagging.

Shadeback thrust his muzzle into a bowl of chopped venison while Zenatheus boiled some more meat in a cauldron over the fire in the hearth.

It was only a moment or two before Shadeback retreated from an empty container, swiped his pink tongue over his lips, and burped. Then he looked up hopefully at Zenatheus.

Zenatheus levitated some garlic cloves in the air, chopped them to powder with magic, and then tossed them in the pot, not once taking his dominant hand off of the spoon he was using to stir. The stew inside the cauldron made a sizzling noise. He turned to face the dragonet. “No more.”

Shadeback looked crestfallen, then perked up. He sniffed, then charged towards the table.

Zenatheus snorted and plopped some herbs into the soup. A deliciously-scented steam rose up. He dunked in the wooden spoon and sipped. “Oh, yum.”

Thomas stumbled sleepily down the stairs. “What’s that awesome smell?” he wondered, resting an elbow against the stairwell wall.

“RRROWOWOW!” Ragwort wailed, streaking out from under the table with Shadeback hot on her trail.

Zenatheus lifted an eyebrow but otherwise ignored them. “Not to toot my own horn or anything, but it’s only the best stew in the world, made by yours truly.”

Thomas laughed, walked over to the table, drew out his chair with some difficulty, then sat in it. “Well, I can’t wait to have some of that. When’s it going to be done?”

Zenatheus stuck a finger into the scalding hot brew and didn’t seem to be affected by the extreme heat at all. “I think it’ll be finished right about…now.” He turned his spoon into a ladle and scooped some soup into two wooden bowls that helpfully floated over at his beckon. He carried them over to the table, set them on a pair of napkins that Thomas hastily arranged, then sat down in the chair facing his apprentice’s, on the other side of the circular table.

“Aw, yum! Thank you for dinner!” Thomas exclaimed and selected a spoon from the holder perched on the tabletop.

“You’re very welcome, and you might want to blow on your soup; it’s hot,” Zenatheus advised, simply turning his ladle back into a spoon again. “And elbows off the table, please,” he added sternly.

“Who are you, my mother?” Thomas said exasperatedly, but obliged.

Zenatheus smiled and ate a spoonful (without blowing on it, Thomas noticed).

Thomas dipped his spoon into the golden-brown broth and watched the end of it sink, then lifted it into the air and blew on it so hard that the soup flew in an arc and spattered Zenatheus in the face.

“Whoops! I’m so sorry, Master!” Thomas yelped, but Zenatheus just plucked a napkin out of the holder and dabbed at himself.

“That’s quite alright,” was all he said.

Thomas frowned at him, then got another spoonful and sipped – only after blowing much more carefully.

“Excuse me,” Zenatheus said after stifling a belch and stood up from his chair. Thomas began to follow suit when Zenatheus gave him a pointed look.

Thomas sighed. “May I be excused, please?”

“Yes, you may,” Zenatheus grunted, and his apprentice stood up.

“You didn’t say it,” Thomas muttered indignantly.

Zenatheus’s beetle-black eyes twinkled. “I’m not ten years old,” he retorted slyly.

Thomas snorted and walked away, only to eventually drift upstairs to put on his pajamas.

Zenatheus picked up the used bowls and spoons and stepped in the direction of the sink only to have them clatter noisily to the floor when Shadeback skidded between his legs, this time pursued by a vengeful Ragwort. Both were yowling.

Zenatheus swore violently as he landed hard, flat on his back. He stood up, hissing and spitting just like his cat, then picked up the silverware and bowls again. He treaded stiffly over to the sink, then dumped them in. The dishes let out an insulted crashing sound.

Zenatheus stormed after Shadeback and Ragwort. He scooped up the dragon and held him over his shoulder like a naughty child.

Ragwort gave Shadeback a snooty look as he was carried away, as if saying “Until next time”.

When Zenatheus informed him that Shadeback was going to sleep in the fireplace, Thomas gave his master an outraged look.

“But he’ll be all alone!” he protested.

Zenatheus crossed his arms. “He’s a dragon.”

So are you, Shadeback pointed out for no apparent reason.

Thomas took this the wrong way. “Shadeback! Naughty boy. You mustn’t go around calling people filthy names, all right?”

Shadeback looked at him crossly and disappeared, leaving only some gray stripes and a shimmering space of air to rest in the crook of Zenatheus’s arm.

Zenatheus raised a haughty eyebrow at the rainbow-colored shimmery mass he was holding. “It’ll be for the little brat’s – I mean dragon’s – own good. He’ll burrow into the coals, become invisible… in case the dragonknappers come.”

Thomas shifted uneasily, his teal teddy-bear-patterned jammies following his movement. “Master, I don’t believe those men will come here, especially with all the concealment wards and what-have-you that you’ve put over the cottage.”

Zenatheus’s black eyes steeled with seriousness. He fixed that harsh gaze onto his apprentice. “You do not know what ‘those men’ are capable of,” he growled, his heart twisting.

An invisible tooth sank into his hand and ripped through a vein.

“AARGH!” Zenatheus roared and dropped Shadeback, who materialized as he hit the floor on all fours. The sorcerer clutched at his wound, grumbling under his breath. When he removed his uninjured hand, the incision had disappeared without a trace.

Shadeback arched his back like a cat, hissing and flaring his wings.

Thomas picked him up. “Bad dragon,” he chided and stroked Shadeback, who instantly settled down and began to purr.

Zenatheus squinted dangerously at the young reptile. “On second thought, perhaps we should leave him on the doorstep.”

Thomas’s eyes grew huge and he gaped. “You can’t really mean that, can you?”

Zenatheus snorted. “Of course I don’t. I wonder sometimes if you ever doubt that I’m just a kindly old man.” He smiled and ruffled Thomas’s silver hair.

Thomas smiled too. “Sometimes I doubt that you’re old rather than ancient.”

Zenatheus cuffed him softly for that, leaving the mischievous boy giggling. “Hush it. Now, back to our more REASONABLE subject… Shadeback is sleeping in the coals, and that’s final.”

Shadeback blinked rapidly. Do I get to eat any?

Thomas gave a poorly-concealed bout of laughter.

“Maybe one, if you behave,” Zenatheus said tartly.

“It’s a good thing that you’re cute,” Thomas informed the dragon, then focused angrily on his master. “Fine, you let him freeze to death in a bed of heatless embers.” He shoved an indignant Shadeback back into Zenatheus’s arms. “But I’m not sleeping under the bed like a certain coward I know.” He flung himself onto his mattress and squirmed under a multicolored quilt.

“Who, Ragwort?” Zenatheus retorted. “Because I don’t!” He flicked the switch on a flimsy lantern beside Thomas’s bed and darkness fell over the room. Shadeback’s eyes began to glow like silver torches that puttered out for a split second whenever he blinked.

“That might be a problem,” Thomas murmured, already half-asleep. “Good night, Master. Good night, Shadeback.”

Good night, Thomas.

Zenatheus aimed Shadeback’s light at him. His apprentice was out cold. If they harm him I will kill them. And with that happy thought, he whispered “Good night”, backed out of the room with Shadeback still in his arms, closed the door, and then locked it.

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