The Shadeback

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10: The Storm

All was quiet. A shallow dusk was draped over the hearthroom, turning everything gray. Ragwort snoozed soundly at the foot of the staircase, hidden in the deepest shadows. She would wake everyone with a yowl if her nap was rudely interrupted – but there was nothing out of the ordinary about that.

Shadeback was buried in a mound of ash within the fireplace, wide awake. The darkness enhanced the clarity of his vision, partly because of the silver light that shone from his eyes. He saw everything in full color, though each object’s color was a bit overly enhanced. He peeped out of the coals, taking in the entire space in front of him without even turning his head. Throughout the eve, naught had been disturbed.

Bong. Bong. Bong. Irkhenbauk Tower’s ancient clock began its chime to twelve.

Shadeback waited, the almost palpable tension lifting his scales.

And waited.

Then he waited some more.

And waited…

Suddenly, a cacophony of violent sounds rang out. Shadeback jumped out of the fireplace in terror. Ragwort snapped awake and dashed under a chair with a screech.

Zenatheus had started to snore from his room upstairs.

Shadeback growled and traipsed stiffly into the hearth once more.

Stupid human, Ragwort hissed, returning to her shadowy hiding place and curling back up there. Due to the start the unruly sounds had given her, she now looked more like a huge, brunette sea urchin than a cat.

Stupid human, Shadeback grumbled grumpily, agreeing with her for once. He sank back into his bed of cold embers. He thought about lighting them, but decided against it. What with the unique coloring of dragon fire, it would be a beacon for any dragonknappers that should enter the cottage.

He yawned and crunched on a coal (he’d decided that he’d been a good enough boy). He felt so… unexpectedly tired. Sleepiness crashed down on him without warning, like some violent wave. At first, Shadeback rebelled, but soon a subconscious bout of reasoning drifted into his mind. If you sleep, you’ll be well rested when the dragonknappers come.

So he obeyed and settled into a deep, silent slumber…


The moment Shadeback began to feel tired, Ragwort’s yellow eyes snapped open. Her acute ears swiveled, picking up a melodious sound that the baby dragon had failed to notice before it subdued him: dragonsong.

She sensed Shadeback fall asleep. This wasn’t just any random string of dragonsong; it was a dragon lullaby, and an extraordinarily potent one at that. It had attacked Shadeback’s subconscious, making him sleepy and triggering his brain to create convincing excuses for why the hatchling should fall asleep.

Ragwort opened her mouth to yowl the alarm – she knew that the dragonknappers had arrived. But before she could even utter a squeak, she slumped, paralyzed, with a tiny blue-black spike protruding from her right shoulder.


A couple of minutes earlier, a strange, red-bladed sword with an eerie, neon-green, glowing coating around it soundlessly passed through the door as if the wood was butter.. Then the wood inside the oblong incision the sword had made quickly melted into an unappealing goop. The resulting hole’s edges sizzled ominously, dripping with the green acid, which continued to slowly gnaw at the wood.

Beyond the new gap, the two dragonknappers stood.

“Don’t touch the edges,” grunted the black-haired man, wiping his sword clean with a handkerchief made of some sort of strange, golden cloth, “unless you want a much closer haircut.”

“Thanks,” snorted his companion. “Now move it, bub. Have your pet take out the dragon – in case it’s nearby.”

The first, shorter man stepped bravely into the house. (He wasn’t actually short, but in comparison with the second man, who had to stoop to come through the breach in the door, he seemed to be.) He had a tiny, beautiful cobalt dragon nestled in his pocket.

“Go on, Ladybird,” he urged the little dragon. “Do your thing. Come back when it’s safe.”

Ladybird hummed, crawled out of his pocket, and flapped away, shell-like ears pricked.

“How’d you get a dragonfly on your side, anyway?” the taller man asked in a low voice.

“Shut it, Ted,” growled the shorter man. “It’s a long story that I don’t like to tell.”


Ladybird – or as Ted and her master, Willson, sometimes called her, Lady – skimmed the drafts of air in the hallway, smoothly and silently. She quickly adjusted her dark blue eyes to the darkness of the cottage and homed in on the china shelf, landing on it perfectly without stirring even a wisp of the dust that indistinctly resided there. She looked down on the room from there, preparing to sing. She didn’t have her harp with her, but she didn’t really need it. Her heart twisted. Besides, it wasn’t the good one, which was safely kept by an old friend…

It pained Ladybird to begin her song. No one – especially not the dwellers of this house – deserved what they were supposed to do to them. She often wondered if Ted and Willson even had hearts. Willson had spared her life, it was true – but only because she’d told him, at the last moment, that if you decided to let a dragonfly continue to live when you had just been about to kill it, it would be magically enslaved to you for the rest of its life.

Ladybird had lied, but why was a long story that the people who knew it didn’t like to tell.

Nyaaaanuuu, she sang. Nyaaanuuuu…

She chose a lilting melody, a famous dragon lullaby, and made it thrum with the music-magic that was particular to her species. She continued for a couple of minutes, then abruptly paused, ears rigid. As was the way of the dragonflies, she immediately sensed the presence of some non-dragon creature waking. She lashed her tail in the animal’s direction. A blue-black spoke dislodged from it and was flung out of sight. Ladybird felt a little instinctive pride as its paralyzing venom was injected into the creature, but at the same time hoped vainly that the spoke would be removed before the poison killed whatever-it-was.

Ladybird spread her iridescent blue wings and glided back to Willson, perching flawlessly on his shoulder with a flourish. She hardly reached his lower jaw, even if she stretched.

All clear, she said. Her voice was as quiet as the pluck of a lyre’s sting and just as melodious.

“Good work,” Willson grunted, tapping her on the snout.

“You understood that?” Ted asked incredulously. Harmonic dragonflies such as Ladybird tended to speak drakun (the language of all dragons and their subspecies), rather than English.

“Yeah; what’s it to you? C’mon, let’s just grab the dragon and get out of here. This place gives me the creeps,” growled Willson.

Ted shrugged innocently and followed him into the hearthroom. Lady immediately struck up the same dragon lullaby as before. Willson absentmindedly drew a tiny harp out of his shawl pocket and handed it to her. She began to strum it in perfect, beautiful harmony to her voice.

“Take advantage of this trip,” Willson said to her under his breath. “It’ll be one of the last times you’ll see your home again, if it isn’t the last right now.”

Ladybird gave him a sober, grateful look. Maybe Willson did have a heart, after all. She flew to a slightly dusty black river rock placed on the right half of the mantle. As soon as she alighted there her song became impossibly potent, beautiful, and flawless. She played the harp with a new, wonderful precision, practically weaving its peaceful notes into her song. (Unlike most dragons and their subspecies, she kept her wings unconsciously extended as she perched.)

“Ooh,” mumbled Ted, swaying to the rhythm. The melody was becoming so potent that it was making him want to lay down on the floor and take a nap.

Willson pinched him. “Stay awake,” he ordered. The dragonsong did not seem to be affecting him in the least. He walked over to the hearth. “Do you know where the dragon is?”

Ladybird shook her head no. Dragonflies cannot cast out their mind to detect other sorts of dragons.

Willson frowned. “Check for clues.”

Ladybird hummed one more note, accompanied by a last, soft twang of strings, before abandoning her harp and fluttering to the floor. Her ears expanded and swiveled back and forth as she sniffed at the maroon carpet.

“Did you find anything?” Willson demanded.

Ladybird looked up sheepishly and explained that she had always liked the carpet.

Willson scowled at her. “Get to work.”

Ladybird gave him an embarrassed glance, then flitted about the room like a grasshopper, humming a tune under her breath. It wasn’t long before she suddenly froze, her ears spinning like a windmill in a tornado. She had picked up the sound of Zenatheus’s snores – which were much quieter by now. The sorcerer’s bedroom was directly above her.

Ladybird stared at the ceiling, uttering mournful cries.

Willson stormed over and snatched her up. “Shut it!” he hissed. “Do you want to get us caught?”

The dragonfly warbled heartbrokenly. Yes.

Ted was so drunk on dragonsong still that he wasn’t hearing a thing.

“You’re not in your right state of mind,” Willson snapped. “Scan this room. Find clues. Now.”

Ladybird obeyed, now trilling the saddest dragon song ever devised in a tongue of drakun so ancient that even her skilled master couldn’t make out a single word. The last place she focused on with a pale sapphire beam cast from her eyes was the stretch of the rug in front of the fireplace. There, etched in ash, were tracks of small dragon footprints.

Ladybird vaguely gestured with the heart-shaped lure at the tip of her tail towards the prints. The lure was usually folded in half and a light shade of content green (the lure’s markings were always black). When Willson and Ted had brought her inside the cottage, it had slowly progressed through darker and darker shades of gray until it had finally become utterly black.

“Aha!” Willson growled. Ladybird, now unneeded, flapped up to her harp and stood on her dusty river rock, watching solemnly as he stalked over to the hearth and kneeled. The dragonknapper began to brush away the coals…


Thomas tossed and turned in bed, eyes scrunched shut. “Sh-Shadeback…”


Finally, Willson flicked the final ember off of the creature he sought. Curled up in the fireplace was a small likeness of The Shadeback. The dragon had forgotten to remain invisible when he had been enchanted by the lullaby.

Shadeback’s eyes snapped the second a strange hand touched his side and instantly smelled dead dragon on the man it belonged to. Shadeback jerked back his head with a furious, screechy roar. Willson’s hand clamped down on the hatchling’s muzzle, cutting the scream short, but it was too late.

Willson yanked Shadeback out of the fireplace, keeping one hand closed firmly around the youngling’s jaws. He wrestled the thrashing black dragon into his arms. “Ladybird, Ted! Let’s GO! Now! Move it, move it!” he barked. There was no sense in being quiet anymore. He could already hear the wrathful bellowing of his old master, Zenatheus, the sounds of two doors slamming, and a storm of hurried footsteps rushing down the upstairs hall. Ladybird flapped onto Ted’s shoulder and brought him out of his stupor with a chirp. Ted dashed to Willson’s side, crowing triumphantly, and they raced for the mutilated door…


Zenatheus exploded into the living room with Thomas right behind him. He looked around wildly, then strode into the middle of the room, expression heartbroken. His apprentice sprinted to the fireplace and threw himself to his knees, and then peered inside, even though the fact that they were too late was obvious.

His eyes filled with tears. “Master… they got him.” His words were heavy.

Thomas heard footsteps beside him and turned. Zenatheus was inspecting the mantle.

The sorcerer stiffened and he felt his heart break for the second time that night.

“I know,” he said hoarsely.

Thomas expected his unshed tears to come, but to his horror, they did not. “Master,” he murmured, “what are you looking at?” He got up and stood on his tiptoes to see. “..Huh?”

Zenatheus stared down at Ladybird’s old river rock. He hadn’t polished it in years, and you could clearly see the tiny dragonfly footprints stamped in the dust. And there was a golden harp on the mantle, too, sitting beside the rock, just as the original harp had. It was minute, but then again, it was the perfect size for a dragonfly…

He distantly heard Thomas speak, but he was too busy reading the message in dragon that had been written on the lightly-dusted mantle.

I’m sorry.

The two words were written in drakun. Only two, and yet they brought upon Zenatheus a world of memories and sorrow.

“Ladybird,” he whispered.

Thomas pulled on his master’s light-blue-and-white striped pajamas. “Master… who is Ladybird?”

But again, Zenatheus hardly heard. He backed away from the hearth and staggered upstairs, leaving Thomas with no choice but to tear after him.


When Thomas caught up to the sorcerer, Zenatheus was in his bedroom, frantically pulling weathered tomes out of the bookshelf.

Thomas approached, only to duck when an atlas sailed straight over his head. By the time he looked up again, Zenatheus was sitting on his bed. Thomas came to sit beside him. His master was holding a hardback leather book.

Zenatheus ripped off the phony scarlet cover (the volume was titled, in big gold text: RED HERRINGS by Unknown Author). The book was actually a cardboard box. The sorcerer tire the box open and tipped it slightly. Something fell into his callused palm.

“What’s that?” Thomas queried, staring at the strange little whatsit.

“A harp.” Zenatheus showed it to his apprentice. It was a tad taller than the one on the mantle, and it was silver instead of gold.

“Pretty. But really, what’s this got to do with what just happened?” Thomas’s voice cracked and suddenly the tears finally began to fall. “Master, we’ve got to stop playing with toys and go after those men. They’ve got Shadeback, they – they’ve stolen my dragon.”

Zenatheus looked at him softly and wiped the tears away. “Thomas,” he sighed. “Thomas Baker. There is nothing we can do. We will get him back, my friend. I promise. But we mustn’t go off getting ourselves killed, alright?”

Thomas nodded and sniffled.

“Listen to me. Do not hate me for what I am about to tell you, agreed?”

Thomas nodded again, still-tearful green eyes now curious, and drew the back of one sleeve over his nose.

“I have lied to you. Shadeback was not my first dragon – The Shadeback, I mean. Ladybird was. She is a beautiful, blue little dragonfly. A dragonfly is a very small subspecies of dragon with a lure, sometimes used for catching prey, on the tip of its tail. The lure changes color to match the dragonfly’s feelings. Ladybird was my only companion and my very best friend for centuries… until one day, my first apprentice (and this was after I had found The Shadeback, but before he left me and before I purchased Ragwort) turned on me. He tried to kill me, but Ladybird came to my rescue and stopped him midblow by fibbing that if you spared a dragonfly’s life, it would be magically enslaved to you for the rest of its life. My first apprentice believed her ad departed without a word, taking my best friend with him.”

Thomas had begun to look angry at first, but now looked piteous. “Oh, Master. I’m so sorry.”

“My old apprentice’s name is Willson. He’s the shorter dragonknapper you saw with McGwire.”

Thomas gasped. “Whoa! How did he get so evil?!”

Zenatheus gave Thomas a fond look. “I always told him the full truth. I lied to you because I feared you would become another him.”

Thomas looked shocked. “I’d never betray you, Master.”

“I know.”

Thomas smiled.

“Also, I suspect that The Shadeback helped to slowly turn Willson dark.”

His smile dissolved.

“As a vague, subconscious attempt to fill the hole in my heart Ladybird had left, I bought Ragwort. I told her all about myself and had her promise never to talk about my past to anyone else – though humans cannot speak to cats anyway, even with mindspeak.”

Thomas frowned suddenly. “You say that like you aren’t human.”

Zenatheus smiled and ruffled Thomas’s bedraggled silver hair. “That, dear boy, is because I am a dragon.”


After many hours of astonished exclamations and calm explanations, Thomas and Zenatheus traipsed, laughing, down the stairs.

“Never would I have guessed,” Thomas gasped for the umpteenth time.

Zenatheus snorted. “I’m not surprised; I’m very good at kee--”

Suddenly, Zenatheus tripped over something at the bottom of the stairwell. He hit the floor with an oath just as Thomas gave a bloodcurdling scream.

The sorcerer groaned a little, cursing under his breath, and slowly sat up. “What is it?” he grumbled, looking up at his second apprentice.

Thomas’s eyes were so wide that they seemed to be almost completely white. He was trembling. When he opened his mouth but no sound came out, he just stared at Zenatheus and mouthed, Ragwort.

Zenatheus’s white eyebrows shot up. He scrambled over and sat on his knees in front of the foot of the stairs, a hand over his heart. “Oh, no…oh, Ragwort…”

Thomas found a hoarse voice. “It’s so unfair,” he whispered. “Your Ladybird and The Shadeback, my Shadeback…and now her.”

Zenatheus put his head in his hands.

For a black-blue husk was stuck in Ragwort’s shoulder, but it was no longer filled with poison.

Now…

…the lifeless Ragwort was.


Seeing as they had no yard in which to bury the poor, beloved cat, Zenatheus adorned his daytime clothes, a thick beige cloak, and a long gray scarf. He pulled a gnarled wooden staff with one end shaped like the claw off a dragon, which held a strange semi-transparent, yellow gem of some sort, out from one of the outside corners of the fireplace. Then he put on black gloves and his old leather boots and waited for Thomas to stop fumbling with the buttons on Thomas’s coat.

When Thomas was finally all bundled up, Zenatheus removed the spoke from Ragwort’s shoulder and studied it. It belonged to Ladybird. The dragonfly was innocent, in his opinion; she would never harm anything larger than a bit of chopped venison. He tucked it safely into his breast pocket before his apprentice noticed.

Zenatheus gathered Ragwort up into his arms and headed out the door for the first time in years. Thomas followed solemnly and closed it behind him, then dashed over to his master. “Where are you going to…you know?” Thomas asked nervously.

Zenatheus kept walking for a moment in silence, consulting the memory of his dream, then stopped abruptly. “Right here,” he said, tapping the cobblestone with his left foot.

Thomas shivered despite his warm layer of clothes; the early morning air was chilly. Everything was coated thinly in frost and the sky was gray. “But Master,” he protested. “We can’t dig through rock!”

Zenatheus pursed his lips. “Haven’t you learned anything, boy?” he demanded. “Magic can do anything.” Thus saying, he smiled ever so slightly and uttered a word. A blue outline appeared around one of the stones: the one he had tapped. It was undoubtedly the largest of them all. It lifted from the road with a grating noise and settled beside the empty hole it had left in its place.

“Everything except for bringing people back to life,” Thomas corrected quietly, watching. “Or animals.”

“Right,” Zenatheus muttered sadly. “You can’t change personalities, either.” He was thinking, of course, about The Shadeback. He lowered Ragwort gently into the gap and, using magic once more, moved the stone back to cover her. Then he snapped “Zazet!” and the other end of his staff began to glow white-hot, though its wood did not burn.

Zenatheus pressed the heated end of the staff into Ragwort’s rock and wrote:

HERE LIES RAGWORT.

SHE WAS THE FAITHFUL CAT OF THE SORCERER ZENATHEUS AND HIS APPRENTICE, THOMAS BAKER, AND RESTS NOW WITH HER OLD FRIEND AND ENEMY, THE SHADEBACK.

MAY SHE DO SO IN PEACE.

“That’s nice,” Thomas sniffled, and burst into tears.

Zenatheus smiled ruefully, biting back his own, and led him back into the cottage.


Late that night, the sorcerer left his cottage again, this time all alone. In a gloved hand, pinched between his thumb and middle finger, he grasped a blue-black spoke.

Closing the door softly behind him, he walked out and stood before Ragwort’s grave. The gem in his staff glowed like a torch. He looked up at the swathe of stars spilled across the dark sky and held the spoke to his lips. Then he blew a short stream of emerald-green fire, lanced with orange and yellow.

The smoke went up in a puff of glittering purple smoke, twinkling with sparks of silver. A breeze came, as if from another world, and sent it twirling in a spiral into the air. It stretched on and on, up and up—forever, it seemed.

“Wherever you are,” he whispered, “I forgive you.”

Then he retreated back to the cottage. On the top step, he glanced over his shoulder, upward, once more at the stars. The smoke was still drifting, drifting to greet them, and for a moment, it reflected in his eyes.

Because, for a moment, his eyes were those of a dragon’s, and the irises were as deeply green as the flames he had created to burn Ladybird’s spoke, without the assistance of a magic word. And everything felt alright.

But only for a moment.

THE END

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