The Shadeback

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Chapter 1: Three Years Later

Everyone avoided Zenatheus’s ramshackle cottage. They knew that he was a sorcerer and left him alone. Thus the sorcerer left the townspeople alone. What truly disturbed them about Zenatheus, though, was that no one could figure out why a ten-year-old boy appeared to live in the cottage. Rumors were always flying due to this lad. He was only seen going to and from Zenatheus’s cottage, occasionally noted to stop by the farmer’s market or a shop or two along the way, and never spoke to or listened to anyone. Had the sorcerer enslaved him? Was he really a spirit summoned to do his master’s bidding? Was he an apparition created by Zenatheus just to baffle them all? If so, it was working.

Of course, as you must have realized, the boy was not a slave, a spirit, or an apparition; he was actually the sorcerer’s apprentice, Thomas Baker, aged three more years since we last saw him.

After one such journey to the farmer’s market, Thomas opened the door to the cottage with much difficulty and kicked it shut with the heel of his right boot. His arms were full of groceries. He staggered down the (luckily) short hall and into the hearthroom. Thomas dumped the wares onto the table with a grunt, and then sat in a fancy plush armchair (which was much too big for him).

Zenatheus was sitting in the other chair, as he usually was. The sorcerer looked over at him. “You brought everything?” Surprisingly, the man looked no older than he had three years ago.

Thomas pulled his satchel closer to him and peered inside. “Potatoes, carrots, broccoli, corn… yep!”

Zenatheus rubbed his hands together, grinning. “Excellent. Thank you. Those will taste fantastic in tonight’s stew.”

“I’d bet. Did the egg hatch?” Thomas asked as he always did, a bit flatly this time.

“No,” the sorcerer sighed, gesturing at the black ellipse propped up against the right side of the flickering hearth with his left hand (as Zenatheus was left-handed). It was no longer shiny, but coated in a thick layer of dust. “Remember, lad, some eggs never hatch. Or it could be a fake after all.”

Thomas gave Zenatheus a melancholy look. “I’m going to bed.” He stood, and then trudged towards the up-leading staircase beside the fireplace.

As it so happened, Ragwort, his master’s plump brown tabby cat – well past her prime - was sprawled out in front of the first step on top of the ugly, scratchy, oblong maroon floor mat that everyone else hated (and thus didn’t care if she slept on it or not). Thomas’s foot accidentally went down on her scruffy tail. Thomas jumped back with a shocked yelp as the previously unnoticed feline sprang awake with an indignant yowl and crashed into the egg.

A mushroom cloud of debris plumed into the air and engulfed the entire room. Amidst the blinding curtain of gray and Thomas and Zenatheus’s coughing (and Ragwort’s spitting) there came the sound of something wobbling and rolling, then a muffled thump. Ashes billowed into the air as well.

Finally the furious sorcerer choked out a word lost in the dust, and the debris vanished as though it had never existed.

Thomas was crouched by the fire, wailing, “I’m sorry, Master!”

Zenatheus leapt from his chair with astonishing agility and dashed to the hearth. He kneeled next to his apprentice and stared into the flames, aghast. The egg had rolled into the fireplace. Tongues of inferno licked over the shell, which seemed to glow with absorbed light like metal stuck into a forge.

Suddenly, just as Zenatheus was turning to reprimand Thomas, there was a tremendous BANG. Shards of ebony eggshell went flying out of the fireplace. Thomas shouted wisely, “Duck!” and he and his master threw themselves to the floor.

When the hailstorm of fiery shell pieces ended, Zenatheus and Thomas instantly jumped to their feet and stomped out the random patches of flame that dotted the golden-tasseled crimson carpet. Then they bent over to peer gingerly into the hearth.

Sitting perfectly unharmed in the flames was a dark gray dragon.

The sorcerer and his apprentice both yelped and scuttled backward only to slowly crawl back to look again.

The hatchling cocked its oversized head and stared out at them with wide silver eyes. Its body was lopsided due to tiny, folded wings. It had a miniature tail with a harmless stub at the end and its snout ended in something resembling a dull eagle beak. It had no claws, little – almost nonexistent – bumps rather than spikes and, when it opened its mouth to squeak at them, no teeth.

The sorcerer stared back in wonder. “The egg hatched. I can’t believe it. The egg hatched.” To Thomas’s utter surprise his master turned, beaming, and then hugged him.

“Can’t…breathe,” choked the apprentice.

Zenatheus released him, grinning like a fool. “It hatched!”

A nearly identical grin split Thomas's face as he stared back at his master ecstatically.“It hatched!!"

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