Chapter 3: A Slight Problem
In reality, the problem at hand was not so slight. Shadeback was like a living garbage disposal. He ate everything edible and as much as he could in one go. He was hungry all the time and the only part of him that grew was his belly. Shadeback would only eat meat – small pieces, as he didn’t have teeth yet – and, as they discovered one day – about a week after Shadeback’s explosive hatching – furniture.
You see, Thomas and Zenatheus’s diet was restricted to only fruits and vegetables to avoid begging at the table – and spoiling the greedy creature. But at the same time, Thomas went to the market almost as often as he went to the butcher’s – causing their money to vanish like dew in the sunlight.
The villagers wondered at this drastic change in the ten-year-old’s behavior. Yet Thomas never spoke to the butcher. A sloppy note, chinking coins, and suspicious looks passed between them, but that was all.
Zenatheus decided to take a nap while Thomas was out on one such trip. He went to his room, leaving Shadeback curled up by the flickering hearth, alone.
As it so happened, the hatchling was hungry. When the sorcerer left the living room, Shadeback decided to explore.
He sprawled around the room on stumpy legs, squealing whenever he bumped his nose on anything.
Curiously, the tiny dragon turned to Ragwort, who was curled up on her sleeping mat at the foot of the stairs – and kept on turning, warded off by a sudden hiss from the tabby.
Eventually Shadeback wound up below the table, where he sat back on his haunches and stared apprehensively at the fancy plush cushion of one of the two chairs. How would he manage to get up there? For some reason, he had an urge to conquer the ascent – which, from his point of view, was virtually impossible.
He crawled under the chair, assuming he’d end up on top of the seat, but of course he didn’t. Shadeback slowly turned around in a circle whilst looking up, troubled, at the polished wood above. He did not understand. He crept backward out from beneath the chair (only managing this upon a second attempt; the first abruptly failed when he backed his rump into one of the chair’s legs, resulting in a squeal so loud it earned a snarl from Ragwort), then went back under it again and backed out once more. After trying this for a third and final time, he concluded that this method was not going to work.
As, once more, he sat on his haunches in the shadow of the table’s overhead underside, completely befuddled, his little wings involuntarily expanded for the first time. It took Shadeback a few moments to realize how big he suddenly felt, and an even longer period of time to discover – by looking enquiringly over his shoulder – that he even had any wings. He flapped them once, slowly and experimentally, and then beat them rapidly. Shadeback was astonished to find that when he did this hard enough, his feet lifted off the floor!
He squeaked at the carpet in alarm – even though he was only a few inches up in the air, it seemed like yards to the petite creature. His wings promptly folded from his fright and he fell to the ground, landing painfully on his belly. He gave an earsplitting shree of pain and rolled onto his back, waving his stubby little legs like an overturned turtle and chirruping mournfully, expecting someone to pick him up and coddle him – but no comfort came. He peeked over the pinkish mound that was his tummy, puzzled. There was no one. He squeaked a complaint and rolled onto his sore belly again, then stood. Shadeback stared with wide silver eyes at the cushion of the chair high above, remembering how much he wanted to be up there. Instinct took over. The spirits of his ancestors supplied him with the knowledge he needed. He backed up, crouched down, then sprang – and with him, through him, sprang his ancestors. Midair he brought his wings down forcefully and surged higher.
Unfortunately, instinct left him then. He did not know how to use his tail as a rudder to steer him in flight or how to tuck his legs in, or how he should not, under any circumstances, wiggle his legs around. Thus he grazed his back and sensitive wings on the underside of the table several times and flew in clumsy zigzags. He squeaked every time he hurt himself. Once Shadeback flapped too hard and his spine and wings crashed up against the hard wood. He shrilled even louder than he had when he’d smacked down on his belly, and instinctively tucked in his wings. Instantly, Shadeback crashed painfully into the inside of the chair’s back, knocking it over with a bone-jarring BAM!
The dragon tumbled off of the chair with a drawn-out, high-pitched shriek. He slunk away from it, mewling pitifully, and curled up wailing a short distance away. (Ragwort cast him an irritated glance, growled, and closed her eyes again.) His entire body hurt now, and he was also famished. Shadeback ceased his crying and swung his head slowly from one side to the other, eyes hopeful, but there was no food in sight. He whimpered, stood quaveringly, and staggered melodramatically back over to the chair. Was food hidden in the cushion? He prodded it with a paw and sniffed. It smelled… edible. He opened his little jaws wide and bit into it, then jerked back, tearing out a chunk. Feathers and other stuffings poured out, forming a huge (to him, anyway) mound of fluff. Shadeback squealed in delight and pounced, swallowing as much cushion filling as possible with each snap.
Ragwort watched in amusement.
After about five minutes of this, Thomas Baker entered the room, and when he spotted the wreckage his full satchel --and his jaw—hit the floor. “Shadeback, no!” he exclaimed, kneeling beside the young dragon, who lay on his striped back. All the stuffing was gone, his stomach bulged, and the dragonet was looking very sorry indeed.
“MASTER!” Thomas shouted (Ragwort flattened her ears).
Rather slowly, Zenatheus came down and joined his apprentice, having tiredly descended the stairs (“Coming, coming,” he grumbled) and automatically stepped over Ragwort. He rubbed sleep from his eyes. “Wuh?” he yawned.
“Master, while you were asleep, Shadeback knocked this chair down and ate the cushion stuffings!”
Zenatheus blinked down at the offender. “A dragon is not to be underestimated, no matter how young. I was a fool to leave him alone,” he said with such graveness in his voice, Thomas was startled.
Shadeback gazed up at them guiltily, but neither spellcaster was focusing on him now. They were staring at each other.
“What’s wrong?” Thomas prompted.
“I--” Zenatheus began.
Thomas interrupted him, his silver gaze unblinking, solemn, and filled with sudden certainty. “You’ve had a dragon before, haven’t you?”
The sorcerer sighed. He looked at his apprentice sadly and hesitated before finally admitting: “Yes.”