Chapter 4: The First
“If you raised a dragon... why do you seem so sad about it?” Thomas asked hesitantly, instantly dreading the answer as soon as he asked the question.
Zenatheus scowled. “I’ll tell you why, boy. Listen up.”
Thomas had sat down beside Shadeback, and now nodded and lifted the baby dragon (ere this action the hatchling had been waving about his legs like an overturned turtle, too full to get up) onto his lap, flipping him right-side-up as he did. Shadeback began to purr as Thomas stroked his neck softly, soothing the aggravated skin (indeed, Shadeback’s scales were so fine they could be called such).
Zenatheus sat down in front of his apprentice, immediately accompanied by Ragwort, who trotted up, gave a meow, and curled up on his lap, afterwards staring aggressively at Shadeback, who growled squeakily in return.
“Long ago when I had just graduated from apprentice to sorcerer,” Zenatheus said, petting his cat, “and had not yet settled in Irkhenbauk, I journeyed into the Forest of Jhumachou, also known as the Untamable, with naught but my staff and my sword. The undergrowth was dense and riddled with thorn-laden vines, and the huge, ancient silk-trees crowded close, making it nearly impossible to pass. I hacked my way through with the aid of blade and spellcasting, and after a terribly long time, I began to make slow progress into the deepest and most savage depths of the Untamable.” He looked into the past thoughtfully. “That forest is full of dark magic, Thomas. Standing on its border, you can see it sucking the light out of the air around it. You must never go in there, for evil things reside in its shadows. More than one man has disappeared into there, never to return; I was incredibly lucky not to encounter anything…nasty.”
Thomas’s eyes were wide with terror, and he nodded rapidly. Shadeback pressed himself against the boy with a whine, and even Ragwort had flattened her ears.
Zenatheus continued. “The further in I went, the darker it became. With a spell I made my sword glow like a torch and I saw that before me was a tangle of vines that I swore had not been there before (as a breeze, however weak, had just been drifting from there). I sliced away the ivy, revealing a hidden stone cave. Fearlessly I entered; somehow, it was lighter inside. (Upon further inspection, I discovered small, queer blue mushrooms that glowed.) Delving deeper into the enormous cave, my makeshift torch’s beam fell upon a great hole in the cave’s wall. I went inside and instantly extinguished the magical light of my blade. The hole was an entrance to a downward-sloping tunnel, and the walls and roof were covered in the aforementioned glowing blue mushrooms; the brightness was almost blinding. There was also a stretch of violet moss covering the floor, which emitted a faint purple glow, through which the occasional blue mushroom was poking.”
Once more, Zenatheus paused, and Thomas stared at him with rapt attention, caught up in the tale. Even Shadeback had ceased to purr and was gazing at the sorcerer, but that may have been because Thomas had stopped petting him and Ragwort was dozing again.
Zenatheus resumed. “When I stepped upon the moss, the bottoms of the leather boots I was wearing began to sizzle. I jumped back onto the stone and inspected them. They had almost completely been eaten through to my feet due to some sort of nasty, neon-green acid the moss produced when I touched it.
“A deep, cavernous voice rang out, ‘“Walk upon mushrooms, but not moss. Step upon one mushroom and find a way safely across.”’ I did as I was bid and suddenly a great mushroom cloud (pardon the pun) of glittering silver spores bloomed (again, pardon my jest) into the air to land like a blanket over the moss. Instantly each and every spore sprang into the form of a fully-grown blue fungus. Then I made my way slowly through the mushroom-covered tunnel. Oddly enough, even though I stepped on many of them, no more squashed beneath me or produced spores.”
“How interesting,” said Thomas.
“Indeed. Now, there was another hole in the farthest wall, which I entered, and suddenly I was in a cavern much larger than the first and second put together. Coiled in the center of the cavern was a half-grown dragon hatchling -- about twice as big as our young friend here.”
Thomas smiled and stroked Shadeback’s head. The little reptile immediately began to purr again. “Was the hatchling your dragon?”
Zenatheus’s eyes darkened. “Yes, he was. I took him out of the cave and out of the forest. The cave disappeared behind me and I never found it again, nor did I learn to whom the deep, cavernous voice belonged to.”
Thomas frowned, wondering if that fact and the fact that they’d never found out who had left Shadeback’s egg were connected somehow.
“And one more thing: I named that dragon, my dragon, The Shadeback.”
Thomas thought that he would never look at Zenatheus the same way again.
Why hadn’t his mentor told him this right from the start? Why keep it a secret for so long? Why hadn’t he said anything when Thomas had named the hatchling ‘Shadeback’?
Thomas started as the dragonet gave an unexpected, long, drawn-out, mournful howl, similar to that of the wolf, but somehow completely different: distant and otherworldly, like the wail of a lost soul.
Ragwort jolted awake, alarmed, then glared at Shadeback.
Zenatheus’s eyebrows pinched together. Shadeback’s pudgy neck swiveled around halfway and he gave another quavering howl, silver eyes fixed on the sorcerer.
Thomas’s own, bright green eyes were now curious, instead of unreadable, like they had been the moment before. “Why’s he making that sound?” he asked.
Shadeback looked back at Thomas; the dragon seemed to have a forlorn expression.
Zenatheus frowned. “How long have we had him, boy?” he demanded.
Thomas counted on his fingers. “I’d say about a week, Master.”
The sorcerer offered a ghost of a smile. He reached over and scratched Shadeback on the head.
Shadeback opened his mouth unhappily. Poking down from his upper jaw was the tip of a white fang.
Thomas beamed like he had swallowed a lit torch. “He’s got a tooth!”
His mentor nodded briefly.
“How did you know?”
“My dragon always began to howl when a tooth started to show.” Zenatheus rubbed the upset hatchling under his chin. “Poor little fellow.”
Thomas’s smile melted as he realized: “You never told me what happened with you raising the first Shadeback.”
Zenatheus scowled, and Ragwort spat at Thomas. Apparently they both had hoped that the apprentice would not restart that conversation. “Do you really want to know why?”
Thomas bobbed his head sternly. “Yes.”
”When The Shadeback, my hatchling, grew to adulthood, he could no longer fit in this cottage.” He stood, gesturing exaggeratedly at the ceiling, and Ragwort tumbled, landing on the floor with a hiss and streaking off (Shadeback watched her go attentively). “By then he could hunt for himself, so he left. Something had always been odd about him! It seemed likely that I’d never see him again; he didn’t need or want me anymore! The next year, though, a huge black dragon descended upon this village. It scored Irkhenbauk with flames and devoured all the townspeople’s livestock, then moved on to the townspeople themselves! I couldn’t just hide in here like a coward until it flew off, so I stormed outside with my blade, Authere. To my horror the dragon was The Shadeback.”
Thomas listened with growing terror, apprehension, and regret that he had asked to hear this, and Shadeback’s cries fell silent. The baby dragon curled up against him with his eyes round.
“The Shadeback gave no sign of loving me at that moment, or even if he ever had. He thundered over to me and roared. His muzzle was a mask of blood, and his eyes burned with hatred as he swooped in for the kill.” The sorcerer paused and looked down, growing quiet. “I was forced to destroy what I had created, and slew him with the very sword that allowed me to discover him.”
Thomas thought that his heart was going to beat its way out of his chest. “You killed your own dragon?”
“I had to.” Zenatheus slowly, dejectedly, sat back down.
Had to, echoed a faraway voice in Thomas’s mind.
Thomas frowned. He hadn’t – those weren’t his thoughts! He gave Zenatheus a funny look.
The sorcerer looked mystified. “You heard it too, then?”
His apprentice nodded. Zenatheus pointed vaguely at Shadeback.
“It was him?” Thomas asked incredulously, hefting Shadeback up a little. The dragon squealed in protest and Thomas set him back into his lap again.
“Yes,” Zenatheus snapped, admittedly a little off-tempered due to all the bad memories he’d just revisited when he’d rather not have.
Yes, mimicked Shadeback, him.
“You can really talk!” Thomas exclaimed, jumping to his feet in surprise. Shadeback tumbled to the carpeted floor with an indignant shree.
Can talk, confirmed the dragonet crankily, standing with a shuffle of wings.
“Wow!” Thomas yelped. “This is awesome! Um… I’m sorry for dropping you.” He picked up Shadeback.
Thomas nodded awkwardly. How was he going to reply to the baby dragon?
Shadeback suddenly puffed a little smoke at him. Is awesome.
Thomas grinned. “Thank you!”
I’m awesome, Shadeback amended.
Thomas’s eyebrows shot up and he laughed. “Oh, I see how it is! Now, let’s see if you can say…”
His words faded into the background as Zenatheus dissolved ever deeper into his thoughts.
My dragon was much older than this one when he began to mindspeak. Thomas is obviously delighted, but I am not sure if Shadeback’s early intelligence is a blessing or a curse. What if he grows quickly into the exact likeness of The Shadeback – into a monster?
And had Zenatheus known at that moment what I do about the young dragonet, perhaps he would not have made the decision to let Shadeback continue to live with them… or to let him live at all.
For Shadeback’s path, though shrouded in fog, was even darker than the first Shadeback’s – and yet Zenatheus’s deceased, malevolent dragon had attempted to kill the sorcerer, destroy Irkhenbauk, and everyone, everything, living within…