The Shadeback

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Chapter 6: He Knows

Zenatheus woke to find a (politely speaking) weighty dragonet perched on his chest. Shadeback cocked his head inquisitively and breathed into his face.

The sorcerer grimaced and pushed the hatchling a bit desperately away. Shadeback’s breath smelled like…less-than-fresh venison.

Shadeback scrambled back up to his head, chirruping indignantly. The little dragon sat on Zenatheus’s chest again and gave him a dark, unforgiving look.

Zenatheus smiled and scratched Shadeback on his knobby head. The dragonet hummed and nuzzled the sorcerer’s hand. Afterward the youngling gave it a hopeful sniff, and then shot a plaintive glance Zenatheus’s way.

Zenatheus took the opportunity to give his bedroom a quick scan, looking for signs of how the youngling had gotten inside. Worn, stained circular carpet that had probably been white once, every uneven bristle remaining undisturbed – check. Window shut, hole-ridden tan curtains (which matched the carpet nicely) drawn closed, rusty latch pulled down – check. Tall bookcase laden with cobwebbed tomes, so covered in dust it wasn’t possible to guess what kind of wood it was made of, not a gray particle out of place – check. Splintery wooden door missing a doorknob on this side, all fifteen locks bolted and the doormat naturally askew (it was half-propped up awkwardly against the bookcase) – check. His extra-security sentry, Ragwort, draped peacefully on the windowsill, the curtains folded up underneath her, occasionally twitching in her sleep – check.

How in the world had Shadeback slipped unattended from Thomas’s room unnoticed and doubled his feat by sneaking into Zenatheus’s? As far as the sorcerer knew, Shadeback wasn’t clever or careful enough to open doors quietly, even if they weren’t locked. If the room was disturbed and Ragwort awakened, she would strike up a racket. Plus, Zenatheus’s room was always bolted from the inside, and there was no way the plump little beastie could have squeezed under the door…

There was only one explanation.

Zenatheus carefully grasped Shadeback’s closed left wing. The dragonet actually hissed at him and Zenatheus swiftly leaned to the right to avoid Shadeback’s lightning-fast neck lash and thin-tempered snap. Zenatheus exhaled in relief to have escaped unscathed – he really didn’t want Shadeback to bite him now that the creature had grown a tooth.

Zenatheus put his free hand on Shadeback’s head and held it away from him (Shadeback struggled and growled in protest), then unfolded the dragon’s ink black wing. It was grazed on the inside (and on further inspection, a bit on the outside, as well) and leaking silver dragon blood that matched the shade of the hatchling’s eerie eyes.

Zenatheus plucked a shard of glass from one of the larger scratches and sucked in air through clenched teeth as it scraped his finger sharply. He promptly tossed it expertly into the wastebasket. He made Shadeback (who had a guilty expression on his face) look at him. “You are a very bad dragon,” he told the naughty culprit sternly.

Leaving Shadeback to whimper in agreement on the bed, Zenatheus sat up and swung his legs over the side, then stood and walked to the window. He picked up Ragwort in his arms and set her down. She streaked under the bed with an accusatory hiss, less than pleased that her nap had been interrupted.

Zenatheus grunted and parted the drapes. Aha! The window was just about destroyed. Triangular, pointed bits of glass jutted out from the panes like the jagged teeth in some nightmarish beast’s (Or The Shadeback’s, Zenatheus thought wryly) gaping maw. A chilled breeze wafted into the room and gave the bookcase a much-needed but messy dusting. Strands of wire from the screen poked sharply into view. He twanged one with an uninjured finger. Shadeback had smashed like cannonball through two sheets of thick glass and the screen to boot, leaving a generally dragon-shaped hole behind.

(He noticed tears in the drapes too, but didn’t mind much. He needed to buy some new ones anyway.)

But how could Shadeback have dived through the window without waking or harming Ragwort?

Hmmbiiynnyuu, said a voice from behind him.

Zenatheus turned to find Shadeback’s gaze boring into him. Of course! Shadeback had used dragonsong to silence her and send her back to sleep (and healed her, as he’d probably needed to do).

Hmmnyynnnm, Shadeback went, unblinking.

“You know, don’t you?” Zenatheus whispered, closing the marred drapes. He returned to his bed and stared at the little dragon. “You know everything about my dream. You saw everything.”

Everything, Shadeback confirmed solemnly. I saw everything.

“Did you hear my thoughts as I dreamed as well?” queried the sorcerer, a bit worried that his dream may have frightened Shadeback. He sat beside the hatchling on the bed. The springs creaked and the frail mattress groaned into a small valley.

Ragwort, somewhere beneath them and most likely squashed, gave a muffled screech of protest and indignation. She squirmed out from under the bed like a salamander from a child’s grasp and dashed across the room again. She clawed her way up the curtains (damaging them even more), then settled on the sill once more, hissing and arching her back at them like a cat possessed.

“I apologize,” Zenatheus sniffed. “Behave yourself.” He waited for Shadeback’s reply.

I heard everything as well, old sorcerer, the dragon said, curling his little tail around his paws.

Zenatheus smiled slightly. “You can call me Zenatheus.”

Zenatheus, Shadeback repeated, purring as though he’d tasted something favorable. They lapsed into silence.

Then: The voice said that he was a memory. What memory?

“I’m not sure,” Zenatheus muttered, though he had a theory – a theory that he didn’t like. “You think the voice was male?”

Shadeback corrected, I know that he is male.

“How do know for certain?”

Shadeback looked troubled. I'm not sure, he said, echoing Zenatheus's earlier statement.

Zenatheus chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment, lost in thought.

Shadeback’s pupils narrowed suddenly into catlike slits. His nostrils flared. He backed up, hackles raised and a flimsy little frill expanding around his head. He bared his only fang and reared. His throat worked and produced strange, quiet, rasping noises… then he loosed a small roar.

Alarmed, Zenatheus started, his teeth coming down hard on his tongue. He yelled and tumbled off the bed. The mattress sprang back into place, flinging Shadeback into the air with a squeak of surprise. And amidst all the chaos, Ragwort was yowling. She launched herself off the windowsill, landed with a grating noise (claws ripping carpet), then ran around aimlessly until she jumped at the bookcase, trying to climb to a nice, safe, high place. Instead, the bookcase swayed, creaking, and she managed to escape just in time as it fell forward, sending century-old books and clouds of dust flying before crashing down shelves-forward onto the bed with such force that it took the bed, with it, through the floor.

Zenatheus rolled out of the way, coughing in the immense explosion of dust that had plumed up from the bookcase and its contents. Footsteps pounded down the hall. Something banged twice against the door.

“Master? Master?” screamed a muffled voice outside. There was another banging noise against the door. The locks snapped. The fourth time the door was hit, the door broke free of its hinges. Splinters scattered over the floor. The door toppled forwards and smacked into the carpet with a loud thud. Ragwort streaked between the legs that had kicked it down and fled down the hall, still yowling.

The legs belonged, needless to say, to a very horrified Thomas Baker.

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