4. The Magic Master
"Zing!" Zann exclaimed. "You oversized swamp rat! I'll get you for that." Picking up a rock, he tossed it at the dragon.
Zing ducked the rock, chattering in annoyance.
Zann grinned. "What do you expect?" he said. "You just tried to roast me!"
The dragon hopped down from the roof, not bothering to unfurl its leathery wings. It landed beside Zann with a thump. He bent to scratch its pointy little head.
"Did you eat yet?" he asked. "Let's go inside. I'll conjure up some food for you as soon as I tell Boz about the warning."
The dragon chirped agreeably. Many people kept dragons as pets, but fire whistlers like Zing weren’t very popular. The breed was too active, too independent, and a little too unpredictable. Besides, most people didn't like dealing with a pet that could set you on fire.
But Zing was perfect for Zann. They spent hours together. Their favorite game was to lie in wait and attack each other.
Zann reached for his schoolbag, which he'd dropped during Zing's surprise attack. "You'd better sleep with one eye open," he told the dragon jokingly. Dragons couldn't talk, but the smarter ones could understand some human speech. "Because when you least expect it, I'm going to grab you and feed you to the water blobs."
Zing hissed playfully, sending out a spurt of flame that Zann dodged easily. He laughed, glancing around for another rock.
Before he could find one, the door flew open.
"Get in here," Boz ordered, the tip of his long, pointy nose quivering as it always did when he was worked up about something. Zann's grandfather was clutching the tattered diary in which he recorded everything important that happened to him. "I need to talk to you."
Zann guessed that Boz had already heard about the message. "I'm coming," he said.
Like the outside, the inside of their house rarely changed. Half the furniture was boring and utilitarian, transported there by Boz from his old home in First City. The rest was cool stuff that Zann's parents had conjured, mostly based on interesting things they had seen in their travels: a statue of a frightening beast from the slopes of Mount Mystery, replicas of the low-slung chairs used by nomadic settlers way out on the Far Frontier, and an exotic-looking lamp from some other, faraway world.
That lamp was Zann's favorite. He paused beside it, resting a hand on its lumpy surface and glancing at the framed blink images of his family hanging on the walls. Could his parents be trapped in some mysterious other world even now? Could they still be alive despite what most people thought?
Zing scampered over to grab a scorched chew toy. Boz stared at Zann. His large brown eyes were troubled. "I'm glad you're home," he said, setting his diary on the table. "I thought about going down to your school to get you. Have you heard about the warning from the palace?"
Zann nodded. "An echo crow came to school. The message sounded pretty weird. Why would Reds suddenly start disappearing?"
"I don't know." Boz rubbed his nose to stop it from quivering. "I've sent messages to a few friends to see if any of them know anything. But they haven't responded. That worries me, especially since they're all Reds."
He tapped one finger against another, and several message moths appeared. Boz focused his gaze on one, muttering a message under his breath. As he spoke, tiny words etched themselves onto the moth's powdery wings.
Zann couldn't help being impressed. Most people had to inscribe message moths by hand. Only a few people had the focus to do it by eye. Sometimes it was easy to forget that his grandfather had been one of the most powerful Magic Masters in the kingdom. Zann wondered if he himself would ever develop that kind of control over his own powers.
He realized Boz had finished inscribing the message moths and was talking again. He'd just said something about wanting Zann to stay at home.
"What?" Zann blurted out. "But I told Darb I'd meet him at the swamp after dinner!"
"Sorry, Zann. We need to be careful until I find out what we're dealing with." Boz waved a hand to send the moths fluttering out the window. "I can't risk you wandering off."
"What's the difference? It's not like anything ever happens way out here in Swamp Bottom. I still don't know why you decided to move to this place after Mom and Dad disappeared. We'll never find out what happened to them while we're stuck out here in this boring old backwater."
"I'll make dinner in an hour" was all Boz said. "You'd better get started on your homework."
"Typical," thought Zann. Boz never wanted to talk about what had happened to Zann's parents. Zann didn't get it. Didn't Boz want to find them if they were still out there somewhere?
"Come here, Zing," he called. "Dinnertime."
He rubbed his fingers together and pointed at the dragon's food dish. A big helping of green, slimy dragon mush appeared.
Zing flapped his wings in thanks. Then he shot out a flicker of flame and instantly cooked the mush. It smelled disgusting, but the dragon slurped it up eagerly.
Zann turned around and realized Boz was watching him. "I'm not trying to ruin your fun, Zann," Boz said. "I just want to protect you."
"I know." Zann felt guilty for his earlier thoughts. "It's okay."
But after dinner Zann felt much too restless to sit in his room and study. He checked to make sure Boz wasn't nearby. Then he rubbed his hands together and zapped himself out of the house.