The First Dragon
Chapter ONE Ancient Promises
“I miss Samaranth,” the young Valkyrie Laura Glue said as she descended the ladder, arms laden with ancient books and scrolls. “In fact, I miss all the Dragons. They may not have always been there when you wanted them . . .”
“But they were always there when you needed them,” the Caretaker named Jack said, finishing the expression all of them had said at one time or another in recent weeks.
“That’s only because,” Harry Houdini said, raising his finger to emphasize his point, “none of them ever threatened to roast and eat any of you.”
Jack’s colleague John, the former Caveo Principia and current Prime Caretaker, chuckled and clapped the magician on the arm. “You did ask for it, Ehrich,” he said, using Houdini’s given name. “Both you and Arthur. You should have known better than to step on the Dragon’s tail, even metaphorically.”
“I’m sure Conan Doyle did know better,” said Jack, “but he was swayed by . . . Other influences.”
“I resent that,” said Houdini.
“I meant Burton,” Jack said, feigning innocence. “Perhaps your conscience heard differently.”
He took the bundle of documents from Laura Glue and handed them to John, who winked at him, not necessarily out of agreement, but just to give Houdini a tweak. The former members of the Imperial Cartological Society might have rejoined the Caretakers, but some of the old divisions were still present in every conversation. “These are pre–Iron Age,” John remarked as he peered more closely at the topmost parchments. “They’re in surprisingly good shape.”
“Everything here is,” Jack agreed. “Unfortunately, we’re still no closer to finding anything useful.”
“We must persevere,” John replied. “If there is anything that can give us a clue as to how to find our friends, it will be here.”
The Repository of Tamerlane House was located in the centermost room, accessible only by the master of the house, who rarely involved himself directly in the affairs of the other Caretakers, and by the Prime Caretaker, who until very recently had been Jules Verne.
There were several libraries within the walls of Tamerlane, including one that contained all the unwritten books of the world, but the Repository was different: It held the books that were the most rare, the most sacred, to the Caretakers and all those who came before who tried to make better worlds out of the ones they had been given. The Histories, written by the Caretakers during each of their tenures, were there, as were the Prophecies, which were future histories that had been compiled primarily by Verne and his immediate protégé Bert, also known as H. G. Wells, the Caretaker who had chosen John, Jack, and their friend Charles to become Caretakers themselves.
There was also the Telos Biblos, the Last Book, which was both
history and prophecy. It contained the names of all the Dragons, which the Caretakers’ enemies had used to capture their shadows and compel them to service—which led to the destruction of all the Dragons save for the oldest one. Unfortunately, since the incident that severed the connections between the Archipelago and the Summer Country, time itself had become more and more erratic. Might-have-beens and alternate histories were taking the place of pasts and futures that previously, Verne had relied on as being set in stone. But that stone, it seemed, was fluid, changeable; and so the Last Book was no more helpful to them than the books in the last case: the Imaginarium Geographicas of other worlds yet to be explored.
Jack looked wistfully at the case with the other Geographicas and chuckled ruefully when John smiled and shook his head.
“I understand, old friend,” John said, not for the first time. “I want to explore them too, but our first responsibility must be to the restoration of the lands from the Geographica we’re already Caretakers of.”
“I’m just feeling the weight of it all, John,” his friend replied. “No one is going to suddenly appear with a magic solution to fix everything, are they?”
“We have only ourselves to rely on, I’m afraid,” John said with a heavy sigh. “We can only hope that we will prove to be a fraction as effective at keeping the evils of the world at bay as the Dragons were.”
♦ ♦ ♦
In the centuries since the Imaginarium Geographica was created, it had been entrusted to many Caretakers for safekeeping—all of whom had the same reaction to the legend inscribed on the maps.
It read, Here, there be Dragons, and to a man, every Caretaker had at first assumed this was a warning. In time, they came to learn it was not.
Here, there be Dragons was meant to reassure the Caretakers and all those living in the lands depicted on the maps that there would always be someone watching over them; someone older, wiser, and stronger than any forces who might seek to destroy the world of the Archipelago of Dreams. Since the creation of the Archipelago, when it was separated from the world called the Summer Country, there had always been a Dragon—at least one—standing watch.
That was before the coming of the Winter King, who sought to rule the Archipelago, and the Caretakers of prophecy from the Last Book, three young scholars from Oxford, who defeated him and saved both worlds. But the price was high—before the Winter King was defeated, the Keep of Time, which connected the two worlds, was set on fire and gradually destroyed, severing the connection.
Time in the Archipelago was severed from the Caretakers’ base at Tamerlane House in the Nameless Isles, as well as the rest of the world, and in the process, had begun to speed up. Thousands of years passed in the Archipelago, and it was eventually taken over completely by the Caretakers’ great enemy: the eternal Shadows known as Echthroi, and their servants, the Lloigor.
The Nameless Isles were spared the same fate only because of a temporal and interdimensional bridge built by William Shakespeare that connected Tamerlane House to the Kilns, Jack’s home in Oxford.
With the destruction of the keep, the Caretakers also lost the
ability to travel in time—something that their adversaries, led by the renegade Caretaker Dr. John Dee, seemed to have a greater facility for. Only the Grail Child, Rose Dyson, and the new Cartographer, Edmund McGee, working together to create chronal maps that could open into any point in time, could give the Caretakers any hope of repairing the damage that had been done and restoring what once was in the Archipelago.
Somehow, the Keep of Time had to be rebuilt. And the only way to do that was to find the Architect—and no one in history seemed to know his identity, or when the keep had been built to begin with.
Rose and Edmund, along with the tulpa Caretaker Charles, his mentor Bert, the clockwork owl from Alexandria named Archimedes, and the once leader of the Imperial Cartological Society, Sir Richard Burton, were dispatched into Deep Time to try to find the Architect—and the mission was a disaster.
Burton was trapped in the far future, after narrowly defeating an Echthros-possessed alternate version of their friend Jack; Archimedes was nearly destroyed; and Rose’s sword, Caliburn, was irreparably broken. Only the intervention of a mysterious, near-omnipotent old man in a white, timeless space called Platonia saved the other companions. Bert was returned to Tamerlane, just in time to die and become a portrait in Basil Hallward’s gallery; and Rose, Charles, and Edmund were sent more deeply into the past, to a city that might have been Atlantis.
Since Bert’s reappearance and the discovery of an engraving of the city that Edmund had left inside a Sphinx for the Caretakers to find, nearly two months had passed, with no sign of the companions, and no further word of where, or when, they were.
Shakespeare, who had a gift for constructing chronal devices, had fashioned a pyramid he called the Zanzibar Gate out of the fallen stones of the keep, in order to use it to go after the missing companions. Unfortunately, it had to be powered by the presence of a living Dragon—and there were no Dragons left. Even the great old Dragon Samaranth had vanished when the Archipelago was lost—so the Caretakers couldn’t even seek him out for advice, much less ask him to go through the gate. That left everything at a standstill for weeks—and when Rose, Edmund, and Charles failed to reappear, John, Jack, Laura Glue, Houdini, and some of the others at Tamerlane House began searching for other options. But even the fabled Repository of Tamerlane House had given them nothing.
“It seems there are times when only a Dragon will do,” Houdini said, slamming shut another ancient tome. “There simply isn’t any substitute.”
“Do you need a hand with those?” Jack asked, rising from his chair as Laura Glue again descended a ladder carrying a precariously arranged assortment of boxes.
“It’s all right,” Laura Glue said as she carefully balanced the stack on the table. “I got this.”
“Actually,” Jack said, “the proper way to say that would be ‘I’ve got this.’ The way you say it makes you sound . . .”
“Uneducated? Like a wildling, maybe?” Laura Glue replied.
Jack frowned. “I was going to say, it makes you sound less intelligent than you actually are.”
Laura Glue frowned back. “ ’Ceptin’,” she said, deliberately using Lost Boy slang, “you knows I be intelligent as all that, and I knows I be intelligent as all that, so what be the problem, neh?”
“The problem,” Jack said, now in full professor mode, “is that no one else who heard you speak that way would know how intelligent you really are.”
She shrugged and smiled at the Caretaker. “Why should I care what anyone else thinks? I know, and that’s enough.”
“She has you there, Jack,” John said, clapping him on the back. “Best just shut up now and help her move the boxes.”
“Nah,” Laura Glue said, waving one hand at them as she hefted another stack of boxes with her other arm. “Like I said—I got this.”
“An’ I gots some munchies,” the badger Caretaker Fred announced as he strolled into the room, carrying a large basket filled with fruit. “It’s midafternoon, and you missed lunch, so I thought I’d better bring something up.”
“Thank you, Fred,” Jack said as he selected a bunch of grapes and sat down. “Anticipating a need is the mark of an excellent Caretaker.”
“Don’t go quoting Jules, now,” said John. “Especially regarding anticipating our needs.”
“That’s not entirely fair, is it?” Houdini asked as he examined some pears a moment before selecting a peach. “He hardly could have anticipated a crisis like this one.”
“He seems to have anticipated every other kind of crisis,” John grumbled, “including an entire alternate timeline set into motion by Hugo Dyson closing a door at the wrong time, which, as I recall, was partially your fault. So why didn’t he anticipate this? Where’s the backup plan for the backup plan?”
Jack stood and sidled around one of the tables to move another stack of scrolls and parchments, which he dropped onto the floor next to John’s chair. “Perhaps we have gotten too accustomed to his
being our deus ex machina,” he said, sitting heavily in the wingback chair next to Laura Glue. “We count on his always having the answers, because before we knew how many strings he was pulling, he always seemed to have all the answers. And then, even after we found out just how many events he was manipulating, we still allowed it because it always seemed to work out. It was only after something finally went terribly wrong that you took matters into your own hands and stepped into the role yourself.”
John scowled. “You are referring to the role of Prime Caretaker, I hope,” he said with a hint of irritation, “and not Jules’s predilection for meddling with time.”
“What’s the difference?” Laura Glue asked as she selected an apple from Fred’s basket and bit into it. “Isn’t that precisely what the job be, neh?”
“That’s the problem in a nutshell,” John said with a sigh. “It really is, but it shouldn’t be.”
At that moment, Nathaniel Hawthorne stuck his head around the corner. Before he could speak a word, he exploded with a violent sneeze, then another, and another.
“You would think,” he said as Fred handed him a handkerchief to blow his nose, “that Basil Hallward could have painted some version of my portrait that left out my allergy to dust.”
Jack chuckled. “That’s not how it works,” he said blithely, referring to their resident artist’s technique for preserving life by painting portraits of Caretakers who were about to end their natural life spans. “As you were in life, so you remain in Tamerlane House.”
“That’s slender consolation sometimes, Jack,” Hawthorne grumbled as he wiped his nose. “You’ll understand when you eventually join us.”
Jack hesitated. “I . . . haven’t yet decided,” he finally said. “I know I don’t want to become a tulpa like Charles did when he passed, but I’m not certain that I want to be a portrait, either.”
“It’s not so bad—as long as you don’t go on vacation for longer than seven days,” Hawthorne said, referring to the one limitation of portrait-extended life: They could only live as long as they were never away from Tamerlane House for more than a week—a lesson the Caretakers learned all too well when both their mentor, Professor Sigurdsson, and their once-ally-turned-enemy Daniel Defoe perished after being gone for too long.
“Time enough to decide that later,” said Jack. “Hopefully decades. Was there something you needed, Nate?”
Hawthorne hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “There’s some kind of commotion down at one of the beaches. I’ve dispatched Jason’s sons to go down there just in case it’s trouble, and I’m going to go have a look myself. I just thought the, ah, Prime Caretaker . . .” He paused, looking at John. “I thought you ought to know.”
John waved his hand. “You’re head of security,” he said. “I trust in that. Let me know what you find, though.”
Hawthorne winked and disappeared.
“Mebbe I should go too,” said Fred, “seein’ as I’m one of th’ actual Caretakers now.”
“Actually, we could use your help here,” said Jack. “There are some cubbyholes in and around the bookshelves that are too small for us to reach, and, not to put too fine a point on it . . .”
“I know, I know,” Fred said with mock annoyance. “You need a badger to bail out your backsides—again.”
“I’ll never begrudge the help of a badger,” John said with honest
appreciation, “especially considering that you’re the closest thing to a Dragon we have left.”
“That may not be entirely correct,” said a breathless Hawthorne, who reentered the room in such a rush that he nearly skidded into a bookcase. “Come quickly, everyone! You must see what we’ve found on the South Beach.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Hawthorne’s alert roused everyone at Tamerlane House, and so almost every Caretaker, Messenger, Mystorian, and creature arrived on the beach at the same time and saw the same impossible sight:
There, half out of the water and leaning slightly where it rested on the sand, was the Black Dragon.