Chapter One - ONE -
FORT FITZGERALD HAD TRAVELED TO other dimensions, flown with dragons, and fought off ancient horrors. He’d saved the city of London from a boy under the spell of Spirit magic; he’d held the sword of King Arthur—one of the Arthurs, at least—and made deals with the queen of the faeries.
One thing he’d never done, though, was raise a pet.
Sure, he’d always wanted one. He’d begged his father for years to get a cat, but his father had always refused, saying he was a dog person. So Fort eventually tried a different approach and asked if they could get a dog, only for his father to claim he’d always been a cat person, and just not into dogs. It’d been an ongoing battle that Fort had no chance of ever winning.
Well, at least until now, ever since Fort had arrived home after being expelled from the Oppenheimer School to find a surprise in his old room at his aunt’s apartment—a surprise that Fort needed his friends to help him with urgently.
And so, the same night he arrived back at his aunt’s place, without even having had enough time to unpack or, more importantly, actually spend time with his newly returned father, Fort opened four circles of green light in the cavern beneath the original Oppenheimer School—teleportation portals to four separate places.
Fort stepped through the first one, carrying a large green duffel bag that a few hours earlier had been filled with clothes but now had strange mewling noises coming from it. He winced at the sound as he looked around the cavern, barely lit by the glow of the portals.
This wasn’t going to cut it, he decided. They’d need a bit more illumination, so he cast Heal Minor Wounds but didn’t release it from his hand. The blue magic of the spell played off the surrounding rocks, giving just enough light to see by.
Behind him, the teleportation circle led back to his bedroom at his aunt Cora’s apartment, and Fort looked at it with a long sigh. As excited as he was about the little newcomer in the duffel bag, a huge part of him wished he could be in that apartment, spending every possible minute that he could with his dad.
They’d barely had any time together, between getting his father released from the TDA after days of debriefing and medical checks. And then they’d been watched on the military transport the entire way home, until finally they’d been handed over to Fort’s aunt.
Even now, he worried that he’d walk back through that portal and find out it was all a dream, that his father was still gone, taken by the Dracsi. Fort had to constantly remind himself that his dad was home, awake, and safe, and that he wasn’t going anywhere. The reminder sent a shudder of relief through Fort.
Granted, it wasn’t like everything else was okay. Cyrus was still missing after a fellow Carmarthen Academy classmate of his, William, had used Spirit magic on the silver-haired boy, forcing Cyrus to send himself somewhere else in time. Not to mention that Fort, Rachel, and Jia only had a year to find the Timeless One—the Old One of Time magic—and defeat him using Excalibur, or they’d be prisoners of the faerie queen of Avalon for the rest of time.
Oh, and where was Excalibur now? No one knew. Ellora, another Carmarthen Academy student, had jumped away in time with it, in order to keep the sword out of Colonel Charles’s hands. That had been a smart move at the time, but now they had no idea where or when she was, or if she’d be coming back with the sword.
At least Merlin, a mysterious old man who seemed to be the mythical wizard from the King Arthur stories, had offered to train Rachel and Jia to fight the Timeless One. He hadn’t mentioned training Fort, which had stung a bit, but Fort tried not to think about it with all the other things to worry about. Still, all the training in the world wouldn’t help Rachel and Jia without Excalibur.
And yet, for all of that, Fort had his father back. Even just reminding himself that his father was here, home with family, made the rest of it feel like it wasn’t so bad, that they’d be able to work it all out. It also didn’t hurt that he was about to see his friends again after missing them for a few days, including one whom he hadn’t seen for even longer in person—
Sierra Ramirez passed through the second portal from where she’d been hiding in the UK, looking tired but still thrilled, her eyes on the duffel bag in Fort’s hands. Of course she’d already seen its contents from inside Fort’s head using her Mind magic, but that didn’t seem to dim her enthusiasm at all. “Fort!” she shouted, and gave him a huge hug, avoiding the bag.
“Sierra!” Fort shouted in return, only to get all the air knocked out of his lungs as she squeezed him tightly. Even without any air, he couldn’t believe how great it was to see her. He’d been so used to talking to a Mind magic version of Sierra that he had forgotten how much better it was to see her in person. There was no one he felt closer to, not even Cyrus, considering how much of Sierra’s life he’d felt like he’d lived through her memories, back when he’d first arrived at the Oppenheimer School.
“It’s been so long!” he told her when he could breathe again.
“I was in your head, like, twenty minutes ago,” she said, grinning widely. “All I did since then was reach out to the other two, and show you where they’d be so you could open portals.”
“I meant since we were together in person,” he said, blushing a bit.
Sierra laughed, then hugged him again. “I know, Fitzgerald. I’m just messing with you! I can’t believe how good it is to see you for reals too, instead of just in our minds—”
“Is this the big emergency?” said a voice, and Sierra immediately pulled back, turning to find Rachel Carter passing through her portal. “More importantly, where is—”
She was interrupted as Jia Liang arrived, throwing nervous glances back through her own teleportation circle. But as soon as Jia saw Rachel, both girls brightened and hugged with even more excitement than Sierra and Fort had. Fort rolled his eyes.
“You two just saw each other, like, a week ago,” he said.
“Shut it, Fitzgerald,” Rachel said to him over her shoulder.
“A lot has happened since then,” Jia said as she pulled away from Rachel. “You two got expelled, and now they won’t even let me go to class.” She shook her head. “They’re guarding me constantly, because Agent Cole thinks I’m going to steal a book of magic or something.”
“Tell her we did that already,” Rachel said, her tone joking but her face showing she wasn’t thrilled about how Jia was being treated.
“I can’t stay for more than a few minutes,” Jia told them, giving Rachel an especially apologetic look. “I didn’t want to take the chance of a guard walking in if we opened a portal to my room, so I told them I had to use the restroom. They won’t wait long before checking on me.” She glanced back through the portal behind her, where the ugly green tile of a bathroom in the second Oppenheimer School gave Fort unpleasant flashbacks.
“So what couldn’t wait until tomorrow, Fort?” Rachel asked, her eyes on Jia.
“Um, here’s the thing,” he said, looking down at the ground, suddenly less excited about showing them now that he’d heard about what Jia was going through. “Remember when D’hea, the Old One of Healing, was going to destroy the world because he thought all the dragons were gone? We didn’t know at the time that Damian actually is a dragon, so I convinced him to just make a new one out of magic.…”
Rachel began to groan loudly, while Jia just stared at him with her eyebrows raised. Meanwhile, Sierra had covered her mouth with her hand but wasn’t able to hide her laughter. “Are you serious, Fort?” Rachel said. “You and I just got expelled. Jia’s basically a prisoner—”
“I mean, Dr. Ambrose is sneaking me the Healing book every so often,” Jia said.
“And you brought us here to share that you’ve got a baby dragon in there?” Rachel finished, pointing at the bag. “Is that what you’re saying?”
A tiny meep escaped from the bag, followed by clawing noises.
“Well, kind of?” Fort said, and Sierra burst out laughing.
“Wait until you see this thing!” she said, laughing harder. “It thinks Fort is its daddy!”
Rachel snorted at this, while Jia reached up to cover her mouth, just like Sierra had a moment ago. “Come on, Sierra, this isn’t funny,” Jia said, but her voice broke a bit as she tried not to laugh.
“She’s right, Mindflayer,” Rachel said to Sierra, her own mouth twitching violently. “It’s incredibly serious. I mean, does Fort even know how to change a diaper?”
This set all three of them off, laughing so hard that they missed the very annoyed looks Fort was giving them. “Hey, all right,” he said, setting the bag down. “It’s not funny, okay?”
“Fort, tell them what you named it!” Sierra said, having trouble breathing now.
“What?” Jia shouted. “You have a name already?”
“Please tell me it’s Fort Jr.!” Rachel said.
Fort rolled his eyes. “First of all, it’s a she. I think.”
This set off even more gales of laughter.
“But her name isn’t important!” Fort shouted over them. “What am I supposed to do with—”
“He named her Ember!?” Sierra said. “Is that not the most adorable dragon name you’ve ever heard?”
Rachel and Jia both stopped laughing long enough to shout “Awwww!” at him, but that was the least of Fort’s concerns. He should have warned Sierra, but there hadn’t been time.
“Don’t say her name, Sierra,” Fort whispered, not liking how the duffel bag had stopped moving. “Ever since she learned it, she’s been—”
A whoosh sound from within confirmed his worst fears as a small flame began to spread through the duffel bag.
“Nice!” Rachel said, quickly snuffing it out with a magical gust of wind. “You didn’t say she was already breathing fire!”
A low growl emerged from the burned section of the bag, and slowly a scaly black head about the size of an apple pushed out. Ember’s black scales glinted in the light of the green portals, and her red eyes stared suspiciously at Jia, Rachel, and Sierra. Behind her, wings the size of her body unfurled, and she briefly stretched them before wrapping them back around herself protectively.
Rachel gasped. “I take it all back—she’s the cutest thing ever, and I want her.” She leaned down, extending a hand. “She’s like the size of a house cat. Come here, Ember!”
“No!” Fort shouted as Sierra quickly stepped out of the way, knowing what was coming. Ember pulled in a deep breath, ready to send out another plume of fire, but Fort picked up the bag before she could unleash her flames on Rachel and turned the tiny dragon to face him. “No, dragon, we do not set people on fire!”
The dragon began to purr, rubbing her cheeks full of fire against Fort’s hand. He patted her head awkwardly. “Good girl, Ember. Good girl!”
Immediately she released a plume of fire several dozen feet long off over his shoulder, the heat of which almost caused him to drop the bag.
“Whoa!” Rachel said, scooting back from where she’d been squatting. “Looks like someone is cranky!”
Ember’s eyes darkened, and she turned back to Rachel and Jia, smoke rising from her nostrils. “She would have burned down my aunt’s apartment if I hadn’t teleported her flame away,” Fort said, spinning the duffel bag so she couldn’t see his friends. “I think she might be hungry.” He picked her up to look her in the eye. “No more fire when people say your name, okay? Okay??”
She stared back at him for a moment, then licked him sloppily on the face.
“What do dragons eat?” Jia asked. “If it’s people, I’m not okay with that.”
“Damian always liked hamburgers,” Sierra said, then coughed to hide another laugh as Fort shot her a dirty look.
“That was in his human form,” Fort said. “D’hea, the Old One of Healing, said dragons ate gold and silver.” Ember slowly climbed out of the bag and up onto Fort’s body, digging her claws painfully into his chest to climb up to his shoulder. From there, she curled her long neck around his protectively, her eyes still watching the others with suspicion. “Is that something you can magic up, Rachel?”
“Gold and silver?” Rachel said. “You think I wouldn’t have done that for some spare cash if I could?”
“It must be possible,” Jia told her. “Your magic is all about elemental control, after all. We probably just haven’t found the right combination of words.”
Rachel looked at her thoughtfully. “Maybe, but I don’t know that I have any spell words for changing something into something else.”
Jia wrinkled her nose. “This is why the books are so frustrating. I know a few different words for that, but if I tell them to you, you won’t be able to remember them. We need to figure out a way around that.”
“Hello, baby dragon over here!” Fort said, waving his hand. Ember raised her claws and mimicked him, giving the others an even dirtier look. “I can’t exactly wait around for you to figure out how to turn rocks into gold. I need to feed her something soon, and then, I don’t know, get her somewhere safe to hide, like a cave or—”
“Hey!” Rachel shouted indignantly, as Jia looked just as shocked. “Are you joking? You can’t just abandon a baby animal like that!”
“She’s a dragon!?” Fort said, as Ember growled at Rachel. “I’m pretty sure she can take care of herself!”
“She’s a baby and seems to think you’re her mom!” Rachel said. “You have to take care of her, Fort. She doesn’t have anyone else!”
“Seriously, Fort,” Jia said. “The fact that she’s a dragon makes it even more important that you watch over her. Think about what kind of panic there’d be if someone found her. Or even worse, if Colonel Charles got ahold of her.”
Fort opened his mouth to respond but had no idea what to say. He couldn’t keep a dragon, not in an apartment… not even if he was still at the Oppenheimer School. If he somehow was able to keep Ember hidden, she still needed to eat, not to mention probably go for walks or something. And what about when he started school again? He couldn’t take her there, not without setting off mass hysteria.
“See?” Sierra said to him. “This is what I’ve been saying. She’s yours, Fort. Think of her as a pet.”
“Actually, that’s a great idea,” Jia said, and held up her hand. It began to glow with blue Healing magic, and Ember hissed at her warily, but as the magic filled the little dragon, she quickly calmed down, then fell asleep on Fort’s shoulder.
“Hey, what’d you do?” Fort said, trying to make sure his dragon was okay.
“I put her to sleep—calm down,” Jia said, unleashing a second spell. As the blue light passed over the slumbering dragon, Ember’s black scales began to morph into fur. Her ears pulled in, becoming more of a small triangle on top of her now rounder head, and whiskers pushed out of her snout.
And just like that, a small black kitten snored quietly on Fort’s shoulder. Apparently Jia’s spell took age into account, because Ember was even smaller as a cat than she’d been as a dragon.
“There,” Jia said with some satisfaction. “That should solve all your problems.”
“Um, what?” Fort said incredulously, not even able to count the number of ways that was wrong.
“Now you can keep her at your aunt’s place with no problems!” Jia said, then glanced at Rachel. “See? That’s just one of my changing spells. We really need to figure out how to swap spell words, so you can use it to change lead into gold or whatever.”
“Totally,” Rachel said. “And I’m glad we were able to solve your problem for you, Fort. You’re welcome.”
“Um, what?” Fort said again. “This doesn’t solve anything—”
“Since we’re already here for Fort’s fake emergency, let’s quickly cover the actual important stuff,” Rachel continued, ignoring him. She held out her hand to count on her fingers. “One, we need to find Excalibur, from whatever time Ellora sent it to; two, we need to track down Merlin, so he can train Jia and me like he promised, which is a problem since Damian destroyed Merlin’s cottage, and we might not be able to find him now; and three, we’ll need to somehow locate the Timeless One, the Old One of Time magic, who could literally be anywhere or anywhen in time. And we need to do all of that within a year, or the faerie queen will basically imprison us in her world for the rest of our lives.” She paused, then looked up at Ember, asleep. “Oh, and four, I’m going to need to cuddle that cat ASAP!”