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Prologue: Cana Dei
They say that history always repeats itself, that time by its very nature is just a series of cycles, with the same stories occurring again and again. As one cycle ebbs another emerges, and so the temporal dynamo spins, never ceasing. If it’s happened once it’s practically destined to happen again. Thus the sun will always rise tomorrow, and night will always fall soon after. There can never be an end to it all.
But no creature in any of the dimensions has lived long enough to truly understand its essence. No one can quite remember their beginning, and so no one can fully comprehend how it all must ultimately end.
They call me the dark force, and I have many names, but you probably know me as Cana Dei. It is I who shall end it all, who’ll return nature to the darkness from which it emerged. It is I who shall break the cyclical nature of existence and transform it back to its inevitable state.
You might call it destiny, or the more fearful amongst you might use the word oblivion. This is how it must ultimately end.
As dawn breaks over our battleground to be, namely the First Dimension, the world spins and the darkness that has plagued a cold and bitter winter lifts its mantle to make way for spring. False spring, it should be called, because each sprouted sapling and blossoming flower brings a kind of hope that cannot ultimately be realised.
Eventually, everything must wilt.
Warlocks of the First Dimension, your time will soon come. You have been largely silent since you turned upon your master Lasinta because she refused to bend to my will. Now you answer only to my commands, but I assure you that you’ve made the right choice.
Seramina – the one who betrayed us – might have destroyed your original army. But time has passed, and under my tutelage you have raised a magical horde that rivals any force your world has known. Not to mention the demons that you shall soon summon from the Seventh Dimension, brought forth from the rifts that you will break into the ground itself with the spell that we have nearly perfected.
Of course, there are those who are destined to protect the First Dimension. The King’s Dragon Guard on their powerful dragons trained by the mighty Matharon himself; the White Mages on their unicorns, who police the lands against those that might ‘fall’ to the darkness. Then there’s the cats who have learned to ride dragons. They seem laughable when you think about it, but that won’t stop them from emerging as one of the most powerful forces the worlds have ever seen.
Alas, none of them will be powerful enough – because I have the warlocks, I have the demon overlord Ammit, and I have others who will eventually serve me in the future, including the traitor who is yet to be revealed.
As for the rest of you, well, let’s just say that your preordained oblivion is nigh . . .
Chapter One: Cats in Training
It was a strange thing, and I’d never thought I’d ever say it, but I was starting to enjoy the cold. It howled around me, announcing its fury in the form of winds buffeting against those who resisted it. But I remained undaunted, and the cats and dragons in my charge were uncowed.
I sat in my regular place on Salanraja’s back as she dived into the frigid wind above the jagged peaks of the Crystal Mountains. My whiskers twitched, and the cold blasted at my fur. It found its way into the spaces between my furry coat and the leather harness with a second fur interior that wrapped around me from my neck to the rest of my body, stopping just short of my four thighs and my tail.
The black Cat Sidhe Ta’ra – my companion – had come up with the idea to provide all the cats, as well as our resident Sussex spaniel, with a second fur coat. The Abyssinian Esme and I had been mightily opposed to it until the winter at Bestian Academy had truly set in. Cats aren’t meant to wear clothing, we’d told her. Not even collars if we could avoid it, particularly those horrible conical shaped things that humans put on us to stop us licking flea poison off our fur.
But then it got cold, and I mean really cold. The kind of weather that carries blizzards that will freeze you into an ice cube if you stay out in them for even a minute. The kind of cold that can crack your teeth and make your claws turn so brittle that they fall out – or at least that’s how the old Ragamuffin back in my home neighbourhood had put it during his story of how he’d had to spend a winter on the high Fjords of Norway.
We’d had to fly to the closest village in the foothills of the Crystal Mountains so the local tanner could fit the harnesses onto all of us. It had been hard to get some of the cats to stay still, particularly the famous Cornish Rex who had complained that they were hiding away his beautiful white coat. But it was so warm in the tanner’s workshop that no cat had dared run away. Multiple cats had moaned that they’d rather stay in there and catch rats for the tanner than return to the mountains. But once they’d had their armours fitted, they’d all said that they were too hot inside and had decided it was better to return to their dragons.
Though my harness had been itchy at first, I’d eventually appreciated the protection it offered against the elements. For the first time I understood why humans needed to wear clothing. It’s a mystery that had always eluded the cats back in my neighbourhood as to why they opted to shave off all their hair. There was one Sphynx cat in our ranks who had said that she didn’t know how she would have survived without it. I can imagine how the harsh conditions had been especially brutal for her.
Now, as we flew through a cerulean sky, a low layer of fog rimmed the horizon. Salanraja and I took the lead, with a good two hundred dragon riders in tow. Other than Salanraja and the mighty Matharon who tailed us from far behind, the dragons of our convoy were all dwarf dragons, their size being perfect for the cats who rode them. The cats included my companion Ta’ra, a black cat who once had been a fairy, and the mousy yet vicious Rex himself, King of Cats in Cimlean City, a title which he apparently hadn’t renounced since his decision to train as a dragon rider.
The white Abyssinian, Esme, who was once Bastet’s daughter, also accompanied us, though she wasn’t in training. Rather, from the back of her black dwarf dragon Gratis, she would provide the glamour spells to conjure images of our potential enemies.
I was the leader, and these cats I was to train had barely tasted actual combat. It was my job to show them all how it was done. After all, I had once vanquished the warlock Astravar and I’d fought many battles since. But then what do you expect of a Bengal, descendant of the great Asian leopard cat and the mighty George? During our very first days in our litter, my Bengal mother had told my brothers and sisters and me that our legacies were going to be legendary. Mine certainly had been so far.
“There, Bengie,” Salanraja – the ruby red dragon on which I rode and to whom I was bonded – said. “Can you see it on the horizon?”
“Ben,” I said. “Ben. Ben. Ben. Ben. Ben. When will you start using my proper name?”
“To be honest, I don’t think I can change it in my head now. I think ‘Bengie’ has caught on too well. Anyway, you’re meant to be focusing on the training. We have a reputation to uphold.”
I squinted to try and make out what she was looking at behind the setting sun. Only just visible, there was something down there that was luminous. It was mist-like and humanoid in appearance, and in place of skin it had a substance that emitted a white spectral glow. Even more difficult to discern was the ghostly staff it held in its hand.
“I see it,” I said. “A manipulator.”
“Are you ready?” Salanraja asked.
“Now . . .”
As soon as I said it, Salanraja swooped down even further until she was almost crashing into the ground. She telegraphed her manoeuvre well and I leaned into her motion, turning to her rear. Salanraja grazed the ground with her claws, carving two trails into the snow. As she rose again, she lowered her tail for only a brief moment, but that was enough. Behind, I heard the swish of air as the dragons in convoy adjusted their formation.
There were no roars from the dragons and no yowls or shrieks from the cats. That was good; Esme and I’d initially had a problem getting the cats to do things. It wasn’t that they were incapable of doing the assigned tasks, but rather of following orders. Particularly if they were hungry – they wouldn’t even mount their dragons for flight training unless they first had a full meal in their stomachs.
I mean, I used to be the same, but I’d learned how humans and dragons often forgo comfort for the greater good. It’s one of the few things I have learned from them. That, and the fact that most food tastes better cooked.
Salanraja’s tail swished through the plume of frigid powder that she had disturbed, and I ran down it using my remarkable feline balance to avoid stumbling on the way down. I rolled over onto the ground, a sudden icy chill causing my muscles to constrict. But I wasn’t going to let it kill my momentum.
I called upon my staff bearer – a giant white hand that guarded my staff for me – from the mysterious empty place it seemed to occupy in the space-time continuum. The staff it held had white crystals inset all along the length of it. Almost as if it were having a tantrum, the hand swooped down to slam my staff between my jaws and then disappeared into thin air. I clenched down on it, afraid to drop it.
Already power was surging through me, the white magic coursing through my veins and providing a warmth all of its own. The crystals on the staff glowed white, and I gathered the energy, focusing the very essence of my being into that single moment. My veins grew from warm to hot, and the air seemed to bristle with static. At the same time, the manipulator turned its wispy form towards me, and it pointed its staff forward.
But it was too slow; I already had a bead on it. I released the power stored up in my body and channelled it towards my target. A white beam surged out of my staff, and it hit the manipulator where its heart would be if it were actually human. It had no heart in fact, but a magically powered crystal at its core. There came a loud buzzing sound and a sudden whiff of ozone, then a bright flash of light. Once that faded, only a purple crystal remained, spinning in the snow.
Esme flew overhead on her dragon. The Abyssinian also had her staff in her mouth, its crystal glowing brightly. Light flashed, magical energy falling from the sky like light rain, and then the crystal that had belonged to the vanquished manipulator was gone. In its place, purple mist arose from the snow ahead of me, and the air took on the stench of rotten vegetable juice. Esme had wanted to make this simulation as real to the senses as she possibly could.
Soon enough two hundred manipulators had arisen from the ground, their wispy forms almost looking like a sea of fog approaching from the horizon.
“Now it’s your students’ turn,” Salanraja said. “Let’s see how they do.”
“They’ll do well,” I answered.
“And how can you be so sure?”
“Because I trained them myself. I showed them all the tricks, how to will power into your staff, and exactly when to release. Besides, they’re cats. We learn faster than humans.”
“That’s exactly what you said during the last training session.”
“I know. But this time it’s going to be different. I can feel it in my bones.”
“We shall see . . .”
But I was already starting to see, because deep inside I was purring with satisfaction as I watched two hundred dwarf dragons swoop down from the sky in flawlessly graceful manoeuvres. They’d received years of training before they’d even bonded with the cats, under the tuition of the mighty bronze dragon Matharon, who hovered in the distance watching them. The dragons grazed the ground just as Salanraja had, and the cats rolled off their tails in a perfectly coordinated pattern, landing just a couple of hundred yards from where I stood.
The dragons rose, followed by a sea of mist created by the disturbed snow. Out of this, two hundred cats emerged, covered in white powder. Rex and Ta’ra led the charge followed closely by Geni, the tailless Manx who had once been a daughter of Bastet just like Esme.
Meanwhile, the new manipulators moved faster than the original one had against me, already with their glowing staffs in their hands pointed at the army of cats. My hackles pulled at my back in anticipation as I watched. Would my dragon rider brethren take them down in time?
The scene filled with sparks and winks of light as the cats summoned their staff bearers. Two hundred large white hands appeared in the sky, holding the weapons that we had taught the cats to use. You’d think with all those staffs flying about that the staff bearers would crash into each other, but these strange hands always seemed to know what they were doing. Soon the cats had their staffs in their mouths, the crystals upon them brimming with white energy.
I saw Ta’ra right at the front with her golden staff in her mouth, its crystal glowing with fairy magic that highlighted the white diamond marking on her chest. The way that the fairy dust spiralled around her staff gave it an impression of substance. Ta’ra saw me looking and blinked twice slowly in appreciation of the attention.
My fur bristled as feelings of pride and anticipation washed over me. This was going to be the moment. The cats would defeat the manipulators and prove themselves in combat. Then we would have an army capable of defeating the five warlocks who had lost their souls to the dark force, Cana Dei.
Thus we would return order to the world, and we could all eventually retire to a palace that I’d decided we would build just like the Alhambra in the Fourth Dimension. I used to think that Ta’ra and I would just retire to a cottage, but I’d started to like being a leader among cats. In our new home, I would carry the respect they held for me to my grave.
The air crackled and smelled of pure power. A sound like thunder erupted from the sky, then two hundred cats unleashed their magic upon the manipulators. It sparked, and it popped, and it fizzled. Then, like a guttering candle, it went out.
There wasn’t even smoke. The air was redolent with the stench of rotten vegetable juice – created by the dark magic that had defeated my students. This lingered for a moment until Esme cancelled the glamour.
I stared in disappointment at the vanquished clowder. I tried not to ignore their protests about how cold it was and how they just wanted to get back inside. They just wouldn’t shut up about it.
Needless to say, I was completely unimpressed.