Here’s a sneak peak of Chapter 1 of A Cat’s Guide to Travelling Through Portals, the sequel to A Cat’s Guide to Questing for Treasure and the fifth book in the Dragoncat series.
You can pre-order the book from Amazon by clicking on the link at the bottom of this page.
Chapter 1: The Mighty March
The dwarf dragons – one black and one white – didn’t fly but walked over the plains east of Dragonsbond Academy, approaching it with slow plodding steps. They passed through humid air and over recently-swept roads, between fields of wheat that swayed in the breeze as if to greet them. Above, a light blanket of clouds allowed the sun to poke through occasionally, bathing all below in its warmth. The air smelled of dried grass and fermenting fruit, and wasps buzzed around the wispy stalks.
It was the time of year when it’s never wise to go near such insects, because they are drunk on the fruit and easily angered. It was as if the wasps also knew about the warlocks’ imminent attack, which we were all awaiting but which never came. To soothe our anxiety we ended up sitting through silly ceremonies like this one instead.
The dwarf dragons were marching towards a momentous occasion – an unusual event for this time of year. Both were carrying a crystal on their backs, and I had no doubt that this somewhat slowed their pace.
I knew of only two dragons who had colours such as theirs: the mighty Olan, who belonged to the Driar Aleam, an elder of the academy, and Corralsa, who had once been bonded to the late and pompous Prince Arran. I say ‘late’ because Arran had recently been killed by the vast, untamed powers of the young Initiate Seramina during our most recent battle against the warlocks.
Today three new dragon riders would bond with their dragons, heralding their initiation into Dragonsbond Academy.
One of the three was Max, the smelly Sussex spaniel with the power to walk between dimensions. The dog stood up ahead, with his tongue lolling out, watching Corralsa, the jet-black dragon. She stood tall, a good hundred feet away from us. Max was to become Corralsa’s rider today – a destiny designated by the crystal that slowly spun on its axis, hovering right beside the dragon’s shoulder.
The second dragon rider was my companion Ta’ra, who had once been a Cat Sidhe fairy before she’d used up her eight transformations and permanently become a cat.
No one knew who the third dragon rider was to be, but my crystal had told me not long ago, during a brief visit to the Fourth Dimension in the Sahara Desert, that all three dragons would bond with non-human creatures. I guess the Council of Three – the three elders who ran Dragonsbond Academy – knew the secret. Perhaps Aleam, my old mentor, did as well. But I doubt any of the teachers, students, or for that matter anyone else had any idea, as much as some of the more gossipy ones liked to pretend they did.
Oh, and by the way – if you didn’t already know, I’m a cat myself. A Bengal, in fact, descended both from the great Asian leopard cat and my father, the mighty George. It was I who defeated the great warlock Astravar, and more recently I encountered a cheetah and a sphinx, and I fought in an epic battle against the other warlocks and whirling sand golems. But I’m sure you knew all of that. After all, my story has been carried across the dimensions.
From the pace the dragons were walking, I could see that they probably couldn’t fly while carrying that heavy weight. I mean, I’d seen Salanraja lift up one of the crystals in her claws before, but she was three times the size of these dragons. The dwarf dragons were straining to hold the crystals on their backs, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them.
I mean, if you’re a great cat, as I am – it’s fine to walk and to walk proudly. But these were dragons, with wings, quite capable of flying. I didn’t understand why they needed to carry the crystals anyway, when a much larger dragon could do it for them.
I guess it was one of those pomp-and-circumstance things typical to this world that just didn’t make any sense. Or typical to humans, perhaps, who never made sense, neither in this dimension nor in the Fourth Dimension where I used to reside.
“This is the final task they have to complete before their initiation into the Academy,” my dragon, Salanraja, told me in my mind. “We’re all incredibly proud of them.”
She wasn’t standing on the plains, as we were, but was soaring up in the air with the other dragons. Together they spun around the sky in fanciful aerobatic formations that elicited much applause from the students. We students sat on the plains in neat lines, our leaders in the Council of Three at the front, and the other teachers of the academy also keeping watch to make sure we behaved. Almost everyone human was here, gathered in front of the castle – including the guards and the Dragonsbond Academy staff. The only person who wasn’t present was Aleam, who still lay sick in bed.
“We didn’t have to do anything like this,” I replied to Salanraja. “You never had to march with our crystal.”
“That’s because I went rogue before I bonded with you. No one at the Academy other than Aleam and Olan thought it was a good idea at the time. Now it seems everyone’s minds have changed, after they saw what we could do.”
I purred, feeling proud. Then I looked back at the dwarf dragons, and I felt a twinge of pity. “But look at them. This is virtually slave labour. I mean, one of you other dragons could have carried the crystals for them and made things easier all round.”
“It’s not meant to be easy,” Salanraja continued. “They will soon complete their march from Bestian Academy in the Crystal Mountains, and when they finally arrive here, they will be full-fledged dragons, ready to accept a rider.”
“And I guess this was a human idea?” I asked.
The humans, I’d noticed, were great at setting silly challenges for themselves.
“No,” Salanraja said. “This is a dragon thing. Some think that our three-hundred-year-old trainer, Matharon, invented it, although he claims it’s been around for a lot longer.”
“And what’s the point? Why don’t you just fly?”
Even though I couldn’t see Salanraja, I could hear the menace in her voice as she replied, “Every single one of us has completed this ritual, and we’re all proud of our achievements.”
“You’re not answering my question…”
“That’s because you’re not giving me time to do so. When we march like this, we behave like humans, and so it will help those two dragons understand what they are sworn to protect.”
“But they’re bonding with animals,” I said, “not humans.” I was at the front of the crowd, so I could see Ta’ra’s matte black fur ahead, though she had her back turned to me so I couldn’t see the white bib on her chest. If I were in her situation, I’d be licking my fur right now – that’s one of the best things to do while waiting. Instead she sat regally, with her head craned forward, as if this stuff actually mattered.
“Those animals will have to behave just like humans,” Salanraja said. “Just like you have learned to do … and you forget that Ta’ra was brought up as a fairy. She’s much closer to a human than you and I will ever be.”
“Whatever,” I said, and I decided that it was a good time to give myself a good grooming.
I was so engrossed in my routine that I didn’t see Ta’ra approach. She brushed up next to me. She was the only cat I knew who liked to bathe in lavender water. I mean, as a great and mighty Bengal who doesn’t mind water, I also enjoy a good swim, but I saw no need to put so many flowers in it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous, Ben,” she said, and she let off a soft meow as she said it. She’d finally learned to speak the cat language quite eloquently, admittedly after several days of tuition from yours truly.
I turned to her and brushed my head against hers in greeting. “Why? You’ve been preparing for this for days.”
“I mean, I could fly once and cast magic. But when I became a cat, I didn’t think I’d ever cast another spell. Now I have to go through the same journey you did, accepting gifts from the crystal and casting spells which feel nothing like the fairy spells used to feel. Human spells are so brutish. They’re so unnatural.”
I twitched my whiskers. In all honesty I’d not mastered the whole magic thing by this point. Don’t get me wrong – I’d done some pretty awesome things, including summoning a whole school of salmon to do my bidding. These flashes of excellence came at times when I had absolutely no other option. But I still didn’t know any magic other than the ability to turn into a chimera, speak the language of every living creature, and shoot dark magic beams that were only useful against other dark magic users – namely warlocks and their creations.
“I’m sure you’ll work it out,” I said. “You’re good at working things out. Say, I wonder which gifts you’re going to get.”
“I have no idea. You do know that your gifts are an anomaly, right?”
I nodded in a very human way. That’s one thing that Rine had told me over and over again: usually a crystal gifts a dragon rider with abilities related to their school of magic, and we all only ever got three.
Rine got his staff as his first gift, and later learned a couple of extra tricks with it. It was the same with Ange, and Bellari, and most of the other students and Driars here. I guess Aleam, Asinda, and Seramina were the exceptions, as they were dark magic users just like me. But they’d never shared their magical history with me and I’d never thought to ask.
“I know,” I said. “Except my crystal always wanted to gift me with dark magic for some reason…”
“Because you’re about the only creature in all the dimensions who will use it for good. I’ve heard that dark magic consumes the soul, and you’ve got to be careful with it. You do know that, right, Ben?”
“I do … I just wish I could work out how to use it effectively. Whiskers, if I knew how to right now, I’d hunt down the warlocks and get to them before they can kidnap Max and remove the key to the Sixth Dimension from his body.”
Ta’ra didn’t answer, but she was purring. She liked me to sound like a hero, I guess. Even when she’d just reminded me that I still didn’t have as much power as the stories seemed to think.
She nestled up even closer to me and sat down in the long grass. I appreciated her warmth against me. We watched and waited for the dwarf dragons to complete their cumbersome march. It wasn’t long until they’d lowered their heads and charged the rest of the way, looking like two bulls with a personal vendetta against the great jet-black dragon.
Corralsa craned her head, turned around to face them, and let out a mighty roar. This was followed by the call of a bugle from the Academy’s Keep Tower behind us.
The Council of Three stepped forwards so that they were standing behind Corralsa and the two dwarf dragons, who had now drawn to a halt and taken position on each side of her. Above us, three dragons broke off from the flock. These were the ruby dragon, Farago, the sapphire dragon, Flue, and the emerald dragon, Plishk. They belonged to the three members of the Council of Three — Driar Yila, Driar Farago, and Driar Brigel respectively — and their scales were the same colour as the glowing crystals on each of the Great Driars’ staffs.
They lowered themselves to hover in front of Corralsa and the two dwarf dragons.
The members of the Council of Three each turned to face the teachers and students thronged before them. In unison, they called out in commanding voices: “It is time for your bonding … step forwards, noble dragon riders!”
It was at that moment I first realised that Ta’ra, my faithful companion whom I cared about more than anyone in all the worlds, would never be the same again.