FANTASTICAL FELINES

BOOK ONE: THE AWAKENING

Written by Sue McLean

Illustrations by Lorna Parr

PROLOGUE

THE DRAGON

The dragon breathed in a great lungful of bitter air, spitting out furious flames to melt the frost and ice that covered his land. Under his blistering breath the snow bubbled and melted to reveal a small patch of fresh green grass. The dragon smiled, but his joy was not to last. Ice crystals crackled across the exposed earth and quickly the grass disappeared once more beneath its winter prison. The dragon thrust back his head and roared with white hot anger.

Then fanning out his great red wings, he soared upwards. He glared down on the winter landscape. It sparkled like precious diamonds and pearls, but he hated it. He despised the barren trees; their leaves having long since perished were now replaced with icy spikes. He shivered as yet another snow storm swirled around him. He was a creature of the fire and he longed for colour and warmth.

For many years the dragon's land had been encased inside its icy dungeon and with it the creature who had broken the code of his kind. The ice was his punishment. He had betrayed his oath of loyalty and fired by his temper, had gone on a rampage of magical proportions. His actions destroyed thousands, but it was not just the dragon's own world that was affected. His behaviour ricocheted into hundreds of other dimensions, stripping much of the magic from the parallel world of humankind.

So his punishment was severe. At first he had accepted this. For hundreds of years he waited in vain for the spring to return and for his penance to be at an end. One by one, the other fire creatures left him to seek out warmth. For the dragon there was no escape. The ways to the other worlds were guarded against him; the wizards had made sure of that. Now he felt nothing but resentment and hatred; bitterness so dark that it threatened to plunge the worlds into oblivion.

As he flew, his mind raced. He had to find a way to rid his land of the ice and snow, whatever the cost. Landing heavily next to the misty lake, he thundered down to the water's edge. The beast half closed his eyes and peered across the sparkling surface. He had been watching the human world with interest and now he'd returned to gaze once more into that multi-coloured land. He stared into the ice. It was the portal from his dimension and though still guarded, its watcher had become lazy. Slowly a dim picture formed. It was faint and blurred, but as the mist cleared the shapes took more distinct form. The dragon hissed as he sensed the images. He snarled with evil delight as he formed his plan, fixing his hungry eyes on the image of the girl and her cat. They seemed so close he could almost smell them. He stuck out his tongue to taste the air; drool dripped down his devilish red scales.

Then glaring once more at the images, he noticed how the girl's flame red hair fell to her shoulders and he snarled jealously. Who was she, this silly child, to have fire as her crown? He was the King of the fiery realms, or had been before his punishment. He growled as he plotted his revenge. The child and her pet would be defenceless in his power; just a twelve year old girl and her cat. This would just be too easy. Now all that remained was for him to find a way to slip past the wizard on guard and cross the dimensions.

THE WIZARD

The wizard stared into his crystal ball. On reflection he thought it probably was not fair to send someone in such a small and feeble body to assist a girl so young, but it was the only body available at such short notice. He hoped that being such a fabled animal would help the mission rather than hinder it. Plus, all said, it was a pretty good prank to pull. He imagined the glee from the members of his magic club, who had all tried in vain to pull one over on old Gussy Snotbottom. Now he had managed it, if unintentionally.

The wizard waved his hands over the clear ball of quartz in front of him and said the magical words that would help the girl with the flame red hair. She was a powerful magician in her own right, or would be one day. As yet she was untrained and under threat, plus she did not have the slightest clue of her talent. He bit his lip. Magic in the hands of the untrained could be an incredibly dangerous thing. Although strictly speaking, the girl would not be born for several hundred years, the wizard was never one to put off his responsibilities. He regarded his crystal ball and steeled himself to continue.

Lost in thought, he jumped as the door to his study burst open and slammed against the opposite wall. The wizard's elderly heart leapt. Had Gussy somehow returned to take his revenge in magical guise? Sensing the angry spirit behind him, he grabbed his wand and whipped round to face the door. He was met with a familiar sight.

"Drink," snapped his housekeeper as she thundered across the wooden flooring, thrusting a goblet of warm wine in front of him. He turned and observed the woman in silence, thinking that he might refuse. She grimaced, willing the wizard to dare oppose her.

"Mead," she hissed meeting the wizard's gaze squarely. "Now then Merlin, drink it all up like a good boy and don't forget to eat the barley bakes," she instructed the greatest magician of all time. The wizard bit his lip and for a few seconds longer remained silent. The woman glared at him. The legend that had faced down dragons and monsters considered, for a split second, the possibility of zapping the housekeeper into another dimension. He shook his head. He could not help feel compassion for the other dimensions. So instead he cast his gaze out of the window and breathed in the pink light of calmness.

"Um thank you," he said quietly, sending out the pink wave to her direction.

The housekeeper smiled.

The wizard sighed. He looked at the mead. Chanting spells could be very thirsty work and he was parched, but his housekeeper was always interrupting him and really that was just too bad. He frowned as he remembered the occasions when some rather nasty apparitions haunted the land because she had distracted him part way through an incantation.

"Your Wizardship," she said, proffering a jug of extra mead. Sensing the wizard's disquiet she quickly changed the subject. "Found that evil red eyed dragon yet?"

The wizard shook his head as his human emotions momentarily got the better of him and he considered sending his housekeeper on a quest to find the dragon. That would serve both the dragon and the housekeeper right; they deserved each other! He shook his head; such thoughts were really beneath him. He concentrated on the pink light.

The housekeeper continued, "So the child is still in danger?"

The wizard nodded. "Although, I have sent Gussy to protect her so she should be safe." He regarded the floor and muttered under his breath, "Or at least as safe as anyone can be with a house sized dragon after them".

The pink light darkened to red. The housekeeper sniffed in a threatening way. No-one could sniff an insult like her. It was plain to anyone just what she thought of Gussy. She had known him from when he was an undergraduate magician and she hadn't liked him then. He was far too arrogant, particularly in the way he had spurned her daughter. She sniffed again.

"GUSSY!" she snapped. "But he's hopeless and this is HER we are talking about; the Chosen and still just a child! Isn't there anyone better? I mean Gussy Snotbottom," the housekeeper pleaded, biting her lip as she thought about the poor girl with the fiery hair.

The wizard reeled. "She is not 'just' anything! She is a very powerful magician, if she only realised it". Then he saw the expression on the housekeeper's face and sensed danger. He waved his wand and the red light took on a rosier glow. He took a deep breath and tried to be more soothing. "Try not to worry. Gussy will help her. Whatever you think of him, he will protect her and train her. She IS my descendent and I am doing all in my power to help. I would not send anyone unfit for the job." He smiled in what he hoped would be an encouraging way.

The housekeeper sniffed again, but feeling slightly placated she scanned the room. The whole area could do with a really good clean, but the wizard refused to let her free on his study. Piles of books were scattered everywhere, some hovering a meter or so above the floor. Higher still, buzzed several wands. At least the potions' cupboard remained locked, although the bottles insisted on banging on the doors in an attempt at escape. The cupboard containing poisons was the worst because it followed you about the room. Needless to say it was dangerous because if hit by a magical poison cupboard, the victim might not recover for a hundred years or more. The housekeeper shuddered.

After a few minutes of silence she sighed in a way that she hoped would convey her increasing disappointment. The wizard pretended to ignore her. She ran a finger along a shelf and regarded the silvery dust with a disdainful expression. She sighed again and tutted loudly. Merlin contented himself with the thought that at least she was no longer sniffing at him. He watched her look around the room again before turning and heading for the door. She swung the door shut behind her, the wind causing it to slam thunderously.

The magician winced. He shook his head and gently massaged an ear. Then he turned to check on the crystal ball and breathed a sigh of relief that his spell had not been harmed. Goodness knows what would have happened if the magic thread had been damaged. He reached for the mead, trailing his long sleeve across the desk. He took a drink and placed the goblet down before stuffing a whole bake into his mouth. He crunched in a contemplative sort of way. Then reaching for his wand, his sleeve brushed the contents of the desk once more. The wizard gasped, but the spell remained undisturbed.

"Thank goodness," he sighed and reached for his goblet to calm his nerves.

In the corner of the room, the housekeeper's black cat crawled out from his hiding place. He had been watching the scene unfold with interest and now saw his chance for food and a bit of attention from the elderly magician. The cat sprang to the table. The table rocked. His front right paw caught the jug of wine, sending it spinning. The wizard reached out to steady it, but it was too late. It crashed on to the table top and rolled to the floor. Merlin threw down his goblet and reached for his crystal ball. The contents of the jug, warm sticky mead, had already sprayed the clear surface of the crystal ball. The image in the ball disappeared. The cat blinked. The wizard groaned.

"Yikes," Merlin cried, frantically waving his hands to get the picture back. The image refused to return. He gripped his wand and shouted his most powerful spells. The picture did not reappear. From the crystal ball a hissing sound began to vibrate across the desk.

"Oh dear," stammered the wizard. "This is not good."

The floor rumbled beneath him, shaking both wizard and cat. The cat gripped on to the desk with all twenty claws. The wizard steadied himself. The walls of the room shifted inwards. In a corner, the edges of the wall melted to reveal midnight sky peppered with silver stars. The area of sky began to grow until it threatened to take over the whole ceiling. The cat, now thoroughly startled, retracted his claws and ran for cover, catching the crystal ball with a furious paw and sending it crashing to the floor. It smashed into a thousand tinkling pieces.

The wizard yelped like a wounded animal, calling to his spell book for help. In a flash of purple smoke it snapped open before him. Steadying himself on the quaking floor, the wizard flicked through the pages. At last he gasped with relief and following the instructions, shouted the magic words. In front of him a shiny silver button appeared. It said:

'End program'.

The magician pressed it. Nothing happened for a few seconds, but then a second button appeared. It said:

'Program not responding'.

"Eek," said the wizard. There was nothing for it; he had to go back to basics before everything was totally ruined. What was left may not be what he'd wanted, but at least something would be left.

"Pull plug," he snapped. "Pull plug, pull plug, pull plug."

On the floor, the crystal shards steamed for a few seconds. Then the air cleared somewhat, leaving letters forming from the remaining vapour droplets. They danced in the air and then arranged themselves into a message.

'Warning: all memory will be lost'.

"PULL PLUG, PULL PLUG, PULL PLUG," he screamed.

Suddenly everything changed. The crystal fragments dimmed, the desk stilled and the floor became solid. The ceiling gave up its stars and became a ceiling again. The walls returned to normal, or as normal as anything ever was in the study. The wizard thrust his head into his hands.

"What have I done?" he cried, rocking backwards and forwards. "Goodness only knows the effects that will have for the poor child," he said, gripping his wand in a knotted fist. "Only the gods can help us now!"

Sue McLean Fantastical Felines 1 Page 11