Chapter 1: Mercy Grove. Again. Chapter 1 MERCY GROVE. AGAIN.
PLANS ARE ALWAYS PERFECT right at the beginning, before any action has been taken, before they encounter reality. For example, this morning, on the first day of Thanksgiving break, I was convinced I was fully capable of opening a rip, a kind of doorway to the dragon dimension. All I had to do was rub my hands together and produce the necessary golden mist, just like Albert did in this very spot, a mere seven days ago.
Albert, in case you are wondering, is my kitten, who is actually a dragon, who came to our dimension to hide out from the vengeful dragon King Vayne, who wanted to kill him because he might be the marked dragon prophesized to end Vayne’s reign. Simple, right?
The reason I need to generate the glitter, open the rip, and jump through is to rescue Albert. I mean, Albert gave me the means to make the glitter, and I know I can do it because I have done it before. But right now, when I really need the glitter to happen, nothing. Total fail. The only thing that happens is my palms get hot and sweaty from all the rubbing. No golden mist. No rip. No Albert.
“This is not working,” I say. My mother, Miss Asher, and Joe watch me. This is partly their fault, as they helped with the rescue plan. I drop my arms to my sides.
“You said you practiced,” Joe says, unable to hide his exasperation. Joe is my best friend. My best friend used to be Mia, but it turned out she wasn’t any sort of friend at all, and Joe is a way better friend. This does not mean we don’t annoy each other sometimes.
“I did practice,” I shoot back.
“Maybe the missing element is the weather,” he suggests, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. “Whenever Albert turned into a dragon, there was horrible weather. And when he opened the rip, it was like the storm of the century.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” I counter.
“It was pretty bad,” Joe replies.
Okay. Fine. It was bad. But maybe I should add a few more details before this gets even more confusing. I found Albert the black kitten in a dumpster here in Lewiston (the most nowhere of all nowheresvilles, if you ask me) during an extreme weather event—think lightning, thunder, hail, wind, freezing rain, and mini tornadoes, all at the same time.
And Albert was the best kitten! Cute, soft, funny, and curious, but he was also… strange. Odd things started to happen, and before too long, I discovered Albert was a dragon. After that, things took a turn for the seriously weird. Like, grade-A, eyes-crossed bizarre.
But the most important thing to know is that Joe and I figured out how to open a rip to the dragon dimension and help Albert get back to his dragon family. Which is what he wanted. Or we think it is what he wanted. Hard to be sure because Albert couldn’t speak our language and we couldn’t speak his, but we’ll get to that.
Another thing we’ve learned is that nothing is simple when it comes to cats who are really dragons. Almost as soon as we sent Albert back through the rip, we discovered that bit about Albert hiding here. Once the dragon world prophecy claimed that the ruling class, the Silvers, would be overthrown by a dragon marked with a golden blaze, Albert was doomed. There is no missing the golden blaze on his chest. When Vayne declared all marked dragons were to be terminated, whoever loved Albert pushed him through a rip, disguised as a kitten, to hide him from certain death.
And we sent him back. Not good. Really not good.
Of course, once we figured that out, we had no choice but launch a rescue. But the plan requires that we go to the dragon world, and to do that, we need to open a rip, and to open a rip, we need the golden mist. Do you see the problem here? The mist illuminates the rip, almost like invisible ink revealed by the primer.
Now, before Albert left, I absorbed some of the mist from his golden blaze into my hands. It’s there just beneath my skin, making my hands shimmer in a certain light. With a little experimentation, I figured out how to rub my hands together in a certain way and generate the mist myself, just like Albert does. Unfortunately, now, when I really need the mist, it is not happening. Our plan is not working.
Miss Asher, the town librarian and also the smartest person on the planet, chews her lip. “There has to be something we aren’t doing right,” she mutters.
“Maybe it’s because you’re not a dragon,” Joe says.
“If I need to be a dragon,” I reply flatly, “then we are doomed. Because I’m not, you know, a dragon.”
We are in the Arcata wilderness, a million acres of green that come right to the edge of the Pacific coast, just north of Lewiston. More specifically, we are in Mercy Grove, a circle of old-growth redwood trees stretching high into the sky. This is the place where Albert went through the rip. There is something about Mercy Grove, a sense of magic, of otherness. If there is a doorway to the dragon world, it makes perfect sense that it is here. The last rays of daylight seep through the canopy above, which is better than the usual November (or any other month) weather in Lewiston: rain and more rain and then rain again, just to be sure you got the message. I intend to go to college somewhere sunny, but I’m only twelve, so I’m practicing patience.
Joe, thin brown legs poking out of his baggy basketball shorts, begins to pace. It’s what he does when he’s trying to unravel a puzzle or solve a mystery or answer a complicated question. Because we are best friends, I understand these things about him and know better than to ever say such things are weird. I watch him. Usually when he paces, he eventually comes up with something, even if it’s an oddball theory about an alien invasion or whatever.
“It’s okay, honey,” my mother says quietly, slipping an arm around my shoulder. “We’ll figure it out. We’ll get Albert.” Now, this may seem all very normal, if you discount the fact that we are deep in the woods trying to figure out how to get to a dimension where dragons live. But until recently, my mom was a ghost. I don’t mean that literally, of course. It’s just that she would float around, wordless and expressionless and seemingly not connected to anything solid in the world. The description for what was happening to her is “situational depression.” The situation was my dad died in an accident and she struggled to get back on her feet. It wasn’t until the incident with the FBI agents that she kind of snapped out of it.
Yes. The FBI. We’ll get to that, too.
In the meantime, I’m standing here unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to make the gold mist rise from my palms.
“Maybe we need rain?” Joe asks thoughtfully.
“The first time I did it,” I say, “I was in the house and it wasn’t raining.”
“Okay. Fine. No rain.” He continues pacing.
Since Albert went through the rip, whenever I think of him in danger, afraid, alone, on the run, hurt or worse, my heart pulls toward him. While I know the organ in my chest isn’t actually moving, the sensation is real. My pulse quickens. My breathing gets shallow and my cheeks flush. It’s not a pleasant experience, so I have come up with a mantra to get myself back under control. I close my eyes and repeat over and over:
I’m coming to save you, Albert. Just hang on. I’m coming to save you, Albert. Just hang on. I’m coming to save you, Albert. Just hang on.
Eyes closed, I say the mantra now while Mom pats my back, Joe paces, and Miss Asher mutters. Slowly, the squeeze in my chest loosens. All of a sudden, the silence is interrupted by Joe yelping.
“You’re doing it, Cassie! Look! It’s working!” Joe leaps in front of me. Miss Asher fist-pumps the air. My mother eyes me warily. A cloud of golden mist, like glitter, floats up from my hands and drifts in the air before me. It is beautiful, like the sparkle of sunlight on ocean waves.
But there is something I have not told Joe, my mother, or Miss Asher. It’s not because I don’t want to tell them; it’s just I’m not sure how to explain it. The mist makes me feel strange, like there is an unfamiliar electric current charging through my body, like I am a beacon gathering up the energy circulating around me and concentrating it into the tangible mist. It makes me think that if I focused really hard, I could do more than open the rip. I could turn that mist into lightning bolts I launch from my fingertips. Or whip up a tornado. Or make that rain that Joe is totally convinced we need. Albert gave me the power to generate a rip, but the by-product feels like the ability to channel the extra energy into weather. The sensation gives me ideas that I can do things I could not before.
The mist, I think, gives me power.