Chapter ONE

 

THADDEUS AWOKE to screaming. He jumped out of bed with his heart pounding and a cold stone of fear lodged behind the hollow of his throat. Smoke drifted lazily around his room, and he coughed as he hurried to open his bedroom door. It was thicker in the hallway, and before Thaddeus could step out his door, his father ran past from his own bedroom. Thaddeus followed, but they didn’t go down the steps to the first floor and out of the house to safety. Instead his father rushed to the closed door of the guest room at the other end of the short hallway. They did not speak. There was no need for words because they’d been through this scenario a few times already in the last two weeks, and each of them knew what needed to be done.

His father pushed the guest room door open, and heat rushed out over them. Flames surrounded his mother where she lay in the middle of the bed, eyes shut tight and mouth open in a loud, terrified scream. She clutched the fitted sheet beneath her. From each of her hands marched a line of flames that had scorched through the sheets and burned along the mattress.

“Extinguisher!” Thaddeus’s father shouted and then crouched to pick up a large fire extinguisher near the door. He raced to the other side of the bed, spraying the flames as he went.

Thaddeus grabbed a second extinguisher and aimed the cone-shaped nozzle at the near side of the bed. He triggered a blast of CO2 in time with his father, who stood across the bed from him. The flames were quickly smothered, leaving behind heavy smoke and a chemical smell that made Thaddeus cough and wipe at his streaming eyes. His mother continued to scream through the entire ordeal. Her skin and hair were unaffected by the flames, but the fire had scorched her nightgown along with the sheets.

“Stand back,” his father directed. “And hang on to that extinguisher.”

Thaddeus took a couple of steps back from the bed and aimed the nozzle of the extinguisher at his parents. He watched through tear-filled eyes as his father leaned in over the bed and gently shook his mother.

“Claire, it’s Nathan,” he said in a calm voice. “You’re safe, you’re just dreaming. You’re home and safe, and Thaddeus is here. Come back to us.”

Thaddeus’s muscles tensed as he waited for his mother to awaken. Even though he’d been through this same routine several times now, witnessing his mother wake up made his heart ache every time.

His mother’s eyes snapped open, and Thaddeus nearly shouted in fear. Gone were the beautiful light blue irises, now replaced by searing red that was laced with thin lines of orange.

“Claire, it’s me,” Thaddeus’s father continued in the same even tone, and Thaddeus had to give him credit for not fleeing from her frightening expression. “It’s Nathan. You’re here with us now, and you’re safe. Come back to me and Thaddeus. You can do it.”

The anger and hatred on his mother’s face sent a cold needle of anguish into the middle of Thaddeus’s chest. He felt so helpless and scared during these final moments of his mother’s night terrors. If she lashed out at his father, there would be nothing Thaddeus could do to save him. He waited with the fire extinguisher aimed at his father, hoping there wouldn’t be a need for him to use it, but ready if needed.

For a long moment, she glared up at Thaddeus’s father, the rage so clear in her eyes and expression. Nathan continued, undaunted by her expression, speaking to her in a relaxed tone. Gradually her expression softened. Tension seeped out of Thaddeus’s muscles. His mother blinked, and in that split second her eyes changed, turning from the burning red of the dragon she had been, back once more to the blue of the woman she had become.

“Nathan?” she said in a small, quiet voice.

Cool relief went through Thaddeus. The fire extinguisher suddenly felt incredibly heavy, and he set it down. The sound caught his mother’s attention, and she looked at him. Embarrassment was clear in her expression.

“Oh, Thaddeus,” she said, “I’m so sorry.” She sat up in bed, her blackened nightgown revealing her unburned body beneath. Thaddeus looked away as she tried to pull a sheet up to cover herself, but it too was burned and useless. “I did it again. Oh, I’m so very sorry.”

“It’s all right, Claire,” Thaddeus’s father said, and he gathered her close. “We’re here for you.”

Thaddeus heard his alarm start beeping from down the hall. What a way to start the year off in a new school.

He turned away from his parents’ embrace and walked to his bedroom. With a tap on the clock radio, he switched off his alarm, then pushed open both his windows to clear out the smoke. He stuck his head out the window that looked over their short dirt driveway, closed his eyes, and drew in a deep breath of cool, crisp air. When he opened his eyes, he smiled as he looked down into the neighboring yard. The privacy fence stood tall and solid against any prying eyes, to keep the Rhododendron family business secret. And the back gate had a spell on it that would allow only friends of the family, such as Thaddeus; his parents; Vivienne, the witch who worked at the library and who had fought alongside them at Iron Gulch; and Dulindir, the elf they had met during their travels in the Lost Forest. The view from Thaddeus’s window was the only way to see down into the yard, and he had been impressed over the last two weeks as he had watched the gnome family smooth out the ragged edges of the hole where his mother had hibernated in dragon form for so many years. A gentle slope had been constructed that led in and out of the hole, and flat rocks had been placed in the bottom, slanted to allow for the runoff of rainwater. An opening had been dug into the earth walls, which would soon become an extra room.

As Thaddeus watched, a short and stocky boy walked out of the opening with shovels carried over a shoulder. He was one of Teofil’s brothers, but Thaddeus was having trouble keeping many of them straight. Other than Teofil, whom he knew very well, of course, and his older sister Astrid, who had traveled with them, Thaddeus could recognize maybe three of the remaining boys and girls. This boy—Seamus perhaps? Maybe River?—made his way up the slope that led to the thick grass of the lawn and headed for the back door to the tall, three-story house. The sounds of multiple young children shouting for breakfast or at their siblings—the standard morning chaos of a large family, Thaddeus had learned—drifted up to him from the open back door. Above all that racket, Thaddeus could hear Miriam’s calm, firm voice as she instructed, placated, and scolded her children.

With a grin Thaddeus turned away from the window and hurried across the hallway to the bathroom. He showered quickly and afterward wiped the mirror free of steam to give himself a long look. He had always liked his dark blue eyes but wished for something other than his dark brunet hair. It looked almost black when it was wet, and he spent some time making sure his side part was straight along his scalp. Light brown fuzz had sprouted in patches along his cheeks, jawline, and throat over the summer, but instead of making him look older, it seemed to accentuate the bare spots in between. He decided the fuzz needed to go—no need to give any of the older students something to tease him about on his first day in a new school—and he quickly buzzed it all away with his father’s electric razor.

He ran his fingers over the smooth skin of his chest and sighed. Would he ever grow chest hair? His father had chest hair, and Teofil’s chest was practically a grassland of hair. He hoped he’d see some hair sprout soon.

“Thaddeus!” his father shouted up the steps. “Let’s get a move on!”

Thaddeus rolled his eyes at his reflection and shouted back, “I’m getting dressed!” before he grabbed his toothbrush from the medicine cabinet. Once his teeth were brushed, he opened the bathroom door and, with a towel around his waist, dashed across the hall to his bedroom and slammed the door behind him.

He inspected the outfit he’d spent a long time picking out the night before. Faded blue jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a long-sleeved button-down shirt over that. High-top sneakers completed the look, and he nodded, still satisfied with his selection.

“Thaddeus!” his father called.

“I’m getting dressed!” Thaddeus repeated.

“You said that five minutes ago. Get dressed now!”

“Whatever,” Thaddeus mumbled. He dressed quickly, grabbed his backpack—the same one he’d carried through the Lost Forest to Wraith Mountain—and pounded down the steps. When he stepped into the kitchen, he came to a dead stop and stared.

For the first time in his life, both his parents sat at the kitchen table, ready to see him off to his first day of school. Emotion choked him up, as if all the years without his mother had wadded themselves into a giant ball now wedged in his throat.

His mother blushed and smiled as she got to her feet alongside his father. She approached and took his hands, squeezing them as she looked at him with tears in her eyes.

“My dear boy, look at you. You’re so very handsome.” She pulled him into a hug, and Thaddeus fought against tears as he hugged her back. When she pulled away, she dropped her gaze and said, “I’m so very sorry that I caused such a commotion. I can’t seem to keep my dreams under control.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Thaddeus said. “I’m just glad you aren’t hurting yourself. We’re a family now, and we’ll figure it out together.”

His father stepped up behind his mother and put his hands on her shoulders. “That’s right. We’re all in this together.” He smiled at Thaddeus over her shoulder. “What do you want for breakfast?”

“I need to get going,” Thaddeus replied with a glance at the clock. “I’ll take a Pop-Tart with me.”

“That’s not a good enough breakfast for your first day of school,” his father said.

Thaddeus crossed the kitchen to the cupboard where they stored the cereal and Pop-Tarts. “It’s okay, Dad. This has vitamins and minerals, it says so right on the box.”

“It also has a ton of sugar,” his father said with a scowl.

Thaddeus gave them a wave as he headed for the side door. “Gotta run. Good luck job hunting.”

“Have a good day!” his parents called after him.

Thaddeus grabbed his bike from its spot behind the house and ran with it around to the back of the privacy fence. He shoved open the gate and pushed the bike as he made his way to the steps leading up to the back door. He dropped the bike to the ground and took the steps two at a time, then stepped into the kitchen.

Chaos was the only word he could think of that would describe the scene inside. The house had once belonged to Leopold Solobiec, an older wizard who had brought Teofil to live with him. Now it belonged to Teofil and his parents and numerous siblings. The kitchen—the heart of any home—was warm and cramped with all sorts of cooking utensils and dishes, enough to keep a family of fourteen children and two adults fed. Row upon row of narrow shelves along two walls held jars in a variety of shapes and sizes. These were Miriam’s mixtures, each one ready to heal or relieve a different ailment, injury, or mood.

“Thaddeus!” shouted one of the younger gnomes—Lily? Rose?—and he was immediately swarmed by the entire brood.

Thaddeus laughed as he tried to hug each of them without stepping on any toes.

“Oh, Thaddeus, good morning,” Miriam said as she entered the kitchen. “Children, leave Thaddeus alone. You’re going to get his nice clothes all dirty with your grubby hands. Go and wash up, all of you. Go on, now, shoo!”

The group of gnomes ran out of the room, pushing and tripping each other amid shouts and laughter. When they were alone in the kitchen, Miriam approached him and straightened out his clothes with tsking sounds and a shake of her head.

She stepped back and smiled. “You look very handsome.”

“Thanks, Miriam. Is Teofil here?”

Miriam rolled her eyes and threw up her hands before she turned away. “He’s where he always is these days, up in that stuffy library of Leo’s. Flora knows what he’s getting into up there.”

As Thaddeus left the kitchen, Miriam called after him, “Don’t you stay too long and make yourself late for school now, do you hear me?”

“I won’t!”

Thaddeus ran up the winding and narrow creaky wooden steps to the third floor, arriving out of breath and a little overheated. The steps led to a small square-shaped foyer. Three doors opened off this foyer, each one a different color and all of them closed. A single bare bulb in a fixture set high into the ceiling provided the only illumination. The voices of the Rhododendron children on the floor below floated up the stairs behind him, but besides that, a heavy silence lingered on this floor.

The door directly across from the stairs was painted a rich burgundy color, and the brass doorknob was shiny enough to reflect some of the overhead light. Thaddeus crossed the foyer in three strides, grasped the cool brass knob, and opened the door.

Bookshelves crowded the room. They stood back-to-back in staggered rows, like a library, and books of all different sizes and thicknesses lined the shelves. A single round window set into the wall across from the door allowed a view onto the front yard and the street far below. The aroma of vanilla mixed with almonds, both lightly overlaid with the smell of paper mold, rolled over him. It was the perfume of old books, and one of Thaddeus’s favorite smells. He lingered in the doorway long enough to draw a deep breath, savoring the fragrance before he stepped inside and closed the door behind him.

“Teofil?” Thaddeus called.

“Thaddeus?” Teofil’s voice floated to him from the other side of the room. “What are you doing here?”

“Where are you?” Thaddeus asked as he walked down one of the aisles between shelves of books.

“Toward the back,” Teofil replied. “Follow my voice. Keep walking, keep walking….”

Thaddeus found Teofil seated in a wooden chair that had arms curving around from the back. A book lay open on a small table before him, with more books stacked alongside and on the floor at his feet. Light spilled from a tiny lamp standing atop the books piled on the floor. Teofil’s thick, blond hair was mussed and needed to be washed, while dark shadows marred the skin beneath his big, blue eyes. Though he looked very tired, Teofil’s big smile at the sight of him sent a flutter of happiness through Thaddeus.

“Did you sleep at all last night?” Thaddeus asked.

Teofil looked surprised. “It’s morning?”

“Yes!” Thaddeus gestured back down the aisle toward the window out of Teofil’s line of sight. “The sun is up. I’m off to school.”

Teofil’s eyes widened, and he jumped out of his chair and grabbed Thaddeus’s hands. “I forgot it’s your first day! I’m so sorry!”

Thaddeus smiled. “It’s all right. I haven’t seen you very much these last few days, and I wanted to see you before I left for school.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve been busy reading through Leo’s books.”

“I see that.” Thaddeus stepped around Teofil to look at the pages of the open book. The writing was very small and crowded the page. The thought of all the hours Teofil must be spending up in this stuffy room reading this tiny print made Thaddeus’s head hurt. “Is this a journal or something?”

“It is,” Teofil replied. He came up behind Thaddeus and put his arms around his waist to pull him up against his chest. “I’ve missed you.”

Thaddeus closed his eyes and leaned back against him as he rested his hands over Teofil’s. “I’ve missed you too. Have you been locked away up here the entire time?”

“Not the whole time,” Teofil said. “Mum’s been making me eat dinner downstairs with everyone.”

Thaddeus chuckled as he imagined Miriam badgering Teofil out of the room and down the stairs to the long dining room table.

“When will you be home?” Teofil asked and nuzzled Thaddeus’s neck.

“That tickles,” Thaddeus said as he pulled away. His laugh faded when he turned and saw Teofil’s serious expression. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Teofil looked away. He hesitated a moment, then shrugged before looking back at Thaddeus. “I guess I’m mad at myself for sitting up here reading these last few days when we didn’t have much time left to spend together.”

Thaddeus frowned. “You make it sound so dire. I’m only going to school, Teofil. I’ll be home after three.”

“It will seem like forever.”

Teofil stepped close and kissed him. The resulting shiver that went through Thaddeus made him realize how much he’d missed spending time with Teofil. He returned the kiss, then stepped back. “I need to go.”

“I hope it goes well,” Teofil said. “Are you nervous?”

Thaddeus had been nervous, but Teofil’s kiss seemed to have smothered that feeling with a warm glow of satisfaction and love. “It comes and goes. I’ve done this a lot, so I think I’m prepared for it.” He hesitated before saying in a lowered voice, “But this time feels different than all the others.”

Teofil nodded and took his hands again. “This time you’re starting school as a wizard.”

“Yeah,” Thaddeus said with a nod. “It adds a different layer of… I don’t know…. Complexity, I guess? Another secret I have to keep from everyone. Not only am I gay, I can do magic too. And while it’s really awesome and I’m happy I know the truth about my heritage and have learned some amazing abilities, it also makes me even more of an outsider, you know?”

“I can’t imagine,” Teofil replied. “I’ll be right here waiting for you to come home.”

“Thaddeus!” Miriam’s loud voice echoed up the steps and into the library. “You must leave now!”

They grinned at each other, and Teofil said, “I’ll be waiting, and so will my family.”

“I see that,” Thaddeus replied and chuckled. He gave Teofil a final quick kiss before heading toward the door, calling over his shoulder, “Go downstairs and eat something, and then get some sleep.”

“I will,” Teofil said.

Thaddeus hurried down the steps to the first floor and wound his way around the children in the living room. He walked quickly past the older kids eating breakfast at the dining room table, through the kitchen where Miriam and Astrid, Teofil’s older sister, were finishing up breakfast and Rudyard, Teofil’s father, stood sipping tea from a mug.

“See you all later!” Thaddeus said, and they wished him luck.

He banged out the back door and trotted down the steps to the trampled-down grass. Grabbing his backpack off the ground, he took hold of his bike and headed toward the gate. It had closed behind him, and he smiled as he waved his hand while he ran. The warm flow of magic traveled through him, and the gate flung open. He’d been practicing different spells over the last couple of weeks and thought he was getting pretty good at a number of them.

When he was out of the yard, Thaddeus jumped on his bike and pedaled around the corner of the fence. He flicked his fingers over his shoulder and heard the solid thump of the gate closing behind him. He rode down the driveway and into the street, aiming his bike toward Superstition High School and the start of his sophomore year.