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This was once the story of a young boy Wizard and a young girl Warrior who had been taught since birth to hate each other like poison.
But now, the boy Wizard and girl Warrior have been brought together in the Badwoods and they have witnessed the shocking consequences of the Stone That Takes Away Magic. They will need to cast aside their differences once more–for an Evil Spell has broken free.
It’s up to Xar and Wish to find the ingredients. But it means entering dangerous territory unannounced…
Cressida Cowell brings her trademark wit to this spellbinding sequel, along with the stunning artwork and heartfelt adventure that has made her beloved around the world, weaving a story that is sure to transport readers to a world that will enchant and bewitch them.
1. Escape from Gormincrag Is Impossible
It was a quarter past midnight, four weeks before Midwinter’s End Eve, and a thirteen-year-old boy was dangling precariously from a disintegrating homemade rope hanging from outside the darkest tower of Gormincrag, the Rehabilitation Center for the Re-Education of Dark Magic and Wicked Wizards.
(That, by the way, is a long and fancy name for a jail, and not just any old jail, the most secure and impregnable jail in the wildwoods.)
The boy’s name was Xar (which is pronounced “Zar”—I don’t know why, spelling is weird) and he really, really, really should not have been there.
He was supposed to be INSIDE the prison, not OUTSIDE it, dangling fifty feet above sea level from one of the windows. That’s one of the most important rules about prisons, and Xar really should have known that.
But Xar was not the kind of boy who followed the rules.
Xar acted first and thought later, and this was exactly what had led him to be put in the Gormincrag Rehabilitation Center in the first place, and given him the reputation of being the naughtiest, wildest boy born into the Wizard kingdom in about four generations.
See if you think that reputation is justified…
In the past week, for example, Xar had:
Put what was supposed to be sleeping potion into the Rogrebreath guards’ wine, but it turned out to be cursing potion instead… glued the bottoms of the entire Drood High Command to their chairs in the hope that it would give him time for a quick getaway—but forgot to glue the chairs to the floor, so the Droods just ran after him with chairs stuck to their bottoms… treated himself to some stolen invisibility potion, but unfortunately it had only made his HEAD disappear, giving the Drood in charge of Reprogramming a terrible shock because he imagined on visiting Xar’s cell that the prison had been invaded by headless GHOSTS…
None of these disobedient things had been intentional, exactly. They had all just happened by accident, in the course of him trying to escape, for even though Xar was a happy-go-lucky cheerful sort of person, two months of imprisonment had given even his high spirits a bit of a battering, and his quiff of hair had drooped a little under the pressure, and he had been feeling, at times, a little desperate.
Gormincrag was well known to be impossible to escape from, but Xar never let a little thing like impossibility put him off. So although to an outsider his present predicament might have looked pretty bad, Xar was remarkably pleased with himself for a person who was hanging on to a crumbling rope swaying violently above seas known to be infested with such dreadful monsters as Blunderbouths, Daggerfins, and Bloody Barbeards.
His wide-awake eyes were bright with excitement and hope.
“You see!” Xar whispered triumphantly to his companions. “What did I tell you? We’re doing brilliantly! We’ve nearly escaped already!”
And Xar was right: They had really done a very good job to get this far.
The Gormincrag Rehabilitation Center for the Re-Education of Dark Magic and Wicked Wizards had been designed to imprison some of the most terrifying monsters in the entire Magic world. Bogeymen. Ogres of all sizes and savageries. Jack o’ Kents, Bugbears, Kelpies, Grim Annises, you name it, and even, once upon a time, dare I say it, WITCHES, who were once extinct, and had recently reemerged in that part of the wildwoods.
NO ONE, no Dark-sprite, no Rogrebreath however large and terrifying, no Wicked Wizard of spells the most fiendish, had EVER escaped from Gormincrag before. People had tried of course, and the legends of brave but failed escape attempts from Gormincrag were told from sprite to sprite across the years. But no one had ever successfully made it out of there alive.
Even if, by some extraordinary chance, you made it beyond the prison perimeter without the skulls screaming, the grim towers of Gormincrag were built on seven islands set in a sea called prettily “the Sea of Skulls,” and the treacherous waves would get you, or those vicious merfolk, the Bloody Barbeards, would swim out of their holes in the Drowned Forest on the seafloor and get you, and bring you back.
As the son of a King Enchanter, and a boy with a great deal of personal charisma, Xar had quite a few followers.
At the moment he was accompanied by five sprites (Tiffinstorm, Timeloss, Hinkypunk, Ariel, and Mustardthought)—and these were beautiful, fierce-looking creatures, resembling a cross between a very small human and an angry insect, and three hairy fairies, (Squeezjoos, Bumbleboozle, and the baby), smaller, more beelike animals, who were too young to have climbed into their cocoons and metamorphosed into proper adult sprites yet.
Sprites can light up like stars in the night-time, but these ones did not want to be detected at the moment, so they had subdued the light of their little bodies to the very dimmest of glows.
These sprites all belonged to Xar, and loyally, quietly, invisibly, they had sneaked in to Gormincrag to try and help him escape.
“Yous right, Master!” Squeezjoos, one of the hairy fairies, whispered back. Squeezjoos was a tiny little six-legged creature, larger than a bumblebee but still so small he could fit into your hand, and he was buzzing excitedly around Xar’s head. “Yous ALWAYS right! That’ss why youss the leader and you never leads uss into any trouble! Oo! What’s this fasscintressting cave?”
This “fasscintressting cave” was in fact a large skull with its mouth open. Squeezjoos buzzed in to investigate and the mouth snapped shut with an ominous clang and the eyeholes squeezed tight closed as if they still had lids on them. “Helloooo?” buzzed Squeezjoos in anxious echoes from within. “Helloooo? I think I iss stuck!”
The sprites nearly fell out of the air they were laughing so much, but Xar intervened in quick alarm, hissing, “Don’t go over the boundary of the battlements anybody! There’s a Magic force field around this castle, and it’s fine getting IN, but you can’t get across it to get OUT!”
At some considerable danger to himself, because the skull was just out of reach, and he had to tie the end of the rope to his ankle and dangle upside down to get his hands on it, Xar then very, very carefully and delicately released the mouth bone of the skull so that Squeezjoos could buzz out triumphantly squeaking, “I is fine! Don’t worry everyone! I is FINE!”
And then Xar swung himself back onto a safer ledge again and explained to his interested companions that those skulls were the screaming kind, and they were one of the final defenses of Gormincrag. If you put one fingertip beyond the perimeter of the prison, the skulls would open up their mouths and scream bloodcurdling yells, which would wake the guards of Gormincrag and bring them down upon you.
This was typical of Xar. Although he had spent his entire young life leading his followers into considerable trouble, to do him justice, he always tried his hardest to get them OUT of it, even if it put him personally in great peril.
Xar was also accompanied by a talking raven—who had his wings over his eyes, such was his horror at the whole dangling-upside-down-and-rescuing-hairy-fairies-from-screaming-skulls episode—and a seven-and-a-half-foot Loner Raving Fangmouth werewolf called Lonesome, who made anxious grunting noises when Xar mentioned the Gormincrag guards.
Xar had met Lonesome in the prison, and while it is not really advisable to make friends with Loner Raving Fangmouth werewolves, neither Xar nor the werewolf had a lot of choice in the matter. They both wanted to escape.
The werewolf gave a smothered howl of discontent.
“What is the werewolf saying?” asked the raven.
The talking raven was called Caliburn, and he would have been a handsome bird, but unfortunately it was his job to keep Xar out of trouble, and the worry and general impossibility of this hopeless mission meant his feathers kept falling out.
“I think he’s saying, why are we heading in this direction?” said Xar.
Xar was the only one of them who had been taught werewolf language, but Xar wasn’t great at concentrating in class, and the problem with werewolves is they do mumble their words, so sometimes you could mistake a grunt for a gurgle, or an oooarrghh for an eerrggagh, and completely misunderstand what they were talking about.
“We’re going this way,” explained Xar, “because we’re just going to drop into the Drood Commander’s Room… It’s an important step in our escape…”
The werewolf gave a smothered howl of horror and waved his shaggy paws around with such alarm that he nearly fell off the rope.
“You shouldn’t be escaping! And we shouldn’t be helping you!” said Caliburn in a flurry of anxiety. “But surely if we are helping you to escape, the idea would be to do it quietly? Crusher and the animals are waiting for us down at the bottom of the western battlements…”
(Crusher was a Longstepper High-Walker giant, and he and the wolves, the snowcats, and the bear were also Xar’s companions.)
“We should be joining Crusher and the others!” Caliburn pointed out. “Hopping over the back of the wall, without telling anyone, not presenting ourselves to the head of the prison for a nice little chat and a cup of herbal tea!”
“Yes, well, that’s why no one has ever gotten out of this armpit of a jail before,” said Xar. “How many times have YOU tried to escape from here, Lonesome?”
The werewolf mumbled something that might have been “twenty-three”…
“You see?” said Xar. “Trust me, everyone! I have a plan that could just be the cunning-est, most brilliant, and daring escape plan in the entire history of the wildwoods…”
Xar had a lot of good qualities, but modesty wasn’t one of them.
Inch by inch, the little party crept down the ropes, landed on the windowsill outside the Drood Commander’s Room, and peered inside.
The room might have been the shape of a star, or a circle, or a pentagon, who knew? For the walls had a habit of moving around while you were looking at them, and the floor looked like the sea, and the ceiling might have been the sky. It was enough to make you feel a little bit sick just to look at it.
The only still point in the room was a gigantic desk.
Three Wizards were sitting around the desk, talking.
One of the Wizards was the Drood Commander of Gormincrag, and Xar pointed to the spelling staff the Drood Commander was holding.
“That’s the reason we’re here…” whispered Xar. “Because the Drood Commander’s spelling staff controls everything in this castle.”
“Ohhh no… oh noo…” whispered Caliburn the raven, in a frenzy of alarm. “Don’t tell me that your plan is to steal the Staff-That-Commands-the-Castle?”
Xar nodded. That was indeed his plan.
“It’sss brilliant! Is brilliant!” squeaked Squeezjoos, buzzing around in such an overexcited fashion that he was very nearly sick.
“Sssshhhhhhhh…” everyone else whispered back.
The werewolf gave a small grunt that might have been approval. It was quite a good plan actually. At least, it was something the werewolf had never tried before.
But as Xar peered into the room, the shaggy weight of the werewolf’s fur on his shoulder, he started so violently he nearly fell off the windowsill.
For he suddenly recognized the other Wizards who were talking to the Drood Commander of Gormincrag.
“My father… and my brother…” whispered Xar.
It was indeed Xar’s father, the Great Wizard Enchanter, Encanzo the Magnificent, King of Wizards, and Xar’s older brother, Looter.
Xar could feel a mixture of fear and shame rising within him, starting with a queasy flip of his stomach and then bubbling up into a hot flush of shame.
When Xar had been arrested by the Drood Guards, Encanzo and Looter had been traveling on a mission to the Witch Mountains, to find out how bad the threat from the Witches was.
So they did not yet know why Xar was in here… and Xar really, really didn’t want them to find that out…
Xar could just about hear what the Wizards were saying, if he leaned in through the window.
“Your Droods have crept into my kingdom while I was away and have stolen my son from me!” raged Encanzo. “I demand that you release him this instant!”
Xar’s father, Encanzo, was a tall, immensely powerful Wizard, of such Magic strength that it was curiously difficult to look at him. His outline was blurred by Magic, shifting, moving, and great steaming clouds of enchantment drifted off his head as he spoke. He was looking a little weary, for he was at his wit’s end, trying to lead his people in the fight against the Witches.
The Drood Commander was taller still, a rake of a man, spitefully thin, and with eyebrows so long he had braided them. He had grown so old in the forest that there was something of the tree about him. His fingers had bent and twisted into twigs, and his face was as green and wrinkled as ancient bark.
The Drood Commander was well intentioned, but he was convinced that he was right about absolutely everything, and everyone else was absolutely wrong. Over time that can make you bitter rather than gentle, for whatever we are tends to concentrate as we get older, and it had distilled him into a pungent, poisonous drink indeed. Angry, judgmental little eyes glittered in his tree-bark wrinkled face, and his clawlike hands closed jealously over his spelling staff.
“I am not keeping Xar here for my own amusement!” snapped the Drood Commander. “Your wretched son has completely disrupted my prison! He has:
For no reason whatsoever, cut off some tail hair of the Great Howling Hairy Hindogre while it was sleeping in its cell, and the Great Howling Hairy Hindogre is still howling in fury five days later, keeping everyone in the western tower of the prison awake all night…”
“Ah,” said Encanzo thoughtfully. “Is that the distant moaning sound I can hear?”
“That wasn’t for no reason!” objected Xar in a whisper to his companions. “I needed that hair so I could escape in an absolutely foolproof Bigfoot-soldier-with-a-beard disguise…”
“Nobody’sss going to think you’re old enough to have a beard, Xar!” objected Caliburn. “And Bigfoot soldiers are at least six feet tall!”
“That was a slight flaw in the foolproof plan,” admitted Xar.
It wasn’t the only flaw.
When their winter coats come in, Howling Hairy Hindogres are an attractive shade of midnight blue, and Xar had been caught within about five minutes because the Drood Guards agreed with Caliburn that there was no such thing as a five-foot-tall Bigfoot with a bright blue beard.
The Drood Commander was really getting going now, with a long list of Xar’s offenses:
“…put itching powder in the underwear of my guards on patrol… stolen a prison guard’s cape and hood and dropped it in the vampire-dog pit… dropped the stinky socks of a Rogrebreath guard into the breakfast porridge so that it tasted disgustingly of rotten eggs…”
“Accidents… all accidents and misunderstandings…” whispered Xar from the window.
“And then, out of sheer wanton mischief,” the Drood Commander ended, “he glued the behinds of Drood High Command to their chairs while they sat quietly and peacefully eating their dinner! Indefensible, inexplicable, inexcusable behavior!”
This last incident had particularly upset the Drood Commander, for he was a man of great dignity, and he had not liked having to visit the Sanatorium with a chair stuck firmly to his bottom. He had draped a cloak over it, but it was quite a large chair and the Rogrebreaths, still stuffed to the tips of their hairy ears with cursing potion, had made quite a few personal remarks that still stung when the Drood Commander remembered them.
“That was quite funny,” admitted Xar, smiling at the memory of it, “but that was an accident too! They shouldn’t have locked me up if they didn’t want me to try and escape!”
“All of these things you are describing are just disobediences,” said Xar’s father, Encanzo, with relief. “Annoying, I grant you, and Xar ought to have grown out of such stuff, but there’s nothing wicked in those things… He’ll just be getting fed up with being in here, and I don’t blame him, quite frankly…”
“I do have a prison to run,” said the Drood, his lips pursing. “I cannot let your son completely disrupt it. He is here because he represents a severe threat to the entire Magic community,” continued the Drood Commander, getting to his feet. “But I can show you he is safe. Come with me…”
All around the Drood Commander’s Room were gigantic mirrors, and they were not normal mirrors. If you looked into those mirrors you could see into every single room in the castle. So at any point the Drood Commander of Gormincrag could know exactly what was going on, all around the prison.
The Drood Commander pointed at one of the mirrors, and the mirror clouded up, before gradually showing the view inside a small cell in the high security block.
“It’s empty,” said Encanzo the King Enchanter.
The cell was indeed, as Encanzo said, empty.
The Drood Commander stared at the empty cell in astonishment. “I don’t understand it!” said the Drood Commander. “That is most definitely Xar’s cell… Where on earth is he?”
“I thought you were supposed to be the most secure, maximum high-security prison in the wildwoods?” snapped Encanzo. “And you are telling me that you have somehow misplaced my thirteen-year-old son?”
“This is most unusual…” blustered the Drood Commander, blinking at all the mirrors so that they rapidly clouded up to reveal cell after cell, each one containing a captured rogre or Grim Annis or Venge-sprite… but absolutely no sign of Xar. “Of course there must be some perfectly reasonable explanation for all this… The Guards must have moved him without telling me…”
“Dear, oh dear…” purred Encanzo, “that’s not very organized is it? Rather poor communication with your guards, I’d say… I repeat, Commander, where is my son?”
“Here I am,” said a voice behind them.
Unfortunately, when the three Wizards stepped away from the Drood Commander’s desk and stood in front of the mirrors, they had left their spelling staffs lying on the desk behind them, in full view of Xar, who had an empty pouch just the right size for a couple more staffs.
So now when they all slo-o-owly turned around…
…there was Xar.
He was accompanied by a seven-foot werewolf, standing by the desk. Above Xar’s head buzzed his sprites and a very guilty-looking Caliburn.
There was a sprite word for the way that the Drood Commander and Encanzo and Looter were looking at Xar in that moment.
And the sprite word for it is “goggle-smarked.” Absolutely “flabberwastedly, jiggerdroppingly goggle-smarked,” to be precise.
2. Did I Mention That Escape from Gormincrag Is Impossible?
Hello, Father,” said Xar defiantly, annoyed to find himself trembling.
“Hello, Xar,” said the Enchanter calmly. “We were just looking for you, and here you are… What are you doing?”
“I’m escaping,” said Xar.
“Escape is impossible from Gormincrag!” blustered the Drood Commander.
Both Xar and the Enchanter ignored him.
“If you’re escaping,” said the Enchanter thoughtfully, “then what are you doing here? I would have thought that the Drood Commander’s office is not the perfect place to come to if you want to make an escape.”
“That’s what I said!” said Caliburn in agreement.
“I suggest you put the staffs down,” said the Enchanter, “and then we can talk reasonably. How are you? Are you all right?”
For Xar was looking shaken, and somewhat worn. His quiff of hair had drooped, and there was something a little desperate about his usual cheeky swagger. He looked like a thirteen-year-old boy who had gotten himself into a LOT of trouble.
“What have you Droods been doing to him?” snapped Encanzo, turning to the Drood Commander. “How DARE you treat the son of a king in this way?”
“Ask the boy what he’s done to be put in here,” sneered the Drood Commander. “And then perhaps you will see why we acted as we did. Go on! Ask him!”
“Why did they put you in here, Xar?” said Encanzo calmly.
Xar would not answer his father’s question.
He could not look his father in the eye. He could feel himself burning red with embarrassment.
“Aren’t you going to tell your father the truth?” jeered the Drood Commander. “Are you… ashamed?”
Xar gripped the spelling staffs tighter. “Don’t tell him!” pleaded Xar.
“He is here,” shouted the Drood Commander, “because he has been using the Magic of a Witch!”
There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Is this true?” said the Enchanter, and it was every bit as bad as Xar had dreaded. He sounded so very, very disappointed.
Unfortunately, it was, indeed, completely true.
Wizards are not born with Magic, the Magic comes in when they are about twelve years old. Xar was thirteen, and his Magic still hadn’t come in, and that was deeply embarrassing, particularly for a boy like Xar who had a lot of pride. The son of a King Enchanter to be a boy without Magic? Inconceivable!
So six months earlier, Xar had taken desperate steps to get hold of some Magic of his own.
Desperate, stupid, dangerous steps.
Praise for The Wizards of Once:"A rollicking adventure tale and coming-of-age story rolled into one enjoyable package...Readers will fall in love with the imaginative worldbuilding and humorous dialogue and asides...A delightful magical romp."—Kirkus
- "A clever and fresh new series.... Cowell fans will be elated to have a new world to get to know, and they'll welcome the author's familiar writing style and humor."—BCCB
- "The tongue-in-cheek voice combines with scribbly b&w interior illustrations...to sustain a sense of wonder and mayhem from start to finish. Cowell skillfully mixes adventure with silliness in a satisfying story."—Publishers Weekly
- "Cowell crafts two believable and lovable main characters...A strong new series starter by a best-selling author."—School Library Journal
- "The first in a series, this book will delight and engage readers of fantasy both young and old."—School Library Connection
- "The first volume of a new series by author and illustrator of the How to Train Your Dragon series is an event....Funny, thoughtful and surprisingly wise and lively, this is another coup from Cowell."—The Sunday Times (UK)
- "A new fantasy world fizzing with evil, magic, Iron Age history, laugh-out-loud jokes and a huge cast of memorable characters. Another bestseller is born."—The Daily Mail (UK)
- "The detail of Cowell's world is a delight...This one will run and run."—The Observer (UK)
- "One of the most eagerly awaited children's books of the year, this magical adventure is also one of the most spellbinding....Enormously entertaining and satisfying, it's narrated and illustrated with tangible energy and verve. The fantasy world and quest-driven plot are a triumph."—The Bookseller (UK)
- On Sale
- Sep 17, 2019
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers