By Mari Mancusi
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It’s not easy, especially since Merlin’s apprentice, Emrys, has accidentally turned the Grail into a gassy, fire-breathing baby dragon. And Merlin is the only one who can change it back. But Merlin’s on spring break in modern-day Las Vegas (at the Excalibur, of course). And Sophie’s super-popular (not to mention super-annoying) future stepsister, Ashley, has invited herself along for the ride.
Copyright © 2019 by Marianne Mancusi Beach
Cover art © 2019 by Peter Antonsson
Designed by Tyler Nevins
Cover design by Tyler Nevins
All rights reserved. Published by Disney • Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Disney • Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.
To all my once and future readers! Your enthusiasm and passion for reading make being an author the best job in the world. I hope you enjoy the continued adventures of Sophie and Stu. Pepperoni pizza forever!
“Don’t let them get away!”
Nimue dove through the thick woods, forcing herself not to turn around as she clutched her precious cargo tightly to her chest. Her ears rang with the sounds of men shouting behind her. Women screaming. Her sisters surrounded by Morgana’s men, fighting for their lives.
It was not supposed to go this way. Not at all.
Her heart pounded in her chest. She dared a glance down at the relic, wrapped securely in a gray woolen blanket and crushed against her. It looked so small. So insignificant. Yet somehow it had the power to change the future. And if it fell into the wrong hands…
She gripped the relic tighter. No. That was not going to happen. Not on her watch.
As the youngest druid on the island of Avalon, Nimue shouldn’t have been on guard duty in the first place. At least not by herself. But Vivianne had been struck ill with a stomach sickness and needed to sleep it off. And the others had been tired; they’d already had their turns. So Nimue had volunteered, hoping to trade a sleepless night on watch for a future favor once they arrived in Camelot. Perhaps, if she were lucky, they would even allow her to attend the castle ball. Nimue had always wanted to go to a ball.
It was supposed to be dull work. Staying up all night, ensuring that the fire remained lit. That the relic was not tampered with or stolen. Which shouldn’t have been a problem, seeing as no one should have had any idea the druids had it in their possession to begin with. Their mission was secret. Their true identities hidden by a combination of old rags and new magic. No passerby should have been able to observe anything beyond a group of peasant women, traveling to the capital city to attend a feast.
But someone had known. Someone who wanted the precious cargo all to herself.
That someone was the evil sorceress Morgana.
Nimue burst into a small clearing, nestled in the thick woods. She looked around, her ears pricked up for any sound, but all she heard was the grass, gently swishing in the night breeze.
She allowed herself a shaky breath, still clutching the relic like a newborn babe in her arms. Whatever happened to her, she could not allow it to fall into Morgana’s hands. The entire future of Camelot depended on it.
It was then she heard the sound. A crashing through the woods, followed by a loud shout. She bit down on her tongue to stifle a scream as she dropped to her belly in the tall grass. Her mouth filled with the copper tang of blood, but she ignored it, her eyes locked on the knight clad in chain-mail armor, storming toward her, not ten paces away, brandishing a fiery torch.
“You think you can hide from me, girl?” he growled in a thick, ugly accent. He was tall, broad-shouldered, with a nasty scar slicing across his cheek. But it was the sharp-looking sword by his side that chilled Nimue to the bone. Swords were forbidden in Avalon, so she had never seen one close up. “Come out now and I will let you live.”
But he would not let her live; she could tell from the eager flash in his eyes. And even if he did manage to surprise her, she would not trade her own miserable life for the relic. She’d made a pledge to protect it. She would not let her sisters down.
Nimue forced herself to still her breathing low and slow, even as her heart thumped maddeningly against her chest and her whole body trembled. Gathering her senses, she whispered a spell of distraction under her breath—one of the only spells she knew by heart, for she had unfortunately left her spell book back at the camp when she’d fled. It was a spell she’d learned with her best friend, Tamora, last year. They’d used it on their teacher to get out of a particularly boring lesson and had gotten three weeks of lugging well water as punishment for the deed.
But it might save her life now.
Save the entire world, in fact.
She finished the incantation—waited with bated breath. For a moment, nothing happened. Then…
The knight jerked to attention. A cruel smile cut across his ugly face. “There you are, you blasted wench,” he cried, taking off toward the sound.
Leaving Nimue alone.
It was all the advantage she needed. Scrambling to her feet, she dashed in the opposite direction, still clutching the artifact tightly in her arms. She knew the knight would circle back around once he realized he’d been tricked. She didn’t have much time. But where should she go? What should she do? She couldn’t keep running—some of the men had horses and would surely catch her eventually. Which meant she had to find somewhere to hide. Somewhere safe.
Nimue scanned the forest as she ran, desperate for some last-minute salvation. A deep hole, a large boulder, a particularly thick patch of foliage to hide behind until the men passed by. Something—anything—to—
She stopped short, her heels digging into the dirt. Heart thudding in her chest, she looked around, an odd feeling of familiarity suddenly rippling through her. A strange memory of those tangled vines, hanging just so off that craggy ledge. The odd pattern of stones at her feet. Had she been here before? But no, that was impossible. She’d only left the island of Avalon once, after all. When she’d been suffering from a wasting sickness and Vivianne had taken her to see…
She almost sobbed in relief as the memory came flooding back to her. Could it be? Had she actually stumbled upon the one man who could possibly save her? She ran to the familiar vines and carefully pulled them away, revealing the familiar glistening of multicolored gemstones. The entrance to the legendary Merlin the Great’s Crystal Cave.
He had saved her life once. Could he do it again?
She ducked into the cave, feeling a little self-conscious. It was late at night—would the great wizard be asleep? She didn’t want her intrusion to anger him. But she had very little choice in the matter if she wanted to survive.
“Lord Merlin?” she called out hesitantly when she stepped inside the cavern. It was lit by flickering torchlight, giving her hope he was still awake. “Lord Merlin, are you here? I am in desperate need of your assistance!”
She stopped short as her eyes caught a lone figure standing in the shadows at the far end of the room. Her breath whooshed from her lungs in relief.
“Merlin,” she whispered. “Thank the goddess.”
“Uh, actually, Merlin’s not here right now,” the figure replied, stepping into the light. Nimue squinted at him, disappointment dropping like a stone in her stomach. The boy was tall, gangly, around her own age. Dressed in a long blue robe clearly meant for someone twice his girth and leaning on a wooden staff carved with the head of a dragon.
Definitely not Lord Merlin.
“What do you mean he’s not here?” she cried, her voice cracking with dismay. Merlin was her only hope, she wanted to tell him. He had to be here. He just had to be! She stared at the boy. “And you…” she added. “Who are you?”
“My name is Emrys the Excellent,” the boy replied with a sleepy shrug. “And as for Merlin? I’m sorry, but he’s away on spring break.”
“Woo-hoo! Spring break!”
Twelve-year-old Sophie Sawyer laughed as her best friend, Stuart Mallory, danced out of Sacred Mary Junior High, throwing his backpack into the air and letting it land in the grass nearby.
“You are way too excited,” she scolded as she watched him run to pick it up. “Are you even going anywhere for spring break?”
“Nope. I’m going to spend the entire week doing nothing but eating pepperoni pizza and playing video games,” Stu declared. “In fact, I may not even put on pants.”
“You’re living the dream,” she groaned, slumping down onto the grass. “Meanwhile I’ll be living my own Five Nights at Cammy’s wedding nightmare.” She yanked off her backpack, setting it beside her. “You can’t even imagine all the dress fittings and cake tastings and rehearsal dinners I have to get through this week before I can even think about loading up my PlayStation.”
Stu gave her a pitying look. He knew better than anyone how much Sophie was dreading her father’s upcoming wedding to Sacred Mary cheer coach and Real Housewives aficionado, Cammy Jones.
“I can’t believe in one week Ashley Jones is going to be your stepsister,” he remarked, looking down the hill at the school’s football field, where the future stepsister in question was excitedly gesturing to her circle of minions, probably relating wild tales of thrilling new Snapchat filters.
“One week and two days,” Sophie corrected as she watched Ashley jump in front of her group, holding out her phone to snap a selfie. Then another. And another. Sophie rolled her eyes. “Let’s not rush this.”
Stu plopped down beside her. “You sure there’s no chance of your dad backing out?”
“Please. He’s all in.” She scrunched up her face. “I even caught him watching Say Yes to the Dress with the bridezilla-to-be when I came home from school the other day.”
“Wow.” Stu gave a low whistle. “That’s actually kind of impressive.”
Sophie turned away from the football field, trying to ignore the familiar sour feeling creeping into her stomach. After all, it wasn’t as if she didn’t want her dad to be happy. It was just that an actual wedding felt so final. Like the nail in the coffin of Sophie’s fantasy of her mother returning home someday and the three of them being a family again. Of course, she knew this was impossible in real life. Her mother had much more important things to do. And, of course, she couldn’t blame her dad for wanting to move on….
Still, the idea of soon sharing a bathroom with Ashley Jones made her want to throw up in her mouth a little. Or, you know, projectile vomit pea soup like the Exorcist girl.
Without thinking about it, Sophie pulled her phone from her backpack, glancing down at it with longing eyes. But, as always, there were no missed calls. No text messages.
No Camelot Code.
She sighed. “If only the Companions would call on me.”
“You want to save the world on spring break?” Stu asked, raising an eyebrow.
“If it would get me out of dress fittings.”
It had been three months since Sophie and Stu had left King Arthur’s court and returned to modern-day America after saving the world from the evil sorceress Morgana. It had been the adventure of a lifetime, to say the least, and it had been tough to get readjusted to the real world. After all, it wasn’t every day you traveled back in time, pulled the sword from the stone, and stood in for King Arthur like Stu had.
And then there was Sophie’s mission—tracking down the missing monarch and convincing him to return home to fulfill his destiny. Which proved no easy task, especially once Arthur googled himself and found out what was in store for him back home—and decided he’d rather try out for the football team.
And to top it all off? There was the showdown with Morgana herself—and the rescue of Princess Guinevere. A total real-life video-game moment! Not to mention the day Sophie first learned she had magic stirring deep inside her. Just like her mom. The day she officially signed up to become a Companion—one of a secret sect of warriors dedicated to protecting the once and future king throughout the annals of time.
Sophie’s mother was a Companion, which turned out to be why she’d left the family when Sophie was only seven. Sophie used to be mad at her mom for just taking off, and without even saying a proper good-bye. Now she understood her mother had her reasons—she had to save the world. Besides, how cool was it to have an actual time-traveling superhero as your mom? Not to mention having the chance to become a time-traveling superhero yourself?
Except there had been no time traveling. And no superhero-ing, either. Her mother had said the Companions would call on her when they needed her, but evidently it had been smooth sailing through time for the last three months. Every day Sophie would wake up, hoping for a text message calling her into action. But at this point she wondered if the call would ever come.
She’d gotten one text, after they’d first returned. Sophie had been so excited, thinking she was being tapped for a real mission. But it turned out to be nothing more than a false alarm, the Companions testing the system to make sure it would work when the real emergency came. Standard procedure, they’d said. Like a fire drill at school.
Sophie had tried not to feel too disappointed. But still! It was tough to stay pumped for social studies and science class when she knew there was a time-traveling battle for the world going on, and she was stuck on the sidelines.
Stu patted her on the back. “They’ll call,” he assured her, then slung his backpack over his shoulder and stood up. “In the meantime, let’s go grab a Slurpee. I hear 7-Eleven has the forty-four-ounce cups back in stock. And, as Lucas always says, nothing cures your troubles like a good old-fashioned brain freeze.”
Sophie perked up. “Ooh. That sounds—”
“There you are! I’ve been looking everywhere!”
Ugh. Speaking of frozen brain cells…
Sophie’s eyes fell on Ashley, marching up the hill, evidently finished with her series of selfies with her airheads-in-waiting. She was still wearing her cheerleading outfit—blue and white, the colors of the Sacred Mary Knights—along with an obnoxiously large matching bow on top of her auburn-colored head. Even though football season had ended months ago.
“Oh, hey, Ashley,” Sophie said, trying to sound cheerful as she rose to her feet. Her dad had practically begged her to play nice—She’s going to be your sister, after all! But at times it could be tougher than winning a Fortnite Battle Royale. “I was in the computer lab.”
“Really? Did you get detention or something?” Ashley asked, looking horrified. As if she couldn’t fathom any other reason someone would willingly hang out at school after school.
“Actually, she was hacking into the the principal’s computer to change her grades,” Stu said brightly. “How else do you think she gets all those As on her report card?”
Her future stepsister’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“No.” Sophie groaned. “Did you need something, Ashley?”
“Well, my history grade could use a boost. I’m pretty sure I bombed my last test.” Ashley wrinkled her nose. “But seriously, who cares about ancient history, anyway? It has absolutely no effect on real life.”
“Actually, you’d be surprised,” Stu muttered.
Sophie bit back a giggle. “Do you need anything else?” she tried. “I mean, something I can actually help you with?”
“Um. I need you? In my mom’s car? So we can get going?”
Sophie squinted at her, more confused than ever. “Going where?”
“Oh my gosh, do not tell me you forgot,” Ashley burst out. “I sent you like twenty texts yesterday.”
Right. Sophie vaguely remembered getting a series of texts from Ashley while she and Stu were knee-deep in a video-game dungeon, fighting vampires. It had gotten so annoying, she’d turned her phone to Do Not Disturb mode, promising she’d check them later. Which, she realized now, she hadn’t.
But she couldn’t let Ashley know that. In the cheerleader’s mind, ignoring text messages was a capital offense, punishable by death. Or, you know, a lot more text messages. Sophie shuddered, still remembering the horror of that last group text she’d been stuck on for months….
“Right,” she said. “Of course. We were going to…”
“Buy avocados,” Ashley finished, looking impatient.
“So we can glitter them.”
“You want to glitter avocados?”
“So we can put them in the mason jars.” Ashley crossed her arms in front of her. “For the tables at the reception?” She sighed. “Did you even look at the Pinterest board I sent you?”
Stu snickered. Sophie shot him a look, then attempted a smile for Ashley. “Of course! Right!” she tried. “Avocado glittering! So…Pinteresty.”
Ashley beamed. “I know, right? Can you believe Mom tried to talk me out of it at first? Anyway, she’s totally down now and she’s even agreed to drive us to Michaels so we can pick up supplies. She’s waiting in the parking lot. Come on!”
She grabbed Sophie’s hand and started dragging her down toward the parking lot. Sophie shot Stu a “save me” look, but he only shrugged helplessly. In this dungeon, Princess Sophie would have to save herself.
She glanced down at her cell phone again.
No text messages. No Camelot Code.
Seriously, if the Companions didn’t call soon, this spring break might truly break her.
“Spring break? What on the Mother’s great earth is spring break?”
Thirteen-year-old Emrys took a hesitant step backward as the strange girl stalked toward him, a desperate look on her face. She was tall—nearly half a foot taller than him, but slender. With long black hair braided down her back, brown skin, and piercing dark eyes. She wore a brown hooded cloak over a stained white robe cinched with a silver cord and clutched some kind of small bundle in her arms. She was perhaps the prettiest girl Emrys had ever laid eyes on.
Also, the most upset.
“I’m, uh, not entirely sure,” he stammered. “I guess it’s like a holiday?” He tried to remember Merlin’s words before he left. “A…vacation, I think he called it?”
The girl stared at him blankly. He shuffled from foot to foot. “Well, he’s not here,” he spluttered. “And that’s the end of it. If you want to leave a message, I’ll put it with the others.”
He gestured to the large array of sticky notes he’d affixed to the cave’s wall. Messages left by uninvited guests who had wandered into the Crystal Cave, demanding Merlin magically heal their dying pig or help their wife give birth. The place was like a revolving door of need—with everyone wanting something—and he wondered how Merlin dealt with it on a daily basis without going mad.
The girl’s gaze darted to the mouth of the cave and Emrys thought he caught a shimmer of fear wash across her face. “I don’t need to leave a message. I need help now.” She turned to him with an appraising eye. “Who are you again?”
Emrys puffed out his chest. “I am Emrys the Excellent,” he repeated. “Lord Merlin’s devoted apprentice.”
She pursed her lips. “Do you know magic?”
“I wouldn’t be a very good apprentice if I didn’t.”
“Yes, but how do I know you’re a good apprentice?” she countered. “Perhaps you are terrible. Perhaps you are the worst apprentice ever.”
“Perhaps you should be going,” he shot back grumpily. After all, it was the middle of the night. He’d already been rudely awakened. He didn’t need to be insulted to boot.
The girl’s face softened. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just…it’s been quite a night. I’m sure you’re an extremely talented wizard with plenty of powerful magic at your disposal.”
“Uh…I don’t know if I would go that—”
“So if you could just grab your spell book, we could get started.” She glanced at the mouth of the cave again. “You see, I’m in a bit of a hurry, actually.”
“Right.” Emrys looked down at his hands. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
She scrunched up her face. “Why not?”
“It’s just…I’m not exactly allowed to use magic at the moment.”
“What kind of wizard isn’t allowed to use magic?”
“The apprentice kind—when the master is away.” He held up his hands helplessly. “I’m sorry, but Lord Merlin left very strict orders. No magic.”
His mind flashed back to the endless list of rules Merlin had laid out before he left. No magic spells. No playing games on the magic box in the back chamber. No looking into the Well of Dreams portal. Not even to watch one of those splendid “Yankees games” Merlin had been viewing the day he arrived. In fact, about all Emrys was allowed to do while his master was away was mop the floor (by himself—definitely no conjuring up magic brooms!) and make batches of pea soup.
Emrys detested pea soup.
He started to turn away, but the girl grabbed his arm, pulling him back around. “You don’t understand!” she protested. “The kingdom of Camelot is at stake!” She looked at him with dark, pleading eyes, her face a mask of desperation. “Please, Emrys the Excellent,” she whispered. “You’re the world’s only hope.”
Emrys froze, staring at the girl. The world’s only hope? Did she just say he was the world’s only hope? That was the kind of thing damsels in distress said to knights in shining armor in his mother’s stories. Not to scrawny farm boys from backwater villages like himself.
But he wasn’t a scrawny farm boy anymore, he suddenly realized. He was a wizard-in-training. The apprentice of Merlin the Great.
Something tugged inside him. He bit his lower lip, his mind racing. Clearly, this girl needed him. The world needed him. How could he turn the world away—simply because of a few silly rules? Surely, Merlin would want Emrys to help.
He cleared his throat, making up his mind. “What seems to be the trouble, m’lady?” he asked in the most gallant voice he could muster. Which, in truth, came off a bit more squeaky than gallant for his liking. He’d need to practice that.
In any case, it seemed to work. The girl practically drooped in relief. Emrys watched as she began to unwrap her parcel, revealing a small object beneath. A very familiar-looking object.
Emrys’s eyes bulged. Could it be? But that was impossible! Though…
His mind flashed back to the stories his mother would tell him and his brothers by the fire after a hard day’s work on the farm. Fantastical tales of dragons and evil knights and damsels in distress. (And sometimes damsels who saved themselves!) The stories had always sounded unbelievable to Emrys’s ears. But his mother insisted each and every one of them was true.
Now he wondered if she had been right.
“Is that…?” he stammered. “Is that really…?”
The cup was small and plain. Hardly any ornamentation whatsoever. And yet, even in the dim light of the cave, it seemed to glow with an otherworldly shimmer, as if it was made of actual star fire.
“The Holy Grail,” the girl said solemnly.
“But that’s…that’s just a story!”
“A true story,” she amended. “The cup was brought to Britain a thousand years ago by a long-lost society that first colonized the land. It was hidden under a great hill, called the Tor, on the island of Avalon. And for the last millennium we have been its protectors.”
“So you’re…a Companion?”
Emrys’s mother had also told tales of the Companions, a group of legendary warriors who served and protected Mother Earth. They were noble, revered. He wondered, suddenly, if he should be bowing to this girl, but she quickly set him straight.
“No. I’m just a young druid-in-training,” she said, and gave a small shrug. “An apprentice, like yourself. They call me Nimue.”
- Praise for The Once and Future Geek:
—School Library Journal
- On Sale
- Oct 6, 2020
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers