MAX FINDS A BOOK
IN THE HUMAN REALM, WHERE LIFE WAS SO DREARY MILLIONS OF KIDS tweeted messages like, “eating breakfast,” “it’s Friday!” and “ ,” Max Spencer was riding the bus to Parkside Middle School and reading a book. But not just any book—he was reading a book that had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember. The fact that the last time he’d opened it was six years ago wasn’t important. What was important was that he’d found it under his bed (hidden beneath a dinosaur-themed swimsuit) just in time for his book report, which was due today. Max was used to having luck—just not the good kind. And that made him slightly nervous.
Max lived in a small house in a small town. He was expected to do chores like beat the weeds back once a week and unclog the toilet if it wouldn’t flush. But he didn’t mind as long as he earned enough allowance to pay for his online games. In the virtual world he was someone impressive—unlike in real life. In PE, for example, Max was always picked dead last (even when Tina Eubanks had two broken arms and a broken leg). And during football season Max had to stay on the sidelines and practice “imaginary jump rope” because the school counselor said competitive sports were damaging his self-esteem. Max was pretty sure middle school was hard enough without becoming known as the jump-rope kid.
As the bus pulled away from the next stop and the kids hurried to find their seats, Max kept his eyes on the pages of his book—partly because he had his English assignment due, but mostly so he wouldn’t make eye contact with Ricky “the Kraken” Reynolds. The Kraken was not only the bane of all nerds, geeks, dorks, and the great mass of unclassifieds that wandered the halls of his school, he was also the captain of the wrestling team. He’d earned his nickname after crackin’ the bones of two different kids during a regional tournament. The fact that there was also a terrible mythological creature by the same name was simply a bonus.
The key to riding the bus safely was to not be different. If you were a jock, or popular, you were generally safe. But if you were a little pudgy, had a big nose, wore braces, played a reed-based band instrument, or stood out in any way, you were no longer riding a bus—you were a passenger on Ricky’s private yellow torture chamber on wheels. Just last week Max had witnessed Ricky deliver an atomic wedgie, a frontal Melvin, a purple nurple, and the dreaded two-handed monkey scrub. The best thing to do in situations like these was to keep your head down and hope Ricky stayed focused on someone else. And that’s what Max did, staring intently at his book.
He was reading a section about unicorns. Not that he thought unicorns were especially interesting, but the book had a strange habit of choosing whatever topic it wanted. For instance, if Max wanted to read about something other than unicorns he could grab a handful of pages and flip ahead, but there he’d find exactly the same thing he’d been reading previously. After several attempts, all with the same result, Max finally decided that you didn’t actually read the old leather-bound book; instead it allowed you to read parts of it. He knew that didn’t make much sense, but a book was a book and he had an English assignment to do.
Someone yelped from the backseats where Ricky and his friends were, so Max hunkered down even farther and continued reading: In addition to being ruled by a queen, unicorns are highly magical creatures capable of speaking to humans. Occasionally, a unicorn gives up on its diet of grass and oats and goes for a little variety, perhaps by eating the human it was previously talking to. Unfortunately, once a unicorn gets a taste for meat there’s really no easy way to stop it from plundering, pillaging, and devouring whatever it wants. This includes frobbits, who happen to be a bit of a delicacy, are easy to catch, and come in at around six hundred calories each.
There was a picture of a unicorn standing defiantly on a hilltop next to a human wearing a robe with moons and stars on it. The unicorn was white, with a long mane accented with pink streaks. On its head sat the emblematic horn, shaped like a tall ice cream cone swirled to perfection. The whole thing reminded Max of a poster a young girl might hang on her wall next to her kitten calendar. Beneath the picture the caption read, Princess the Unicorn, also known as Princess the Destroyer. Pictured here with her faithful wizard, Magar the Tolerated.
“Dude!” a voice exploded near Max, and he looked up to see his best friend Dirk dropping down in front of him. Dirk was wearing his favorite “Wang Computers” T-shirt as he leaned over the back of the seat, completely oblivious to the Kraken or anybody else. “The online raid last night totally rocked! I was like, ‘You want some of this?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, we want some of that.’ So I was like, ‘Then that’s what you’re gonna get.’ And they were like, ‘Good, because that’s what we want.’ ” Dirk paused, noticing what Max was holding. “Hey, isn’t that the old book you used to read?”
“Codex,” Max said a little too loudly. “So another raid, huh? Sounds . . . epic.” Max had lost count of how many times they had had this exact same conversation.
“It was. I totally destroyed this noob elf. Then I did the whole ‘chicken’ and ‘laugh’ dance over his dead body. It was awesome.”
Max could picture Dirk’s character doing the chicken dance and then laughing—two of the commands at the ready for online gamers wanting to add a little insult to injury. “Didn’t that happen to you once?” Max asked. He seemed to remember a large party of orcs dancing around Dirk’s mangled corpse.
Dirk frowned. “Yeah, well where do you think I got the idea?”
“Figures. So anything else happen?”
“Just the usual, except the elf was part of some humongous guild and they all came after me. Then they danced around my dead body and mocked me for like an hour or so—all two hundred of them.”
Having an entire guild chasing Dirk through the game was also something Max had seen before.
“So where were you? I didn’t see you log on at all.”
“I told you I got busted after staying up all night. I can’t play until the weekend.”
Dirk shook his head. “Smacked down by the man! Or should I say the woman.” Max had made a deal with his mom that if he got a B average he could play online games on weeknights and weekends, and if he got a C average he could only play on the weekends. Max had just barely missed getting all B’s last term, so he figured that getting close should count for a couple of extra game days. But when his mom returned after her night shift and found Max still awake and online, he’d discovered what “letter of the law” truly meant. Unfortunately, his mom had an administrative account that locked him out of the game. Banished from all known forms of fun, Max decided to look for lost comics under his bed, and that’s when he’d rediscovered the book.
“So what’s up with that . . . codex?” Dirk asked, motioning toward the odd book and unconsciously rubbing his fingers. When Dirk and Max were little, Dirk had tried to open it—but every time he touched the cover he got shocked. Max laughed hysterically as Dirk tried over and over, grabbing his fingers and yelping with each failed attempt.
“I found it in my room,” Max said, wiping some of the dust from the cover. Although it was very old, the book was in remarkably good condition. It had a reddish tone to it, which Max thought looked a bit like the color of dried blood. The edges appeared to be outlined with three rows of ornate symbols, but on closer examination it could be seen that the symbols were actually tiny, intricate dragons that interlocked with one another. In the center was a gold, eight-pointed star that split the cover in half. On one side of the star a number of people in colorful robes were crowded together, and on the other side there was a mix of fantastical creatures. “I’m going to use it for my book report. Except right now it’s talking about unicorns.”
“Unicorns? Unicorns are lame.”
“I know, except these unicorns cast spells and eat people.”
Dirk nodded, getting the gleam in his eye that Max knew well. He and Dirk had been best friends since the second grade. It had all started when eight-year-old Ricky Reynolds had taken Max’s glasses and taunted him to try to get them back. Max stumbled along, everything blurry, trying to make a grab for them, but he was way too slow and clumsy to even get close. That’s when Dirk showed up. Apparently, Dirk had just learned a new “your momma’s so fat” joke and decided to try it out on Ricky. Soon after, Ricky forgot all about the glasses and was chasing Dirk—but Dirk happened to be the fastest kid in the entire town. After that, Max and Dirk became best friends.
“Okay, a carnivorous man-eating unicorn might be cool. Too bad they’re not vampires,” Dirk said, his head bouncing as the bus hit a pothole. “Vampire unicorns would be awesome.” For Dirk, any creature plus being a vampire equaled something awesome. Unless that creature was a love-struck human running around with his shirt off.
Max hurried to put the book in his backpack as the bus made the last turn leading to Parkside Middle School—Home of the Eagles! But for some reason Max couldn’t get the image of Princess the Destroyer out of his head. It wasn’t a particularly cold day, but a strange chill crawled up his spine.
Mrs. Lundberg’s seventh-grade English class was always too hot. It was as if the administration had decided that sitting through English wasn’t hard enough, so they decided to crank the temperature up and see who could stay awake. After thirty minutes it was almost a relief when Max heard his name called. He made his way to the spot just under the READING IS FUNDAMENTAL banner. “I’m going to read from a book that I’ve had for a long time,” he said, pushing his glasses up. “It’s called the Codex of Infinite Knowability—and I think ‘codex’ basically means book, but its fancier or something.” Max looked up at Mrs. Lundberg, who’s raised eyebrow signaled that he should keep going, so he held the Codex up for everyone to see. “The part I’m going to read is about unicorns,” Max continued, opening the book to the spot he’d marked earlier. Several of the boys started snickering.
“Did you say . . . unicorns?” Mrs. Lundberg asked in a husky voice.
“Yeah,” Max answered, looking down. But this time the page he’d marked didn’t show a unicorn. Instead it had a drawing of a small creature with oversized feet, a large head with round eyes, and a curly tuft of hair. In its hand was a small stringed instrument. The title of the page read “On Frobbits.”
“I mean, no!” Max blurted out, seeing now that his unicorn page had disappeared. “I mean, not unicorns. I’m going to talk about . . . frobbits.”
“Frobbits?” Mrs. Lundberg asked, raising her infamous eyebrow again.
“Yeah. They’re way better than unicorns.” Or so Max hoped.
Mrs. Lundberg stared at Max with a look that almost made him confess to having no idea what he was doing, but instead she waved her hand in the universal gesture for “Let’s get going.”
Max cleared his throat and began to read . . .
OF THE VARIOUS LIFE-FORMS LOCATED in the middle realm—or Magrus as it’s formally called—the peace-loving frobbit is a must-see for any traveler. Frobbit culture is based on the unwarranted trust of strangers, moving slowly when chased, and taking baths seasoned with eleven herbs and spices; which is also why frobbits are a favorite food source for all carnivorous predators (and even some leaf-eaters who want to live it up on the weekends).
Sometimes when threatened, a frobbit will rub itself with mint leaves as a warning—a strategy that has yet to yield any positive results. Frobbit villages are called treeshires, because frobbits like to build their homes inside of giant, hollowed-out trees. On at least two occasions squirrels have been known to wait until the frobbits were finished tree hollowing and then successfully run them off and move in (for more on the future world domination by squirrels, see appendix B).
Frobbit mandolins, constructed from the discarded wood from such hollowing activities, are highly prized throughout the Magrus. Not so much for their musical qualities, but as ready-made kindling for campfires or cooking pits.
Whether as a handy food source or treeshire construction crew, frobbits have become an integral part of life in the Magrus.
Max looked up as the frowning Mrs. Lundberg took out her red pen, gave it an audible click, and wrote something in her grade book. He’d seen that done enough times to know he probably wasn’t going to be bringing home the MY MIDDLE SCHOOLER’S ON THE HONOR ROLL bumper sticker.
“I believe I said the assignment was to read a chapter from a novel of historical fiction,” Mrs. Lundberg announced. “Do you believe your frobbit tale qualifies, Mr. Spencer?”
Suddenly Max had a flashback of Mrs. Lundberg detailing the assignment on the chalkboard. Max was drawing a picture of a dragon at the time and probably should have been paying closer attention.
“Yes, ma’am,” was all Max managed to squeak out.
“Oh? Please elaborate.”
Max wasn’t particularly good at on-the-spot thinking. He also wasn’t that good at off-the-spot thinking. But since the difference between a D and an F was probably riding on his answer, he did the best he could. “Well, history is about things in the past, and this book is really, really old. And frobbits are probably totally made up, so that would be fiction. So, yeah, it’s pretty much historical fiction.”
Several of the smarter girls in the class began to giggle. Max figured that wasn’t a very good sign.
“Nice try, Mr. Spencer,” Mrs. Lundberg announced, sealing his fate. “Have a seat.”
On the way back to his desk Max knew he should be at least a little concerned that he had just blown the assignment, but he was thinking about the Codex. There was something really strange about the whole notion of meat-eating unicorns, spell-casting wizards, spice-bathing frobbits, and a middle realm called the Magrus. He figured the book needed to be taken to an expert, and the first person he thought of was Dwight, the owner and sole proprietor of the Dragon’s Den.
Chris Lemons, a tall gangly kid with a long neck, leaned over to where Max was sitting. “Nice job, Einstein. You should have stuck with the unicorns.”
Max ignored him. It was bad enough that he was being mocked by a kid who had cried when a sunflower had touched his face, but now another poor grade meant he’d probably never get ungrounded. At least there was lunch to look forward to—all that talk of well-seasoned frobbits had made him kind of hungry.