RETURN OF THE CONQUERING HERO
MAX STARED AT THE OBJECT of dread hanging in front of him and realized there was nothing to do but face it. It was bad enough that Parkside Middle School’s husky-sized PE shorts had remained unchanged and out of fashion since 1976, but now everyone was staring at him too. And that included the older kids. From Max’s perspective it looked as if the entire ninth grade were sitting in the bleachers, watching him. Kids with actual facial hair were giving him the eye.
“Spencer, Max,” a deep voice grumbled for the second time. A hush settled over the gym as Max finally raised his hand.
Coach Mattson put his clipboard aside and raised his
whistle to his mouth. He wore his United States Marine Corps T-shirt and was probably the only guy in the world trained to use a dodgeball ball as a deadly weapon. “On my mark,” he grunted through clenched teeth.
Max slowly stepped forward, craning his neck in an effort to see how high the rope stretched. It was the first day of the new school year, and how Max performed on the rope climb would determine his fate. He’d either be going into regular PE (where they played games that involved actual score keeping), or remedial PE (where Coach Mattson ran his special military-inspired torture routines). Max had heard the whispered tales of woe that came from remedial PE: pain, humiliation, and guaranteed barfing. Max really, really wanted to be in regular PE, but if there was one exercise he was especially bad at, it was the rope climb.
Max looked at the students in the bleachers and the line of others waiting impatiently behind him. Maybe he could fake a seizure? Only he wasn’t a particularly good actor, and if he got it wrong, it would just make things worse. Everyone knew you could only play the seizure card once, so you had to make it count.
“Come on, Max, you can do it!” a familiar voice
cried out. It was Dirk, his oldest and best friend. Dirk was the kind of kid who ate nothing but junk food and still managed to scuttle up the rope like gravity had left the building. He was also the fastest runner in the entire school, which was a good thing given his tendency to say things that made people want to kick him—even girls.
“Yo, don’t break it, Spencer!” another voice shouted, and behind it came a chorus of cackles. That voice belonged to Ricky “the Kraken” Reynolds, and he was about as scary a kid as you could imagine. Undefeated as a wrestler, he’d gained his nickname for all the bones he “cracked” on the mat. It also gave him the kind of reputation perfect for bullying. But Max had seen something even more terrifying when the Kraken had been transformed into something else—a hulking beast with red skin and glowing eyes. That had been in a different time and in a different world, but the memory remained.
Max jumped for the rope, and the burning in his arms began much too quickly. He struggled to pull himself up, and he imagined he looked like a fish flopping around at the end of a fishing line. Thankfully he managed to find the big knot at the bottom with his feet.
“Hey, Spencer, you’re supposed to go up!” another wrestler called out. There were more laughs.
“Yeah, even I got higher than that!” a squeaky voice followed. It was Melvin Jenkins, head of the Live Action Role-Playing group, or LARPers. They dressed up as fantasy characters and ran around with cardboard swords and threw tennis balls as spells. Online gaming was different—your character had truly heroic abilities. LARPers simply ran around and pretended to do things. So if Melvin was mocking him, his life had hit an all-time low. In response, the gym broke out into howls of laughter.
Max gritted his teeth and shoved off the knot. For a moment—a very brief moment—he managed to hold himself on the rope. But the burning in his arms became a fire and his hands were sweating way too much. It occurred to him that he should at least try for a graceful dismount. He let go, but he ended up sliding too fast, and his feet got tangled up in the rope. He somersaulted forward, the rope flying through his hands. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the large knot at the bottom whipped around and smacked him squarely in the face. His glasses flew off as he tumbled forward. Max landed with a loud
slapping sound that seemed to reverberate off the old gym’s walls. There was a moment of stunned silence before the entire gym exploded in laughter. It was, without a doubt, the most humiliating moment in Max’s life—and that was saying a lot.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Coach Mattson said, blowing his whistle and bringing the place back to order. He marked something on his clipboard. “We’ll be seeing you in remedial PE, Mr. Spencer,” he announced. Max picked himself up off the mat and retrieved his glasses. “Don’t worry son,” the coach continued. “I’ll toughen you up.”
There’s a place where I’m tough enough already, Max said to himself. He wiped his glasses off and limped back toward the locker room. Dirk ran to catch up to him.
“Dude, you’re not very good at rope climbing,” he announced, stating the obvious.
“Really?” Max replied, trying not to sound bitter. He hadn’t bothered to put his glasses on—that way he wouldn’t have to see the laughing, judging eyes of everyone in the gym.
“Don’t worry about those dweebs,” Dirk said as if reading his mind. “Jocks might rule the schools, but nerds rule the world. That’s why they’re so angry at us.”
Max smiled at that. He knew plenty of people who thought he and Dirk were nerds. But so what if they liked computers and role-playing games and reading all the sci-fi and fantasy they could get their hands on? Max knew a truth that very few others did—that the universe was made up of three different realms, and magic, heroes, and monsters really did exist. It turned out the nerds weren’t so far off after all.
“Meet me in the lunchroom,” Dirk said, slapping Max on the shoulder. “I hear we’re getting new tater tots this year.”
That afternoon Max rode the bus in silence. Dirk was going on about an online game he was excited about, but Max wasn’t paying attention. Instead, he watched as the houses of Madison passed by the window. Madison was a small town that was, as the mayor liked to say, “not too close or too far from anything important.” But everyone knew that was just code for being in the middle of nowhere.
Max looked up and saw Ricky Reynolds standing in the aisle, staring down at him. The bus driver gave a quick disapproving glance in the mirror, but refrained
from saying anything. Ricky was big enough that even adults thought twice about making him angry.
“I liked how you cried in gym today,” Ricky taunted, saying it loud enough that everyone could hear. “I liked it so much I was thinking that maybe you should cry some more.”
“Don’t go using all your big words at once,” Dirk shot back. “You might want to save some for tomorrow.”
Someone near the back of the bus started to laugh, but when Ricky shot an angry look in that direction, it quickly became a cough.
“Come on, Spencer,” Ricky continued, turning his attention back to Max. “I hear you had an exciting first day at school today. Let’s see, you were tripped in the hallway, wet-willied between classes, had your chocolate milk taken at lunch, towel snapped in the locker room, and, oh yeah, you humiliated yourself in front of the entire school. I’m just worried you might think you’re a loser or something. Oh wait, you totally should feel like a loser, because you are one.”
Ricky began to howl with laughter, and the rest of the bus followed his lead. Thankfully Sarah didn’t ride the bus home, because she was the kind of person who’d
stand up to Ricky. She’d done it before, in fact, last year. She was an expert in judo and had sent Ricky flying in the school hallway. Ricky avoided her now, but that only seemed to make him more venomous toward Max and Dirk.
“Dude, we get it, okay?” Dirk said. “You’re big and bad and you’ve proved it once again. So maybe cut him some slack?”
It was, unfortunately, the wrong thing to say to a kid like Ricky Reynolds. Ricky didn’t look at weakness as an opportunity to step back and declare victory. Ricky saw weakness as an opening for total annihilation. He lifted his hand and pointed at Max. “Look, everyone, I see a tear. Spencer is totally going to start crying like a little baby! Crybaby, crybaby!” he called out, getting the bus to join in. “Crybaby! Crybaby!” Soon the entire bus was shouting at Max like they were back in elementary school. At the next stop Max bolted from his seat, squeezing past Ricky and making for the door.
The chants continued as the bus began to pull away. Max looked up to see the myriad faces pressed against the windows. He knew he shouldn’t have looked, just like he knew to keep his glasses off in the gym. But this
time he did, and the laughing, mocking expressions stung even more as the bus drove by. And then there was Dirk, who simply mouthed, Dude, that’s not your stop!
When Max glanced at the clock, it read 12:15 a.m. He was supposed to be in bed by ten thirty, but the online campaign had gone longer than anyone had expected. Max just wasn’t feeling it, however, so he excused himself and hurried and logged out. He was sure there’d be some angry complaints from the others, but he didn’t care. His eyes drifted to the newspaper article pinned next to the monitor. MISSING STUDENTS FOUND, the headline proclaimed. There was a picture of him, Dirk, and Sarah, standing arm in arm in front of the school. Somehow they had to explain their disappearance last year, so Dirk had come up with the story. They told everyone they had been walking home when there was a sudden bright light—and the next thing they knew a number of days had passed. Max thought it was the worst story imaginable, but Sarah said the simplest explanation would work best, no matter how crazy it sounded. So they all agreed to tell a small white lie rather than explain the truth: that Max was the long-lost relative of a great sorcerer and
had accidentally used his spell book to cast them into the future. And that once there, they’d had to fight against Robo-Princess, a decidedly evil unicorn who had been hunting them. Then they’d made a promise to a great dragon king, who sent them back in time to the Magrus (the magical kingdom). There they had to take the Codex of Infinite Knowability to the place it was created—which happened to be the Wizard’s Tower, where a powerful sorcerer had been after Max and his friends all along. They defeated Rezormoor Dreadbringer and his minions and were taken back to the Techrus (the human realm) by means of a magical coach. When they arrived in Madison, they had effectively doubled back in time, so it had only been a few days since their mysterious disappearance.
So bright light and time loss it was. Ricky knew the truth because he had ended up in the Magrus somehow—Max wasn’t sure how that had happened exactly. That left Dwight as the only other person who knew the truth. Dwight was the owner of the Dragon’s Den, the game and comic shop on Main Street. They had always thought of him as a little person, but it turned out Dwight was an actual dwarf. Dwight had been on the whole adventure as well, taking them all the way to his ancestral home
of Jiilk. There, Max had earned the respect of the dwarf king and stood between two armies ready to go to war. That seemed a strange memory now that he had to put up with the daily humiliation of being plain old Max Spencer. It didn’t seem fair, and Max had started to wonder if coming home had been a mistake.
He rose from his chair with a sigh and plopped on the bed, bouncing Moki from his sleeping position on Max’s pillow. Moki was a fire kitten and had come with Max all the way from the Magrus. In fact, the little fire kitten had saved Max and his friends more than once. He’d originally gone home with Sarah, but apparently her mom was allergic to fire kittens. Max had taken him in happily, and he now stroked Moki’s head as the fire kitten purred with contentment. Fire kittens could also talk, and he and Max had to be careful—a few close calls with his mom had nearly unraveled everything. A talking cat was the kind of thing a parent would blow out of proportion.
“Do you miss the Magrus?” Max asked. Moki stretched as he contemplated his answer.
“I like it here,” Moki replied. “TV is great.” Max smiled—Moki pretty much thought everything was great.
“Sometimes I miss it,” Max admitted. “I had power in the Magrus. People respected me.”
“You are a great wizard.”
“But not like before—magic doesn’t work the same here.” Max opened his nightstand and pulled out the Codex of Infinite Knowability. Moki frowned when Max’s scratching hand left to become a page-turning one. “I’m the only person in the three realms who can use this,” Max continued, “and it pretty much just sits in my drawer collecting dust.” He flipped through the ancient book, the handwritten pages and elaborate drawings part of the encyclopedic knowledge the Codex had of just about everyone and everything. And as far as Max could tell, the Codex also had a mind of its own—its pages would change and the book would communicate what it wanted, regardless of what the reader was interested in. Because the Codex had been created by the greatest arch-sorcerer who had ever lived, it also contained the Fifteen Prime Spells—the most powerful magic in all of existence, and the foundation of all other magic in the universe. The fact that the arch-sorcerer had turned out to be Max’s father was still too new a revelation for Max to completely appreciate. But maybe that was why he felt
the pull of the place—he was born there. The Magrus was his real home.
Max stood with the book in his hand. He reached out with his mind and found the strange sensation that was the Codex. In the human realm, magic was slippery and hard to hold on to. Still, he found the tide of power that flowed through the book and pulled it back. It engulfed him like a warm ocean current. He closed his eyes and reveled in the feeling, not aware of the books, papers, and other items that lifted into the air and began to float around the room. Moki slid along the bed as well, finally grabbing hold of the bedpost with his claws. The power swelled in Max, and he smiled at its warm and comforting embrace. This is who I am, he said to himself.
Outside Max’s house the trees in the yard bent as if caught in an invisible wind. Then the old water hose began to move across the yard like a snake until it lifted into the air. The hose was joined by several newspapers and a number of long-lost toys hiding under bushes or in rain gutters. Several dogs started barking, and suddenly one of the neighbors’ cars lurched forward.
All around Max’s house items took flight, carried on the invisible current of magic. Then the neighbor’s
car began to slowly lift from the ground, triggering the security alarm. Max’s eyes shot open as he became aware of what he’d been doing. The magic slipped away and everything fell down, including a grateful Moki, who had been losing his grip on the bed. The car outside bounced as the front end fell to the driveway, blasting the horn on impact. Max looked out the window in time to see his neighbor run outside, nearly getting struck by a falling garden gnome. He drew the blinds and pressed himself against the wall, keeping out of sight, then waited a minute before chancing another look. His neighbor was standing by his car, gnome in hand, scratching his head.
Max put the Codex away and closed the nightstand drawer. It was far too dangerous to use magic in the Techrus—no matter how good it made him feel.