Six figures stood together in the fading light of day. Five of them were classmates, friends, and rather short.
Some strange recent events had them learning to work together to be a team. But tonight, the odds they faced seemed overwhelming.
The sixth figure was taller and wider than the rest. It wasn’t human. Its skin was gray and made of iron. Its eyes glowed red.
The friends hoped it could protect them.
“Get ready,” said one of them. “They’re coming.”
It was true. Not far away, there was a huge group of monsters—zombies and skeletons and hostile mobs. They were only just visible in the glow of the newly risen moon. And they were heading straight for those six figures.
Ash Kapoor listened carefully for her name. She didn’t want to be marked absent by mistake even though her homeroom teacher, Ms. Minerva, had acknowledged the shiny red apple that Ash had placed on her desk upon arriving in class.
Ms. Minerva was trying to take attendance, but there was a strange sound
coming from the air-conditioning vents. Ash, seated at the back of the room, found it distracting. “Po Chen,”
the teacher called.
Ash’s friend Po spun around in his wheelchair. He raised his arm like he was lining up a hoop shot. Po was a master on the basketball court.
Everyone at school knew him for his skills as an athlete. “Here!”
After calling a few more names, Ms. Minerva said, “Harper Houston.”
Reading as always, Harper raised her hand without lifting her eyes from her textbook. Ash thought Harper was brilliant. She was especially good in math and science.
She also had a great memory. She seemed to remember everything, from algebra formulas to friends’ birthdays.
Ash was next alphabetically. She waited for Ms. Minerva to call her name, then raised her hand and made eye contact with the teacher. Ms. Minerva smiled, nodded, and marked Ash down as present.
Ash was new to Woodsword Middle School.
She’d moved to town only a few weeks ago. But now that she was here, she hoped to get perfect attendance. Ash liked doing her best in all things. It was how she’d obtained so many Wildling Scout badges.
From the vents came another small shuffling sound, followed by a metallic clanging. Ash looked around. No one else seemed to have noticed.
Maybe the air-conditioning just got loud sometimes.
“Jodi Mercado,” the teacher said. Ash smiled. Jodi was the first friend she’d made here. She was creative, fearless, and a little bit weird. Since Jodi had skipped a grade,
she was younger and smaller than her classmates. She was every bit as smart as the others, though, and Ash thought she was the best artist in the class.
Jodi’s big brother was next in the roll call. He was obsessed with Minecraft,
like Ash herself. It was one of many things they had in common.
“Morgan Mercado,” said Ms. Minerva.
“Here!” Morgan said. He spoke loudly. Enthusiastically. The noise in the vents came back louder.
It was almost as if something was reacting to the sound of his voice. There was more shuffling and a small chirp
This time, Jodi noticed it, too. What was that?
she mouthed silently.
Ash gave an exaggerated shrug
, as if to say No idea.
It was at that moment that the door to the classroom flew open, slamming against the wall with a tremendous bang.
Their science teacher, Doc Culpepper, stood in the doorway. “Ms. Minerva,” she said, out of breath. “I’ve come to warn you—”
Before Doc could finish her sentence, the air-conditioning vent above Ash’s head burst open. Dozens of dark shapes flew into the classroom, squeaking and chirping, flapping and fluttering.
“Are those—?” said Jodi.
“Bats!” Ash shouted.
The classroom erupted into chaos. The kids screamed. Some ducked low, while others tried to wave the bats away.
Ash hid beneath her desk. She saw that Jodi had done the same.
“This is pandemonium!” said Ash.
“I know!” Jodi replied. “But I kind of love it!”
Ash laughed despite herself. Of course Jodi would see the humor in this.
Ms. Minerva was swatting away bats as they swooped toward her frizzy hair.
“Everyone, outside!” she instructed. “Please hurry. But don’t run!”
Ash very much wanted to run, but crawling worked well enough. She had to drag her backpack behind her.
Most of the class was already out in the hallway when Ash had a sudden realization.
They’d left Baron Sweetcheeks
She only hesitated for a moment before turning around and heading deeper into the classroom.
“Ash!” Jodi called. “What are you doing?”
Baron Sweetcheeks was the class hamster. It was Ash’s job, as well as Morgan’s, to take care of him. She didn’t think the bats would hurt him,
but she also didn’t think it was a good idea to leave him behind.
Besides, he hadn’t had his morning hamster cookie yet.
Once Ash had crossed the room, she quickly stood up, slung her backpack over her shoulder, and grabbed the hamster’s cage. Taking the whole thing would be faster than scooping the hamster out.
But the cage was heavier than it looked. “Let me help you,”
Ash turned to see Morgan had followed her back into the classroom. Then she was almost smacked in the face by a bat wing.
Okay. Now she was really glad Morgan was there.
With Morgan’s help, the cage felt like it hardly weighed anything at all. They ducked their heads low and crossed the classroom in a matter of seconds.
Ms. Minerva slammed the door shut
Ash smiled at Morgan. “Thanks for coming back for me.”
He returned the smile. “Thanks for remembering the baron. I was so panicked that I forgot all about him!”
The hamster, for his part, seemed totally unbothered by the whole ordeal. Especially once Ash slipped a cookie into his cage.
“Minerva, I apologize,” Doc said. Full of nervous energy,
she paced the hall while she spoke. “I wanted to warn you about the bats. It didn’t occur to me that my noisy entrance
would set them off.”
While Doc never stopped moving, Ms. Minerva always seemed patiently at rest. She put her hands on her hips. “And how did you know the vents were full of bats?” she asked. “Was this another one of your little projects, Doc?”
“I had nothing to do with it!” Doc insisted, waving her hands for emphasis. “I recognized the sounds
coming from the vents this morning. I’ve been following the noise from class to class all morning.”
Ms. Minerva looked like she didn’t wholly believe the science teacher. “At least it’s nice outside,” she said. “Class, head to the bleachers. I’ll be there as soon as I’ve updated the principal.”
“What about Baron Sweetcheeks?” asked Morgan.
“Your hamster can stay with me,” said Doc. “It’s the least I can do.” She snapped her fingers as if remembering something. “In fact, I wanted to speak to a few of your students anyway, Minerva. May I borrow Ash here, and Harper, Po, and the Mercado siblings?”
Ash and Morgan shared a look. Doc had just named their entire Minecraft team. That couldn’t be a coincidence, could it?
Ash wondered if their secret was out. Did Doc know the truth about the game? Or about the message the kids had found while playing it?
There was a high-pitched squeaking sound, and Ash looked over to see a small bat perched over Ms. Minerva’s head. The teacher didn’t seem to notice.
Ash sighed wearily. Whatever Doc had in mind for them, it couldn’t be any more of a disaster than homeroom had been. She hoped.
Copyright © 2019 by Nick Eliopulos; illustrated by Luke Flowers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.