CHAPTER ONE OUT OF THE FRYING PAN
IT WAS EVENING, AND THE citizens of the Magrus sat around their various tables and ate their various dinners. And if their talk drifted to that of dragons and wizards, none would consider it particularly odd. This was due to the fact that dragons and wizards could be found in great abundance across the whole of the Seven Kingdoms. And if the rumors were to be believed, it was the ancient and powerful Wizard’s Tower itself that was behind the revival of the dragon hunts. There was gold to be made for those adventurers who could take down the great beasts and harvest their scales. And whether delivered to the barbarian king of Kuste or sold through the shadowy guilds of the underworld, dragon scale was in high demand.
Not all the cooking fires across the Magrus were
enjoying such talk, however. At one, a certain ogre camp located deep in the Shyr’el woods, there were other concerns. Specifically, about the three humans and lone dwarf who dropped out of the sky. Of course the orc cook had no idea that these travelers had just been flung through time and space after battling robots in a futuristic world. Nor did she know that the chubbiest of them was called Max Spencer, the last living descendent of the greatest arch-sorcerer who had ever lived: Maximilian Sporazo. And because Sporazo’s blood flowed through the boy’s veins, Max Spencer was the only soul alive who could read from the most powerful spell book in existence: the Codex of Infinite Knowability. And it was inconceivable that the orc cook could have even imagined that Max and his friends had been sent back in time at the hands of Obsikar, the legendary dragon king, on a promise to save the dragons and defeat the one behind their demise: Rezormoor Dreadbringer, regent of the Wizard’s Tower.
What concerned the orc cook most, in fact, was if this Max Spencer was a tailor (she desperately needed mittens) and if humans were better served with onions or turnips. Either way, she had plans for him and his friends.
“I am most certainly not a sheep!” the creature in the orc’s tent announced to Max. And in its defense, it did have a longer neck and more angular head than the sheep Max had seen at the petting zoo. Also, it talked better too. Max had bigger problems to solve, however. Problems involving a very large orc and the fact that his friends were hanging upside down like hams in a butcher’s shop.
“I used to eat sheep,” the creature continued. It was collared and chained to the center tent pole, where they both sat. Animal skins littered the floor, and at Max’s feet were the Codex of Infinite Knowability, a pair of knitting needles, and finally a ball of fluffy-looking yarn. Max looked at the yarn and back to the creature.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” The sheep-looking thing scowled. Max decided not to press the issue and turned his attention back to the Codex. In addition to being the most powerful spell book in the three realms, which only he could read, it had a mind of its own. When Max tried to pick it up, it actually shocked him—him, the last descendant of the arch-sorcerer who had written it! Not that shocking would-be readers was something new to the magical tome; it had systematically zapped every other person who had ever touched it. But now
Max got the same stinging SNAP! that he used to find funny when it happened to his best friend, Dirk.
“If you really must know, I’m a dragon,” the creature stated, raising its head and striking its best dragon pose. “Entire armies would cower at the sight of me flying overhead.”
“Sure,” Max replied absentmindedly. He really didn’t have time to deal with the delusional animal at the moment. He had to figure out what was wrong with the Codex, because he desperately needed a knitting pattern for orc mittens. This might seem an unusual thing for a twelve-year-old boy, but Max needed the mittens to trade for his friends Sarah, Dirk, and Dwight the Dwarf. They had all managed to escape from a horrible future world only to end up in an orc camp. Thanks to years of gaming, Max knew exactly what an orc was. But he wasn’t prepared for the smell. His neighbor had a dog that stayed out in the rain and ate spoiled Spam from the garbage, and it smelled considerably better.
The orc turned as if reading Max’s thoughts, and eyed him suspiciously through the open tent flap. Max could see that the hot-tub-sized cauldron had started to boil, and that didn’t seem like a particularly good sign. The
orc gave him a hard scowl and returned to scraping an oversized cleaver against a leather strap. “You sure you make mittens?” the orc grunted. She was considerably bigger than Max and had a carved stump instead of a left foot. But even one-footed, the orc was probably faster than he was. And since Max had spent most of his free time reading comics and playing online games, most of his running (and fighting, for that matter) amounted to hitting keys on a keyboard and clicking a mouse. Actual running and fighting had turned out to be a lot harder.
“Sure, no problem,” Max called out, hoping that it was true. He’d seen the orc burn her hands on the hot, human-sized pot when he first arrived. “I just need to find the, uh . . . instructions.” From his earlier readings, Max knew the Codex did in fact have a pattern for orc mittens inside. Why such a pattern happened to be in the combination spell book, encyclopedia, and travel guide was a mystery. But the Codex had a habit of being either extremely helpful or particularly unhelpful. And at the moment it was stuck on the latter.
Max tentatively touched the cover of the book again and breathed a sigh of relief when it didn’t shock him. He carefully picked it up and turned to a random page.
It opened to an illustration of an orc—just like the one outside—with green leathery skin, sideways-pointed ears, and a broad, curved nose. The caption below read, Orcs—Good Warriors but Notoriously Bad Tippers. But instead of the sprawling, handwritten text that Max was used to, the words in the Codex were blurred and vibrating as if it were all they could do to hold themselves together. Max flipped the page and read on:
A special note to travelers in the Magrus. Anything green and smaller than you is probably harmless (except for the Berserking Grasshoppers of Schil). Goblins and gremlins are generally runtish in size, followed by hoblins, hobgoblins, orcs, and ogres. Both orcs and ogres are known to eat unwary bystanders, so avoid them when possible. And never try to make an ogre laugh, as chronicled in the infamous “an ogre, an orc, and a rabbi walk into a bar” joke told by Manu the Horribly Mangled.
Suddenly the words on the page fell apart, sliding down the paper like black drops of wet ink. Then the book shuddered, slipping from Max’s hands and landing on the ground with a thud.
“That’s a magic book,” the self-proclaimed dragon
said. “I know about such things, and you’re far too young to have something like that. Where’d you steal it?”
“I didn’t steal it!” Max exclaimed, his frustration getting the better of him.
“I suppose that’s true. . . . You’re too pudgy to be a thief.”
Max fumed. “Well, you’re too fluffy to be a dragon.”
“Ha!” the creature said. “Don’t you know anything? That’s exactly what I am—a fluff dragon.”
Max took a second look at the creature and realized it did have a certain dragon quality about it, if you shrank it down, squished it together, and then covered it in fluffy fur instead of scales.
“Obviously you’re not from around these parts,” the fluff dragon continued, “so let me fill you in. Dragons and unicorns are the most powerful creatures in the Magrus.”
“I already know that,” Max said, sounding a bit defensive. “But I’ve never seen a dragon that looked like a giant Q-tip.”
The fluff dragon frowned. “It’s not like we’re born this way. So you know how dragons and unicorns are the only creatures that can go back and forth between human and animal forms?”
“So dragons have scales, and scales are soft on the inside and hard on the outside because that just sort of makes sense when you think about it. Understand so far?”
“It’s not that complicated.”
“Good,” the fluff dragon continued. “So scales are basically armor, except dragons have a special scale right over our hearts called the serpent’s escutcheon. That scale is impervious to lance and sword and reflects magic. So as a dragon changes from human to dragon form, we’re getting back into our armor. Think of it like slipping into a shirt. I mean, it’s obviously more complicated than that, but I’m trying to use words you’ll understand.”
Max was growing impatient. “I’m sorry, but is there a point to all this?”
“A point? Oh yes, there’s a point. You ever wake up first thing in the morning, grab a shirt, and accidentally put it on inside out?”
“Of course,” Max replied, remembering the unpleasant day at school when he’d worn his shirt and pants inside out.
“Well, there you go,” the fluff dragon announced.
“Simple mistake, right? Only when a dragon puts his scales on backward, the serpent’s escutcheon reflects all the magic back—and since we’re magical creatures, this isn’t such a good thing. We grow smaller, lose our spells, and our skin becomes hard on the inside and soft on the outside. Soft and fluffy, and we’re stuck that way for the rest of our lives.”
“So why are you telling me this?” Max asked, wanting to get back to the Codex.
“Why . . . ? Why do you think? Just look at me, chained to a tent pole and used by my captors as a pillow—a pillow! Do you know how humiliating that is?”
Suddenly Max felt sorry for the fluff dragon. “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t believe you at first,” he apologized. “Let’s start over. I’m Max Spencer, and I really need to figure out a way to save my friends.”
“And I’m Puff,” the fluff dragon replied.
“Wait, your name is Puff? Puff the fluff dragon?”
Puff frowned. “I assure you nobody thought twice about my name when I was swooping down and scorching castles.”
“You there!” the orc bellowed from outside. “You talking to pillow or making mittens?”
“Just getting the, uh, right pattern,” Max called back, retrieving the Codex and doing his best to look like he wasn’t panicking. Thankfully the book didn’t shock him again, so he began flipping through its pages.
The last time he’d seen the strange pattern was some time ago, which happened to be in the future when he was preparing to fight a robot army. Now, however, the Codex wasn’t cooperating. All the pages were filled with strange symbols and shapes, none of which Max could read. He shut the book, his mind scrambling to come up with a solution. Clutching the Codex in both hands he concentrated on the ancient tome, commanding it to obey him. He’d had some success connecting with the book before, but this time it didn’t feel like anything was even out there.
“Are you really sure you want mittens? Maybe there’s something else we could trade?” Max called out.
The orc spat in response. “Need orc husband—but they no want wife that can’t cook. Need mittens to cook good. So make now or friends go in stew.”
“Okay, okay,” Max pleaded. “Just don’t cook anybody.”
The orc harrumphed in response. “Better hope ogres
hunt good,” she added, hopping around on her peg leg and grabbing a rotten head of cabbage from a sack. “If not, you go in pot for sure.”
“Hey, Max, listen,” Puff said after the orc had turned her back. “Get me out of these chains and we can make a run for it. Come on, just you and me.”
“I can’t,” Max replied, opening the Codex again. “I’m not leaving without my friends.” Puff’s expression fell as Max worked on finding a way out. What he needed was a spell—he’d gotten pretty good with some of the lower-level spells, fireballs mostly. He ran his finger down the side of the ancient page and watched as the symbols suddenly shifted and became legible again: Attack squirrels favor more traditional military formations, such as the classic L-shaped ambush, rather than a mad scampering toward the enemy . . . But then the text shimmered and turned back into the pulsating mishmash of unreadable characters. Max slammed the book shut.
“When the ogres come back—and believe me, they will—it doesn’t matter if you make mittens or not,” Puff said. “They’re going to eat all of you.”
Max put the Codex down and reached for his backpack. Inside he could see Glenn, his magical dagger. The fact
that the orc hadn’t bothered to take it said a lot about how much of a threat she thought he was. And that was without knowing that Glenn was probably the most useless magical dagger ever created. Max set the pack between his legs and tried to think. Time was running out, and he didn’t have a clue what to do to save his friends.