Four figures stood huddled around a single torch. It was the only source of light in the underground burrow. And they all knew that monsters could not spawn in the light.
“It’s too crowded in here¸” said one figure.
“We can dig deeper¸” said the second figure, who was holding a pickaxe. “I could make the burrow bigger.”
“No¸ we can’t risk it¸” said the third figure, who had crafted both the pickaxe and the torch. “I don’t have the materials to make any more tools. And if we dig too far¸ we might hit a cave or a mineshaft. That might let the monsters in and—”
The speakers went silent. They all heard it. Something out there was moaning. All four of them stood absolutely still.
After what seemed like forever, the moaning moved on. Everyone made eye contact. They nodded when they agreed it was gone.
“I want to pinch myself to see if I’m dreaming¸” one of them said, holding up a blocky hand, “but I don’t have any fingers here.”
Here meant in Minecraft. As impossible as it seemed, the four of them were inside their favorite video game. Really inside it. Living it. Minecraft was real.
That sounded like a good thing, but there was a problem:
They didn’t know how to get back home to the real world.
Ash Kapoor stood in the shadow of the castle. It was a cursed place, with dark windows and tall, twisting turrets. A flag snapped in the wind. On it was the image of some fearsome beast, the likes of which she’d never seen. A crow cawed in the distance.
Any other kid would be afraid right now, Ash thought. But not me. I eat danger for breakfast!
Ash had in fact eaten oatmeal for breakfast.
And she wasn’t standing in front of a spooky old castle, either. It was just her new school, Woodsword Middle. But if she squinted at the building just right, she could imagine it was a haunted fortress, or a forgotten temple, or an alien stronghold on some far-off moon.
Any of those places would be better than the truth: Ash was starting at another school as “the new kid” all over again. For the third time in three years, her family had been forced to move because of her mother’s job.
She straightened her sash. It was part of her Wildling Scout uniform, and it displayed dozens of badges. Each badge was a reminder of something Ash had done well or a new skill she had mastered. They were like little trophies that stayed with her no matter how many times she had to start over. She rubbed one for good luck.
“You can’t just stand in the middle of the staircase like that,” said a boy as he stepped around her.
“Yeah, are you lost or something?” added a girl, who edged past Ash on the other side.
“Actually, I could use some directions!” said Ash. “I’m looking for room 247.”
“It’s right next to room 246,” said the girl.
“And 248,” said the boy. “You can’t miss it.” Ash smiled pleasantly.
“Thank you!” she said, although their “directions” had been far from helpful.
She tapped her Urban Exploration badge. This wasn’t her first time alone in a strange new place or school. She would find room 247, and she would face down any perils she met along the way.
“Excuse me!” said another impatient voice at her back.
But first, she really had to stop standing in the middle of the staircase.
Ash was late when she reached room 247. She had hoped to slip in unnoticed. Instead, every single one of her classmates slid their eyes over to her as she walked in the door.
“Please take your seat,” said the teacher, shuffling through some papers on her desk.
“Um, I don’t have a seat yet,” said Ash. “I’m new.”
“Oh! You’re the new girl.” The teacher looked up at her now. The woman’s hair was frizzy. Her topknot was held back with knitting needles, as if it were a half-used ball of yarn. “I’m sorry, dear. I’m so scatterbrained before my first pot of coffee.”
“Don’t you mean your first cup of coffee?” asked Ash.
“I’m Ms. Minerva,” she said, changing the subject. “Why don’t you introduce yourself to the class?”
Ash turned toward her new classmates. She took a deep breath, tapping her Public Speaking badge for luck and putting on a bright smile. She had been through this before.
“Hi, everyone!” she said cheerfully. “My name is Ash Kapoor. I just moved here with my family from the West Coast, but I was born in Florida. I like scouting, animals, and video games.”
A boy in the second row perked up. He pointed to his binder, which was decorated with Minecraft stickers.
Ash nodded. “Minecraft especially,” she added. Maybe she wouldn’t have so much trouble making friends this time.
“An animal lover?” said Ms. Minerva. “Why, that gives me an idea. How would you like to take care of Baron Sweetcheeks for a while?”
The boy with the Minecraft binder perked up again. He raised his hand.
“Baron . . . Sweetcheeks?” Ash asked, uncertain.
“The class hamster,” Ms. Minerva clarified. Then she whispered, “I didn’t name him.”
“Ms. Minerva?” the boy said, waving his hand.
The boy straightened up in his seat. “Baron Sweetcheeks is actually a lot of work.”
Ms. Minerva sighed. “Twenty-four children are a lot of work, Morgan. Baron Sweetcheeks is a hamster.”
“Sure, he looks cute,” Morgan Mercado said. “From a distance! But if you neglect him even a little bit, he freaks out. He needs food, fresh water, exercise, cute hats, intellectual stimulation—”
“It sounds like you could use a break from the hamster, Morgan,” said their teacher.
Morgan shook his head. “No, I—”
“I don’t mind,” Ash said. “I’m happy to help. I’ll start today.”
“It’s settled, then,” said Ms. Minerva. “Ash, there’s an open seat in the back there.”
Ash felt quite happy. The day was off to a good start. And she had so much in common with Morgan! As she walked past him on the way to her seat, she gave him a friendly little wave.
He didn’t wave back.
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