For Ages
8 to 12

Breaking Badlands is a part of the Talespinners collection.

Video game fans and book lovers alike will be swept into an undercover mission that might destroy the balance between good and evil forever in the latest Talespinners adventure, perfect for readers of The Land of Stories.

Having saved Imagination twice now, Indira is on a well-earned vacation when she is kidnapped by the Anti-Heroes. The covert group has one goal: overthrow the tyrannical leader of Fester and Antagonist Academy. After they plead their case, Indira agrees to join their secret mission and go undercover as a student at the legendary school for villains-in-training—where she gets drawn into a virtual warfare competition known as the Badlands.

Facing monster teachers, plotting classmates, distracting love interests, and combative old foes is all second nature to a hero like Indira. But what happens when that heroic nature is turned against her like a weapon? Can Indira get to the bottom of what's going on in Fester before this virtual battlescape spills over into a real war for ultimate control of Imagination?

An Excerpt fromBreaking Badlands

Peeve Meadows

She wasn’t much at first glance, but then, most people aren’t.

Peeve Meadows watched the progress of a small boat as it made its way through a treacherous cove toward the shore. The Words echoed in her head, as they had since she’d first arrived in Fester. Her teachers had taught her that the words were sort of like a prophecy. She was supposed to treasure them. If she was lucky enough to get into a story of her own, those words would be the beginning. Except, she didn’t like the words she’d been given.

Wasn’t much at first glance? That didn’t sound very flattering. It sounded like she was destined for a story where people underestimated her. Which was how her time in the world of Imagination had gone so far. First she’d arrived in Origin, where Indira had pretty much ignored her efforts to be friends. And then Peeve’s attempt to steal Indira’s invitation to Protagonist Preparatory had completely backfired. She’d ended up being forced to attend Antagonist Academy instead. 

While Indira was off saving the world, Peeve had struggled through her first semester in the city of Fester. Life there was a slow descent into questionable morals. Peeve was taught how to lie, steal, cheat, and swindle. Her teachers encouraged her to be crueler and less merciful. Most of her teachers, however, had the same response to her efforts in their classes.

Peeve just wasn’t evil enough for their tastes. 

She lacked some unspoken quality. She wasn’t as big as some of the other baddies. She wasn’t as mean. She wasn’t as sly or maniacal or two-faced. One teacher had even asked whether she had the heart to be bad. Peeve hadn’t known what to say. She hadn’t chosen this. 

But now she intended to prove everyone wrong. 

The small rowboat finally reached the rendezvous point. Peeve drew her hood up to fend off the biting wind. She started walking down the beach to where sea met stone. Even wearing her best boots, Peeve felt the cold sting of the water as she waved in greeting to the two rowers. Great waves crashed around them, but she could still hear the sound of their dark cackling. 

“Skeletons,” she muttered. “Always laughing at nothing.” 

Time in Fester had introduced Peeve to every sort of monster. There were werewolves and vampires and people who talked too loud in the morning. Of all the creatures she’d met, skeletons were the least reliable. Peeve had chosen to work with them because there had been no other way. 

She knew the taller skeleton was named Tempest. He waved at her from the back of the vessel like a pageant queen. The other skeleton--Bertram--could not wave, as he was holding his own skull in his hands like it was a dish he was bringing to a potluck dinner. Peeve stood there, a shiver running down her spine, waiting for them to continue rowing. It took a minute for her to realize the two skeletons would come no closer. 

“Seriously?” she called. “It’s freezing. Are you really going to make me walk out that deep?” 

Bertram lifted his head up to get a good look at her. 

“There can be no reward without risk,” he replied. 

Peeve rolled her eyes. “You mean you don’t want to get out of the boat?” 

Tempest cackled. “No, we don’t want to get out of the boat.” 

“But you’re just bones! The water isn’t even cold to you.” 

Bertram’s headless shoulders shrugged. “True, but getting out would be a whole ordeal. It will be far easier to make the exchange from the boat. More efficient that way.” 

“Besides,” Tempest added, “you’re already standing in the water! No harm done!” 

Peeve bit her tongue. There was no point arguing. If she said the wrong thing, they might pack up and start rowing away. She couldn’t afford for them to leave. Not when she’d already risked so much to get her hands on the package they were delivering. There was nothing else to do but grit her teeth and start forward. The dark water was nearly up to her stomach by the time she reached them. 

“Hand over the money first,” Bertram suggested. “No funny business.” 

There were several sacks sitting inside the little boat. Peeve knew the skeletons often made trips into the Land of Forgotten Stories. They’d return with items of great value, but always for a price. Tempest fetched the nearest sack, straining to set it upright. Peeve shook her head.

“I don’t think so.” She’d learned to never give the money first in an exchange. Not with disreputable creatures like skeletons. “You give me the scepter first.” 

Bertram looked ready to argue, but Tempest let out a mad cackle and tossed the sack overboard without a second thought. The waves started soaking the fabric, threatening to drown it completely. Peeve snatched the package before it could sink and pulled it to her chest. With her free hand, she reached into a pocket and removed a single, glinting coin. Both skeletons leaned forward greedily at the sight of her offered treasure. 

Peeve was about to toss the payment to them, but she caught a glimpse inside the sack and paused. The object it held was most certainly not the weapon she’d requested. 

“Seriously? This is just a bunch of coat hangers!” 

Tempest pretended to be surprised. “Really? How did those get in there? How bizarre . . .” He hunted back through the other items on their boat. “Oh yes. Here it is.” 

The gangly skeleton grinned at her. 

“Now, we can’t risk you running off with it. Bertram?” 

The shorter skeleton let out a sigh. “This is always so humiliating.” 

Peeve flinched when he hefted his skull up and threw it at her. She barely reacted in time, snatching his head before it could land in the water. She stood there, staring down at the empty eye sockets, unsure of what to say. 

“Ouch. Don’t squeeze so tight,” Bertram complained. 

Back on the boat, the rest of his body settled into a hands-on-hips gesture of disapproval. Tempest cackled like a madman again. “Now, you pass us the coin. And then we’ll give you the scepter. And then you give us Bertram. It’s a win-win-win.” 

Peeve snorted. “That’s really unnecessarily complicated.” 

She tossed the coin. Tempest caught it gracefully, tucking it who knows where, before tossing the real scepter overboard. This time it really did sink quickly. Peeve didn’t have a second to think. She leaped after the scepter, releasing Bertram’s head in the process. She heard a little shout as the waves started tugging his skull out to sea. Peeve yanked the scepter up, feeling its weight in her hands, as the skeletons shouted at one another. 

“Sharks! Hurry, Tempest! Use the oar, you buffoon!” 

In any other moment, Peeve might have laughed at the unfolding scene. Tempest was using the oar in an attempt to corral Bertram’s skull back toward the boat. Except his bony arms were not the most coordinated, so he kept accidentally pushing his friend’s skull under the water. Peeve was too busy admiring the scepter to enjoy any of that.

It wasn’t activated, but she knew it was the right one because the scepter had a twin. How often had she seen it in her dreams? Peeve had witnessed exactly what the other scepter could do, and she had high hopes this one was just as potent. The thought brought a smile to her lips. 

After a moment, Peeve looked up. The skeletons were both back in their boat. Tempest was waving goodbye. Bertram sat up front, skull comfortably in hand, watching her with a curious expression. He looked like he was going to leave without saying more, but at the very last moment, just before they were out of earshot, he called to her. 

“It’s the wrong one.” The words echoed. “For someone like you.” 

Peeve returned his dark stare before nodding. 

“We’ll just see about that.”

 

En Garde 

Indira could teleport across a room with a throw of her hammer. She’d defeated a rogue Author and a corrupt brainstorm. She’d now successfully navigated two stories as a protagonist without much trouble. It was rare that she faced a foe and felt unprepared. Until now. 

Her current nemesis? A fancy table setting. 

She took her seat across from Phoenix. The tablecloth was so bright and white that she couldn’t help imagining that even the slightest stain would ruin the whole look. There were four different forks. Each one of them was apparently for her. Phoenix grinned, but Indira couldn’t stop glancing down at the various plates and utensils. As a big fan of the spork for its two-in-one quality, she found the table setting a little aggressive. 

“Nice, isn’t it?” Phoenix asked. “I thought you’d like it here.” 

He was wearing a tie. Indira had never seen him wear a tie. He looked really handsome, but she couldn’t help tugging at the collar of her homespun tunic. It was the same light pink one she’d always worn. Nothing fancy about it at all. Indira managed to smile back. 

“Very nice,” she said, eyeing the table again. “So many . . . spoons.” 

His grin widened. “I know it looks fancy, but trust me, you’ll like it.” 

Indira raised a challenging eyebrow. “Yeah? How do you know that?” 

“Just wait for it.” 

There were five other tables in the room, all spaced out in neat rows, with people seated at each. Indira couldn’t help noticing that everyone else was older. This did feel like a very grown-up thing to do. She’d much rather have just ordered a pizza or something. The lighting in the room was a low amber color. Mrs. Pennington would have said the place had good ambience. Which, as far as Indira could tell, was a code word for romantic, but in a very gloomy way. She glanced around the room before looking back at Phoenix. 

“What am I waiting--” 

There was a bang as a set of double doors burst open. Indira started to reach for her hammer when two waiters thundered out from a back room, both wielding swords. They took several swipes at one another, feet dancing, as the second backed the first toward their table. The swords were little slashes of silver, more for fencing than for actual combat. Indira admired the great sweeps of metal and almost clapped when the first waiter kicked the second one in the chest, clearing out just enough space for him to turn briefly in their direction. 

“Good evening, sir and madam. Welcome to En Garde. Where everything fights back, except for the food.” 

Without breaking eye contact, he fended off several strikes from the other waiter. They watched him use his off hand to remove two menus from a pocket on his apron. He continued his introduction, speaking between blows. 

“The special . . .” 

CLANG. 

“. . . is a roasted duck . . .” 

CLANG. 

“. . . with a jam-infused pan sauce . . .” 

He rolled unexpectedly to his right and jabbed upward, catching the other waiter right in the chest. The tip of his sword flexed satisfyingly, and the waiter pumped a fist in celebration. 

“Point!” he shouted, before turning back to them. “The soup of the day is a chowder. And you’ll find a list of age-appropriate drinks on the back. Our hubris is especially delicious, though we don’t suggest drinking any if you’re about to work on a new story. While the drink does inspire an initial burst of confidence, it regularly leads to a tragic downfall afterward. My personal favorite is the hyperbole soda. It is the best drink anyone will ever drink in their entire lives.” 

And with that, he was thrown back into a second duel. The swords clanged and the waiters spun, and a moment later they’d disappeared back into the kitchen. Indira threw a grin at Phoenix. His eyes were bright with twin flames. “Told you,” he said. 

The two of them glanced through the menus, joking about the words they didn’t recognize. This was one of Phoenix’s greatest talents. He had a knack for making Indira feel comfortable. After all, they’d been together since the beginning. Back when she’d lived in Origin, Indira had first met Phoenix while standing in line to take a dragoneye to Fable. She’d liked him right away. A quiet boy with smoldering irises? What wasn’t to like about that? Ever since then, she’d only found more reasons to spend time with him. Phoenix was such a big part of her life in Fable that she’d pulled him into her sequel. The two of them had solved riddles and pulled off cool action sequences. It felt like they were the perfect combination. 

Until Everest Smith arrived. 

Indira’s other love interest. She knew that the two boys didn’t get along. As they’d built their Story House, they’d butted heads several times. She also knew that Everest Smith was the reason Phoenix had been trying so hard recently. Asking to hang out every day. Arranging dates in fancy restaurants like this one. He was afraid of losing her. Indira wanted to tell him that it would all be okay--of course Phoenix had a special place in her heart. But to her continued surprise, Indira found she really liked Everest, too. She’d been struggling with making a decision for weeks now. 

“. . . you know what I mean?” 

Indira blinked. “Huh?” 

Phoenix tried to hide his disappointment. He’d clearly been talking about something for a while now, and Indira had drifted off in her own thoughts. Again. She shook her head a little, clearing out the cobwebs, and smiled at him. “Distracted by the menu. Sorry. Tell me again.” 

He launched back into a description of a new dragon power he was working on. Indira loved this side of him too. Phoenix was never satisfied. Like her, he was always trying to improve on the skills he’d already learned. It made him really fun to work with in a story.

“. . . I’m pretty sure that will let me dive even faster in my dragon form. Just have to figure out how to do that with a rider on my back. We might need an upgraded harness.”

Indira nodded. “I’m always up for a little more speed.”

A moment later the waiters came to take their order, halfway through an epic boxing match. All the food was delicious. Indira and Phoenix made a game out of using the wrong utensils, laughing when the waiter scolded them for eating soup with the dessert spoon. But in between those moments, Indira couldn’t help noticing how anxious Phoenix was. It was like he was watching her to make sure she was having fun, instead of just enjoying their time together. 

After they’d eaten dessert, the waiters performed a final duel that involved slapping each other with a fish that was covered in pudding. Indira wasn’t sure what story that was from, but as they paid their bill and left the restaurant, it was the first time she was ever glad to not be involved in a duel.

Under the Cover