For Ages
8 to 12

Spellbinders: The Not-So-Chosen One is a part of the Spellbinders collection.

"Ben may only be pretending to be the 'Chosen One'—but I’ve definitely chosen this one as my favorite new fantasy series.”
—Max Brallier, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Last Kids on Earth series

How far would you go to play the hero? One seventh grader gets way more than he bargained for when he is swept into the fantasy quest of his gaming dreams in this funny illustrated series full of adventure and twists.

It’s not so easy being the Chosen One (or in Ben Whitlock’s case, pretending to be the Chosen One). Sure, when you’ve been mistaken for a long-prophesied hero by a teenage girl/mysterious assassin and transported to a fantasy realm you're supposedly destined to save, you don’t have to worry about things like math homework. But when flying narwhals are trying to blast you into oblivion (gulp) and a bunch of old mystics in flip-flops want you to enter something called the Gullet of Eternal Torment (double gulp), suddenly a C in algebra doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

Back in the real world, Ben preferred to escape into fictional adventures and role-playing games. But the more he learns about his true quest, the more he realizes that being a hero goes way beyond rolling a few dice. . . .

An Excerpt fromSpellbinders: The Not-So-Chosen One

1

Life with Biscuit

“Did you just call me an Ogre Lord?”

“Huh?”

A chair squeaked. “Ben? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.”

Outside in the nearest tree, a small bird chirped joyously, and somewhere far away on the recess field, a kickball boinged. Shouts and clapping. A potted plant on the principal’s sunny windowsill died of thirst, inches from a full pitcher of water.

There was no Ogre Lord. This was not a dungeon throne room.

Across from Ben sat Mr. Sandusky, the principal of Sweet Air Middle School, and a man with far too many photos of his dog on his desk. It was like a shrine to a potbellied, bug-eyed pug named Biscuit--a name that Ben knew because Biscuit was usually photographed wearing expensive sweaters with his name on them.

“You looked far away,” Mr. Sandusky said with a smile.

Ben blinked, taking in his surroundings. Real life, in all its boring sameness. Room B12, the principal’s office. It was 3:15 p.m. on another Friday. “Yeah, sorry,” he said, feeling a rush of color in his cheeks.

The kids outside shouted and laughed, and he’d never felt more alone.

“Tell me, Ben,” said Mr. Sandusky, leaning forward with his elbows on the edge of his desk. “How are you doing?” A single strand of hair crossed from one side of his pale bald head to the other, like a crack in an eggshell. On one of his bookshelves sat a framed photo of Biscuit in a stroller. The principal seemed like a nice guy, but it was sometimes tough to take him seriously.

Ben would have preferred the Ogre Lord.

“It’s been six months since you came to us,” Mr. Sandusky said, “and I’d like to think you’re settling in.” His fake smile turned upside down. “But I’ve talked to your teachers, Ben, and they’re worried about you. They say you don’t pay any attention in class and don’t talk to any of the other students in the halls. They say that you spend all your time doodling in your little notebooks.”

Ben tried to explain. “When I get ideas, I have to write them down.”

“What about making friends? How is that going?”

“I’ve already got friends,” Ben said. “But they’re back home. I’m sort of the leader, the one who keeps the group together. Well, I was, until we moved.”

“Who’s the leader now?” Mr. Sandusky asked.

“It’s called a Quest Master,” Ben said, “and the new Quest Master is my friend Big Barry.”

“Why is he called that?”

“Because he’s bigger than Regular Barry.”

“I see.”

Ben sighed. “I don’t really need to make new friends here because we’re not going to stay in Sweet Air.”

Mr. Sandusky’s eyebrows jumped. “Oh, you’re not staying?”

“I have a feeling this whole move won’t last very long,” Ben said with a shake of his head. If he said it enough times, he might actually start to believe it.

“Well . . . ,” Mr. Sandusky began, rubbing his hands together. “Six months is a long time.”

“Maybe. But why make new friends when I’ve got a great group back home?”

“Okay. That’s fair. Do you still see them a lot?”

Glancing away, Ben felt his face flush. “Not a lot. Not right now. I mean, it’s been a while since we’ve had a chance to hang out, but I’m seeing them tonight, actually. They promised.”

“Tell me,” Mr. Sandusky said. “When you and your friends get together, what do you do for fun?”

“Games, role-playing games, mostly.”

“A role-playing game. Is that like playing pretend? Like, with imaginary friends?”

Ben grumbled. “No. I’m talking about Kingdoms of Forever, the fantasy game. It was created a long time ago, like, in the nineteen-somethings. It’s pretty famous. You play with a group of friends. Um, not imaginary ones. The real kind.”

“And you play Kingdoms of Forever with them?”

“I used to, back home,” Ben said, flinching at the words back home, which he found himself saying much too often. “We played every week. They were my party. That’s what they call the group you adventure with--a party.”

“Neato. Parties are fun.”

“Once, my friend Wanda’s character got turned into seaweed.”

“Exciting!” Mr. Sandusky said, but in that voice adults use when they’re making you feel good about something they think is a waste of time. “Maybe you could meet some kids here who play? Start a new game group?”

Ben shook his head. “I’ve already got a party. We call ourselves the Five of Legend.” Leaning over, he unzipped his backpack and dug inside. “But until I go back home, I’ve been working on making my own game, as practice.”

“You’re making a game?” Mr. Sandusky asked, brightening. “Wow. That’s so cool. Does it have a name?”

“Not yet.” Ben pulled a large notebook out of his backpack and set it on his lap, trying to keep it balanced, as stray scraps of paper fluttered to the office floor. A shooting star was branded into the fake-leather cover.

Mr. Sandusky’s eyes widened. “Wow. What’s all that?”

Ben grinned. The notebook had been a gift from his dad, and he carried it with him everywhere. Last time he’d checked, he’d filled 541 of its 600 pages. Inside, he kept scattered notes on his new fantasy game, all the ideas he’d been recording since last summer: maps; monster descriptions; long, cool character backstories; complex family trees; and, most important, all the rules of how to play. It was more than a story, it was a whole world, and it was the only place where he felt in control.

“I can see that you’re passionate about this,” Mr. Sandusky said, scrunching up his face so that he bore a remarkable resemblance to Biscuit. “But you can’t work on your game in class, and you can’t ignore your teachers. You won’t make any friends if you avoid the other students.”

“I’m not avoiding--”

Smiling, Mr. Sandusky leaned over his desk. “Listen. I know you’re new here, and I know we don’t know each other that well. But I can see that you’re a smart kid. Very smart. You’ve got so much potential. How can we help you learn if you’re always distracted, always somewhere else in your head? You can’t succeed in life if you don’t take it seriously sometimes, if you don’t set goals for yourself.”

Ben had been in enough of these meetings to know what to expect. Especially when the principal, teacher, or guidance counselor started pulling out words like potential and goals. He was twelve. His goals should be playing laser tag with Wanda and Dee Dee, or brainstorming the best way to melt an Ice Dwarf, or scavenging for turkeys online with strangers in Smash Royale. He should enjoy life, like Biscuit in his little stroller.

“Can I go home now?” he asked. “It’s Friday.”

“Got some big Friday plans?” Mr. Sandusky asked.

“I’m going to the Fantasy Fandom Convention downtown. My friends are supposed to meet me. We do it every year.” He didn’t mention that Wanda, Dee Dee, Big Barry, and the Pooch hadn’t been returning his texts, or if they did, the responses always seemed to be one-word bursts, like “sweet,” “vibe,” or “chill,” and nothing important.

Although his recent text messages had gone unanswered, Ben wasn’t worried. He and his friends had attended every annual Fan Fan Con since their first trip back in fourth grade, for Wanda’s birthday, when the movie series Toxic Freaks had turned the entire convention floor into a working sewer system. The convention started as Ben’s idea, something special he and his father had done together every spring since he was a little kid, back when they’d been a family.

Fan Fan Con was the Midwest’s largest gathering of fantasy fiction and gaming enthusiasts, founded in 1982, where the keynote speakers were William Dalton and J. S. Profit, the creators of legendary role-playing game Kingdoms of Forever. Ben would have given anything to attend that first convention, but it was held thirty years before he was even born, so unless somebody invented a time machine, he’d have to settle for the current version, which was still his favorite day of the year.

Mr. Sandusky stood up. “Good for you, Ben. I hope it’s fun. But do me a favor and try not to be back here again next week. All right?”

“I’ll try,” Ben said.

They shook hands for some reason, like they’d been having a business lunch. The principal’s hand felt like a chicken thigh from the grocery store--soft and cold, pressed tight against the plastic package.

Outside, Ben took a deep breath, relieved to have once again survived a duel with the principal of Sweet Air Middle School. A few seconds later, the final bell rang and doors flew open, spilling rowdy students into the empty hallway. Ben made straight for the exit, brain starting to rev up again, bursting with ideas for his notebook: spells (Fog of the Mind-Bender, Dark Malarkey), monsters (Knot of Tentacles), and magical items (Hover Pants), all of them inspired by his daydreaming.

He caught the bus at the corner by the cell phone store, taking the F40, which started in the outer suburbs and ended in the center of downtown. After his parents’ divorce, Ben and his mom had moved to Sweet Air, a small town twenty miles outside the city. Sweet Air’s claim to fame was Gas Monster™, a popular medicine that helped with stomachaches . . . and turned your poop white.

The bus was mostly empty. An old lady with a goldfish in a clear plastic bag sat near the front, across from a pair of guys outfitted in green cloaks and pointy ears, headed to Fan Fan Con. Far back in the last row of the bus lounged a teenage girl with purple hair that fell in waves and curls down her back, another fangirl on her way to the convention. Nobody paid Ben any attention at all.

He checked his phone: 3:48. Plenty of time. His last text still glowed in the ongoing chat between him, DD, WANDA, BBARRY, and DE POOCH.

C YA AT THE SPOT. FANFANCON! DON B LATE.

Opening his notebook, Ben settled down in his seat and began to draw the first thing that came to mind, and, as always, the rest of the world seemed to melt away.

2

The Butt-Doodle Bench

When the F40 approached Lamplighter Avenue, Ben pulled the cord to signal his stop, and got off in front of the old public library. A pair of tall owl statues loomed on either side of the library steps, watching the sidewalk suspiciously. He cut behind the building to the large park in back, which overlooked a broken fountain and a colorful carousel that groaned and sagged when it turned. Little kids raced around a playground sprayed with graffiti, and moms and dads pushed strollers along the overgrown paths. Not one of them pushed a dog in a sweater.

When he lived in the city, Ben and his friends came to this park to meet and hang out. They’d even marked their favorite old bench with a collection of gum wads and butt doodles, as if they were a secret society casting a spell that kept everybody else away. When he sat in that spot overlooking the carousel, the world around him felt normal again. Like he was himself. Like nothing had changed.

He sat down and checked his phone: 4:30. Right on time. He tapped a text:

D D, I’M HERE. CALL ME. WOOOOO! CON TIME!

As he waited for a response, he tried to distract himself from the fact that he hadn’t gotten many replies in the last few days, and the ones he’d received didn’t exactly share his level of enthusiasm.

Like, from Dee Dee:

NOICE. BUT WE SHUD TALK THO.

Or the Pooch:

CON TIME! YES. DID WANDA TELL YOU HER IDEA?

And the final message from Wanda, arriving just that morning:

DON’T BE THAT WAY, B. THESE ARE VIP TICKETS!

They wanted to change the routine for the first time in history, something Ben could never support. Every time they brought it up, he shut them down with a playful GIF of a cat staring at a bathtub full of water above the words NO THANKS, BRO! Fan Fan Con was a tradition, and after months of anticipation, he was ready to meet up with his friends like they did every year and hit the convention floor. It was the only way he’d find the courage to return to Sweet Air again, where he’d have to survive another long stretch in a desert of loneliness.

Opening his notebook, he scratched out a few ideas on a blank page.

And he waited.

And kept waiting.

Five o’clock came and went.

Notifications for all the convention events Ben was missing popped up on his phone one after another: 5:00: Chloe Perkins, “How to Draw the Crustiest Hags”; 5:00: Dean and Sean Flicker, “Twins and Mind Powers”; 5:30: Laser Beak Studios, “Creating the Worlds of Kingdoms of Forever.” At 5:32, he couldn’t resist any longer and texted the group chat:

WHAT’S UP? HELLLOOOOOO.

Nothing. Not from Dee Dee, Wanda, Big Barry, or the Pooch.

WHERE R U? U DIDN’T REALLY DITCH ME FOR VIP TIX, DID YA?

No answer. They’d ghosted him.

Or worse. They’d started a new tradition.

But that didn’t make any sense. He was the Quest Master, the one who’d introduced them to each other.

Ben sat alone in their park--on their bench--and watched the carousel turn, its rusty old circus animals bringing smiles to the faces of all the children. Fan Fan Con was in full swing only thirteen blocks away, but he didn’t even care anymore. Going alone wasn’t the point.

Growing up, Ben could always count on Wanda, Dee Dee, Big Barry, and the Pooch to have his back, whether they were copying each other’s homework in algebra or raiding the Minotaur dungeons of Upper Gruel, deep in the flooded Canyons of Worm. Five unique kids who’d never completely fit in on their own but who fit perfectly together as a group, where each had a space to be themselves.

They were the Five of Legend, and they changed Ben’s life, because when you find the right people, the whole world seems to brighten.

All his life, people had accused Ben of being a dreamer, of wasting his time with silly games and make-believe worlds, as though he couldn’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Unfortunately, his parents’ divorce had taught him the difference pretty fast, and everything he loved--monsters, sorcerers, legends, and quests--all seemed pretty silly by comparison. He felt comfortable sharing his ideas with his friends, but outside that group he’d always felt exposed, like he’d been hit with the bright beam of a spotlight.

That’s why, when he wasn’t scribbling furiously in his notebook, he kept it bound tightly with fat blue rubber bands, tucked away from prying eyes.

His phone buzzed, and he practically dropped it in his hurry to check the message; but it was from his mom, not his friends:

HAVE FUN AT THE CONVENTION!

WORKING LATE TONIGHT. DON’T WAIT UP.

LUV U.

He sighed. Even his mom had better things to do and more important people to see. They’d been close when he was younger, but she worked all the time now, and he hardly ever saw her.