So here’s what you need to know: My name is Chug, I’m the greatest fighter around, and I have the four best friends in all the Overworld, one of whom is a pig. We live in a town called Cornucopia, which used to be entirely contained within tall, impenetrable walls. Our ancestors, the eight Founders, built it all by hand long ago to keep us safe, and our Elders have always been strict about the rules the Founders left behind.
Maybe too strict.
For generations, no one knew what was outside the wall—except Nan, the oldest person in town, and she never told anyone anything because she’s a feisty old bird. But then a vex started poisoning our crops, and the town Elders were going to send all the families away forever, so my friends and I had to go on an adventure to a woodland mansion to save our town from a bunch of illagers and this beet farmer dressed as a witch, and these brigands stole our llamas and threatened to throw us into a river, and—
Yeah, that’s the past, and the past is boring. All you need to know is that now our town has opened up the wall, and life is different—better. My brother Tok and I live outside the wall in New Cornucopia, where he uses his big ol’ brain to craft items, and I use my big ol’ personality to sell them in our shop. It’s called the Stack Shack. I wanted to call it ChugTokMart, but Tok said it sounded like I was choking on an apple, and he was probably right.
It’s morning, and my brother’s bed is empty. Tok is always awake before me. He says the early morning quiet helps him concentrate as he dreams up new recipes for tools and tries to master the art of brewing potions. I think he wants privacy so if he sets something on fire again, I won’t freak out. He makes lots of great things, but he also makes lots of huge messes—and loud, echoing booms. As I lie in my bed, curling and uncurling my toes against the blankets and thinking about breakfast, I strain my senses to figure out what Tok is working on. Bad smells usually indicate potions, while hammering suggests tools or armor and—
I leap out of bed and run for Tok’s workshop. When I throw open the door, I’m relieved to see he’s been working outside in the yard and has therefore not damaged the roof. Again.
“Gunpowder?” I ask.
“Gunpowder,” he confirms, looking a little dazed.
“One of your eyebrows is sizzling, bro.”
He swipes at it and shakes his head. Gray powder surrounds his shoulder-length black hair like a cloud.
“I’m getting closer,” he says. “I just need to tweak the recipe.”
The problem is, he doesn’t have any recipes. Elder Gabe is the only person in town who can make potions, and he won’t tell Tok anything. I step closer and look at his brewing stand, but whatever ingredients he was working with are now various blackened stains. “Or you could make some nice, safe, unexploding pickaxes today. Or armor. People love your armor.”
Tok’s cats, Candor and Clarity, meow plaintively from around the corner, where they’ve wisely been hiding. He kneels and holds out his arms, and they run up to rub worriedly against him. “We have enough armor. The shop is fully stocked. But these potions—I’m so close! Elder Gabe won’t share his recipes or give me any ingredients, and I’ve pored through all Nan’s books, but there’s just so much I don’t know. I’ve studied all the potions I can find, and I keep trying random concoctions, but it’s like I’m missing some vital ingredients, and just . . . ugh!”
“You’re obsessed, bro,” I say softly, patting him on the shoulder.
He’s always been like this. Before he learned about crafting tables from Nan, he was constantly trying to construct machines to save time on chores—to weed our parents’ pumpkin patches or pluck the eggs from underneath our fussier hens—but something always went wrong. I guess now that he’s mastered crafting, his brain still needs something tough to chew on.
He stands up and gazes toward the mountains in the distance. “I wish we could go back to the woodland mansion library, see what’s on the shelves. I bet there are loads of books on potions.”
“The Elders ordered us not to go back to the woodland mansion,” I remind him. “They agreed to open the walls, they understand that people need freedom to come and go, but—”
“We’re still kids,” he finishes for me. “And it’s not safe.”
I nod. It’s kind of funny—I used to be the one who got us in trouble, whether I was mouthing off when I shouldn’t or getting in fights with this bully named Jarro and his toadies downtown. But now I’ve settled down, and Tok is the wild card, because once he’s at his crafting table or brewing stand, it’s like he goes into a trance and doesn’t think about safety—or flammability. As I like to remind our parents, who still live on the much more boring pumpkin farm in town, I’m now the good son who hasn’t blown up a single thing.
“Maybe we could get permission to go on an expedition,” Tok says, getting that mad gleam in his eye that makes me want to put on a helmet and duck. “Now that Lenna is compiling a library, surely everyone would benefit from new books.”
“Did I hear my name?”
We both look up, and I grin when I see Lenna jogging toward us, along with her pet wolf, Poppy, and our other friend, Mal. Lenna has oak-brown skin and styles her hair in two puffs. She used to wear stone gray hand-me-down clothes from her nine other siblings, but now that she’s moved away from her strict family and their beloved mine and is working as Nan’s apprentice, she chooses bright colors that usually clash.
“Tok wants to go back to the woodland mansion to find a book on potions,” I explain.
Our other friend, Mal, has red hair in a braid and matching freckles, and she’s pretty much our leader. She’s also Nan’s great-great-granddaughter. She looks Tok up and down, hands on her hips, noting the charcoal smudges on his face and the combination of bed head and gunpowder in his blue-black hair. “We came running when we heard the latest explosion. I guess your neighbors don’t even bother getting out of bed anymore, do they?”
“Let’s just say the folks next door don’t pay to have their hoes fixed,” Tok says sheepishly. “Could you really hear it all the way from the cow farm?”
Mal nods. “I was milking at the time.” She swipes at a wet smear in her red hair. “The cow and I were both surprised. That seemed like a bigger boom than usual.”
“I’m so close!” Tok paces around his workshop yard, and Candor jumps down from his shoulder to lick rogue gunpowder out of her orange-striped fur. “I mean, sure, Elder Gabe can make Potions of Healing and Regeneration, but I’m trying to create something totally new. It’s going to make you completely resistant to fire.”
Mal and I exchange a look; she’s my best friend, and we can pretty much read each other’s thoughts.
“But is fire really that big of a problem around here?” she asks gently.
Tok ducks his head. “I accidentally set the workshop on fire once, and Candor’s tail caught—”
I pat him on the shoulder. “Bro, that was an accident. She’s forgiven you. And her tail tip grew back as good as new.” The poor cat looked like a candle there for a minute, but I don’t mention that. Tok loves his cats more than anything.
“I could use an expedition, though.” Mal’s hand goes to her pocket and pulls out her diamond pickaxe, which was crafted by her great-great-great-grandmother, one of our town’s founders—and Nan’s mom, because that’s how old Nan is. “The new mine is going well, but I miss—”
“The discoveries,” Lenna breathes. “New places, new animals, new plants, the smell of fresh wind.”
“The loot,” Tok agrees. “Opening chests. Trading in the village. Picking up all the ingredients witches drop. Books galore!”
“Fighting hostile mobs.” I gaze off into the distance. “I haven’t seen a zombie in weeks. My sword arm sure could use some exercise.”
Mal hooks an arm around my neck. “Oh, selling shovels isn’t good enough for you?”
“Shovels!” Tok rolls his eyes. “Old Stu can make shovels. I want to make new things. I want to create new potions no one has ever seen before.” He sighs and gazes out at the mountains beyond. “It’s funny. We used to live within the walls, and we were happy, but we wanted more. Then we left home and had an adventure, and now we live beyond the walls. And I still want more.”
Copyright © 2022 by Delilah S. Dawson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.