Twelve-year-old Casey Grimes almost died fighting the Butcher Beasts. On the bright side, he’s no longer invisible. Even better, he’s enrolled at Trickery School in the heart of Sylvan Woods—a secret forest society in charge of keeping monsters out of the suburbs.
The campus is gorgeous, the classes are crazy, and Casey and his little sister Gloria have good friends: Luci and Robert and Jake. But Casey quickly realizes he has bigger problems than surviving Land Creature Defense and Extreme Climbing.
Magic is causing controversy at Trickery. It’s back on the curriculum after a hundred years and everyone knows Casey is responsible. Even worse, someone is out to get him, someone more cunning than a Bog Creep or Hyena Toad.
As the shadow enemy closes in, Casey races to discover why he’s being targeted. Solving the deadly mystery will take all the courage and tenacity he’s got.
Worst Case Scenarios
CASEY GRIMES BENT OVER HIS claw-marked desk and stared down at the test that would determine his future. This was a big deal—A REALLY BIG DEAL. So why was he struggling to focus? He flicked the side of his head. “Elixir, Butcher Beasts, scythe-staffs,” he whispered. “Get a grip.”
Sylvan Woods was a wonderful place where trees towered higher than low-flying satellites. Sky-high paths twisted everywhere, leafy treeways that tied the forest together. You could walk to your friend’s house, or Trickery School campus, or the Sylvan Shops without ever touching the ground. It was beautiful.
You could also die or be mangled in an endless number of ways including monster attacks, weapons classes, and unauthorized student duels. It was horrible. Casey’s mind flicked back two months to when he and his little sister Gloria had plunged into the woods behind their suburban Oregon home. Once they’d discovered the secret forest society of Sylvan Woods, they’d ended up fighting for their lives against an invading swarm of Butcher Beasts. In the final moments of battle, as the magic of the Sentry trees flared to life, he’d thought they were about to die.
Actually, there’d been a lot of moments like that.
But against all odds, they’d survived—and for the past forty-eight hours, he’d been a genuine Sylvan citizen, enrolled at Trickery School. It hardly seemed possible.
A chair scraped the floor and Casey jerked himself back to the present.
Around him in the battle-scarred Land Creature Defense classroom, dozens of kids circled answer after answer on their Trickery School placement tests. Incoming students like him, having an easy time. Or maybe he was giving them too much credit. Maybe he knew more about weapons trajectories than he thought. After all, he’d used several weapons—and hey, he was still alive.
Unlike the characters in these Trickery math problems.
Casey blinked several times, scanned the next scenario and circled E: The spear misses the Bog Creep and shatters the oil lamp, causing an inferno.
Optimal Pathways of Weapons (OPOW) was an upper level math class. Like everything else at Trickery, it was all about fighting monsters. Back when math involved apples and oranges, Casey still hadn’t been great at it. Now he was mostly guessing where the swords and maces would connect. Choosing the worst possible outcomes. In his real-life experience, those were the most likely.
C: The arrow ricochets off a shield and stabs the archer in the rear.
E: The rapier snags the clothesline, allowing the spider-squid to bite the swordsman.
B: The slingshot rebounds off the gryphon’s beak and hits the shooter’s eye.
Classes like OPOW reminded Casey how bad he was at Sylvan things. Things like fighting, combat, and—attacks. The Sylvan approach to monsters and life in general was Get them before they get you. But for once, he felt ok.
After all, he was good at staying alive. That counted as a skill, right?
One of the most important ones.
You never knew when something might try to get you.
Casey’s worst experience had happened in the sky. He’d been alone under distant, icy stars, dueling the butcher queen. When he’d plummeted from her spiny back, high over the woods, he’d felt his life slip through his fingers like wind. The fall had almost killed him. Almost.
Sylvan Woods was scary all right. But also amazing. Amazingly scary. Scarily amazing. For Casey the amazing won, hands down, because he was also good at trees. His pen hovered over the quiz. Good at trees.
There had to be a better way to put that. Let’s see…he had a special connection with sappy, growing things. That didn’t sound quite right. But it was true. Yesterday he’d tested straight to the top of Forestry and Climbing. If you boiled everything down, his love for trees and climbing was one big reason he was in Sylvan Woods, enrolled at Trickery School, sitting in the drafty Land Creature Defense barn. Of course there were other reasons, even better ones.
Luci, Robert, Jake—Sylvan kids who’d fought side by side with him and Gloria. Kids who liked them enough to risk their necks. For the longest time, friends had been something other people had. Not anymore.
Casey smiled. And circled D: The javelin will fly between the willow’s branches, straight into the heart of the maddened marsh hag.
It couldn’t hurt to be a little optimistic.
Because there was another reason, maybe the most intriguing one. Magic. Ancient and mysterious, ignored and unexplored for years, moving just below the surface of Sylvan Woods. Flowing in the roots of the Sentries. Unlike the kids obsessed with weapons and test results, Casey couldn’t ignore the shimmering beauty of the forest. He couldn’t un-see it. And surprisingly, he seemed to have a knack for tapping into the deep, quiet power of leaves and roots and branches.
Good at magic.
He liked the sound of that.
Of course, “open to magical options” or “saved by magic at the last second” would be more accurate… A trumpet blast rang through the woods. Casey quickly circled the final three worst outcomes he could find and jumped to his feet, grabbing his things as kids spilled down the aisles.
“How’d that test treat you, Grimes?”
A thin girl with short, tousled black hair stared at him as she shrugged on an oversized pack that threatened to pull her over backwards. Icy eyes flashed in a face that hadn’t seen much sun that summer, maybe ever.
“Um, it went great,” Casey said. “How do you know my name?”
“Written on the top of your test, obviously.” She stuck out her hand. “Nice to finally meet the infamous Casey Grimes. Fiera Laurent.”
“Famous? I’m definitely not—oww.” Casey’s knuckles cracked.
“Infamous,” Fiera said as she squeezed.
Her grip was dry and talon-like. Not surprising. Sylvan kids viewed handshakes as little battles. Fiera flashed a quick, chilly smile. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to–”
A low rumble came from the front of the room as the teacher cleared his throat. Casey turned quickly, before Fiera could finish. Best not to know what she wanted. He doubted it would be anything nice.
The teacher raised a plate-sized palm to slow the flood of kids. His fingers gleamed like they’d been dipped in metal—maybe a tight-fitting silver glove. The hand was attached to a tall, craggy man with a face like sandstone cliffs. He wore a black vest and crisp, neatly rolled shirtsleeves that would fray any second under the pressure of his rocky biceps.
“Head straight to the cafeteria,” the teacher thundered. “Your presence is required—required, got it?—for an important announcement. Don’t skip, even if you’re done testing.” His black eyes rolled up and down the rows, paused on Casey, and moved on. “I’m Mr. Kawkazi,” he added as an afterthought. “Some of you will have me for Fireside Cookery.”
Kids shuffled in the aisles. Someone snickered.
“Ok, get moving.” Mr. Kawkazi dropped his bruising gaze and students surged forward.
Casey dove into the river of kids, handed over his test, and ducked outside. The greenish light of Sylvan Woods washed over him.
“Hey, Casey,” someone yelped behind him. He’d only known her for five seconds, but there was no mistaking Fiera Laurent’s voice. Sharp and bratty, as if she expected you to do exactly as she asked. Well, he didn’t have time to be interrogated.
Casey hurried onto the crowded, rickety bridge that left Land Creature Defense. When he glanced back, Fiera was struggling to follow. Her backpack dragged her shoulders back and her chin up, like she was snubbing everyone around her. She kept bouncing off other kids, eyes darting right and left from under her lids.
Casey sped up. Everything seemed better in the open woods.
Maybe the placement test had gone well after all.
Thank you, AJ Vanderhorst and RABT Book Tours
About the author
AJ Vanderhorst has had many jobs, including journalist, paramedic, escape artist, and baby whisperer. One time in fifth grade, he built a traffic-stopping fort in a huge oak tree, using only branches and imagination, and slept there for a week.
Now he and his wife live in a woodsy house with their proteges and a ridiculous number of pets, including a turtle with a taste for human toes. This makes AJ an expert on wild, dangerous things—invisibility spells, butcher beasts, hungry kids, you get the idea.
He is the only author in the world who enjoys pickup basketball and enormous bonfires, preferably not at the same time. He and his family have drawn up several blueprints for their future tree castle.