Chapter 1

              "Please ....!" Martin Mulberry begged, standing in the doorway to his kitchen.
               "Not one more word!" Martin's mother warned. "You're not trying out for any kind of sports. Kids get hurt, and I don't trust those school coaches ..."
              "But, Mom ...!" Martin whined.
              "One more word and you go to bed right now," Martin's mother said as she bent to slide the last dirty dish into the dishwasher rack.
              "That's not fair!!!" Martin bellowed.
              Forty-three seconds later, Martin's left ear, followed by the rest of him, was drug into his bedroom, accompanied by a furiously-barked command to don his pajamas and get into bed. Then his door slammed shut and angry footsteps drummed across the hall and down the stairs.
              Martin kicked his bedpost, stubbed his big toe, and hopped twice around his room, cursing his foolishness. Finally he changed into his pajamas for lack of anything else to do. Why was she being so unreasonable? His mom hated sports, but all Martin dreamed of was an overtime catch in the end zone, sinking the perfect three-pointer in the last second, or batting a grand-slam game-winning home run right out of the park.
              A blinding flash illuminated Martin's bedroom so brightly that his pale blue walls reflected white. A loud hum, like a swarm bees had suddenly flown into his ears, blasted his hearing, and then it cut-off suddenly, and something hard and heavy struck Martin's back. Martin toppled, was knocked forward into his dresser, bounced backwards, and stumbled over something sprawled on his bedroom floor.
              "Aarrgghhh!" a pained cry reverberated. "My leg ...! I've broken my leg ...!"
              Martin's eyes flew open. He'd tripped and fallen over a ... nightmare ... writhing on his floor. It looked like an adult, but it was no bigger than he, had mottled green skin, long, wing-like ears with thick tufts of hair sticking out of them, and a necklace of jade beads around its throat. It was skinny, with bulging, bloodshot eyes over an elongated bread-stick nose, and it was grimacing in pain, gnashing huge teeth, and the twisted angle of its leg looked very unnatural. Martin gasped, and was about to cry out, when his mother's voice echoed up the stairs.
              "Any more banging up there and you'll be on restriction all summer! Go to bed!"
              Martin stared at the strange creature. Despite its apparent agony, it glanced about his room in surprise.
              "Where am I?" the stranger asked through gritted teeth. "Don't tell me that spell didn't work again! Dratted Dragons! Old Bastile Wraithbone never could cast a spell right ...!"
              His bulbous eyes fell on Martin.
              "Will you sub for me?" the creature pleaded. "I'm hurt, and we can't lose the first round; we must win the playoffs!"
              Martin stammered a few unintelligible sounds. For the first time, Martin noticed that the wiry green man was wearing a bright purple jersey, torn and dirty, with a big number "13" on it. Clutched in his hands was a large ball covered with long, greasy hair. The creature shoved the hairy ball into Martin's chest.
              "The spell will wear off any second," the creature said. "Just get the ball into the basket ... or we lose!"
              Instinctively Martin clutched the hairy ball as it was hammered into his chest, and then the creature reached out and grabbed his wrist. Its grip felt sweaty; Martin was about to scream ... when the bee's hum and blinding flash returned. Wincing against its brilliance, Martin blinked ... and his bedroom vanished.
              A loud roar of cheers and catcalls filled his ears. When Martin opened his eyes, every nightmare that he'd ever dreamed of filled his vision. Under a bright full moon and star-twinkling sky, hundreds of monsters surrounded him, most only thirty feet away, and right beside him, a monstrous ogre was wrestling a gigantic minotaur. The ogre snarled agonized-grunts as hard minotaur fists smacked its ribs, while the ogre twisted the minotaur's sharp horns, straining to flip it over. Other creatures were running about, being chased by even worse monstrosities, and the crowd was screaming.
              "Go!" shouted the little green man in the purple jersey, and he released Martin's wrist. "Get the ball into the basket ... atop the silver pole ... or we lose!"
              The long-fingered hand shoved him, and Martin rolled to his feet, the hairy ball still in his hands. Not far away, he saw the tall silver pole, on top of which sat a plain wicker basket.
              "Run!" the green man cried. "Run or die!"
              Martin looked back and saw a colossal troll pounding across a muddy turf, wearing only magenta shorts and spiked iron bracelets, with massive bare feet hammering right towards him. Terrified, Martin ran away, certain that those huge feet would trample him. Martin sprinted, but as he neared the silver pole, the wall of monsters just beyond it howled, roared, and trumpeted. Martin froze, afraid to get any closer, despite the heavy-pounding footfalls rapidly approaching behind him.
              "Are you daft or dim-witted?" the ball shouted at him. "Are you just going to stand here and get us crushed?"
              Startled, Martin rolled the talking ball over. It wasn't a hairy ball; in his hands, Martin was holding a rotting, severed head ... greenish, filthy, and covered in stitches ... a zombie head, glaring up at him with blinking, swollen, mismatched eyes.
              Martin screamed, and he threw the zombie head high into the air. To his amazement, the rotting, hairy head flew upwards ... flipped over twice ... and fell right into the wicker basket.
              Tremendous cheers exploded, and all the monsters ran out onto the field. Martin raised his arms to shield his face, certain that he was about to be killed and eaten, when many long-clawed hands grabbed him, lifted him, and held him high over all the monsters' heads. Three loud trumpet blasts resounded over the cheers.
              Hundreds of monsters swarmed around him, wildly jumping up and down, parading him around a massive stone stadium.
              Suddenly a deafening voice rose above the tumult, a female voice on loudspeakers, sweet, and yet with a wicked chuckle.
              "In Round 1 of the three hundred and fourteenth Grotesquerie Games, victory goes to the team of Grand Wizard Bastile Wraithbone, the Shantdareya Skull-crackers!"
              Martin stared at the celebrating crowd of monsters, at countless horns, fangs, scales, fur, folded wings, and long, lashing tails. Strangely, almost all of the monsters were wearing some form of jewelry; copper and brass rings, iron medallions, steel necklaces, tin armbands, heavy bracelets, and spiky cornets that looked like barbed wire. Each looked more threatening than the next, but their exuberant jubilation was disarming ... and infectious.
              Martin began to smile. He had no idea why, where he was, or how he'd gotten there, but somehow, by accident or not, he'd won the game!

End of Chapter 1