First Look at Secret Project #2
Hello everyone! It’s been a mindblowing few weeks. All of us here at Dragonsteel HQ are in awe over the wonderful support you’ve been showing these quirky little books. If you’ve somehow stayed out of the loop, we launched a Kickstarter for four secret novels that I wrote over the last few years. It’s live now! On Friday morning we became (incredibly) the #1 Kickstarter of all time. I talked about it in my most recent Weekly Update, but if you’re unaware of the news you may want to start with my announcement on March 1st.
Today, though, I’m announcing the title and first chapters of Secret Project #2. Huzzah! We’ve been hiding the titles for now, as we want to preserve the surprise for those who choose to do so. So if you’re one of those, don’t worry—we’re going to leave some blank space after this introduction so you won’t see anything you don’t want to see. But for anyone who’s interested, I’ve included the first five chapters below. If you prefer to listen, I’ve recorded another reading on my YouTube channel.
At the bottom of this newsletter I talk a little about my inspirations for this book. Either way, thank you all so much for the support!
All right, here we go. The second book’s title is: The Frugal Wizard’s Guide for Surviving Medieval England.
Here are the first six chapters. (With some commentary from me at the bottom.) Enjoy!
The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook For Surviving Medieval England
Part One: Seriously, Fish Suck
I hated fish.
Standing in the burned-out field, surrounded by charred stalks of grain and smoldering ash, I could safely say this single fact: I hated the taste of fish. The pungent flavor, the texture of the flesh, which shreds like something rotten. The sharp jab of the needle bones, which always seem to be hiding in the meat, no matter how hard you search.
Yup. Fish. Disgusting.
That was, at the moment, the sum total of what I could remember about myself. No name. No background. Just…a latent hatred of fish.
Damn. What driven that point into my brain so forcefully? Had a flounder killed my parents or something? I turned around, hand to my head, trying to make sense of the black void that had consumed my entire self-identity.
I was in a field. Stalks of…something grew around me. Plants a few inches tall. My utter inability to distinguish the variety indicated I probably wasn’t a farmer. So why was I in a field? And a partially-burned one at that?
The burn marks made a circle, maybe ten feet in diameter, with me in the center. Only, just nearest me, the plants hadn’t been burned. My feet stood on green stalks, smashed down into the soil. I glanced behind me, and found that the non-burned portion made a distinctive human shape. My shape. A person stencil.
So…I was fireproof, maybe? That would be nice. I appeared to be male, of average height and build, maybe a tad muscular? Or perhaps I was flattering myself. I wore a pair of sturdy lacing boots that were quite good at stomping down crops. My primary clothing was a long overshirt, a brown tunic on top of that, and a vibrant cloak over that. So I probably wasn’t going to get cold any time soon. Under the tunic…
Yeah, blue jeans. With a tunic and cloak? That was odd.
Oh hell. Was I a cosplayer? And why could I remember that word perfectly, but not my own name?
Right, so maybe I’d gone out into a field to take pictures for the local renaissance fair or whatever. I’d brought along pyrotechnics to make for a cooler shot of my character, and I’d accidentally blown myself up. That seemed plausible enough.
So where was my camera? My phone? My, um, car keys?
My pockets turned out to be empty. I hesitantly stepped away from the me-stencil, my feet crunching on crisply charred stalks of once-plants. That was…an uncomfortably round circle my explosion had created. Like, it was perfectly shaped. And some of the stalks were still smoldering; the air smelled of smoke and sulfur.
I did a quick search around burned out circle and I didn’t find anything of note. Dirt, rocks, plants. No pile of belongings; I was beginning to doubt my photoshoot theory. Maybe I was just a weirdo who liked to dress in old-timey clothing and…um…go explode in fields?
You know, as one does.
In the distance, I saw a dirt road leading to a group of old-timey buildings with thatched roofs. They were far enough away that I couldn’t tell much else about them. I shook my head and let out a lengthy sigh. I had to—
Wait. What was that on the ground?
I rushed over and plucked a fluttering piece of paper from between two stones. How had I missed this in my search? The edge was burned, and it only had a few lines of text on it.
The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England
By Cecil G. Bagsworth III
I read the words over three times, then looked into the distance at those old-timey buildings again. The truth began to settle on me. I wasn’t a cosplayer. I was visiting some kind of theme park. Was that…more or less nerdy?
Now that I knew what to look for, I spotted another loose piece of paper fluttering at the edge of the field, near some woods. Maybe it would have a map on it, telling me how to get out of this place—or at least list where I could find a first aid station. I’d obviously hit my head or something.
This page was burned worse than the other one. Two chunks of the text were legible: one on the front side, one on the back.
—can be traumatic, though don’t worry! As part of your package purchase, a suitable location will be chosen for you to recuperate upon arrival. In addition, it is suggested that you use the handy notation guide at the back of the book, where you can write pertinent information about your life.
The transfer process can leave the mind muddied—but often, a few facts about one’s life can jog loose other details. Don’t stress the initial disorientation. It is a common side effect, and all you need to do is—
Well, that seemed an awful place to cut off. I flipped the page over.
—seem that the offerings of more expensive packages, sold by so called premium companies, might be more useful in helping you recuperate. Servants, a luxury manor, and medical staff. But the Frugal Wizard™ doesn’t need to be so extravagant. Indeed, such services might make things too easy! (See the study done by Bagsworth et al, page 87.)
Though we can accommodate such requests as well, don’t fear if you can’t afford them! The Frugal Wizard™ is capable and confident on their own, and does not need coddling. With this handbook, you can navigate easily! Just read on to learn all the tips and secrets you will need for—
All right, so maybe I’d bought some kind of travel package? One that was…really hard on the body, for some reason? I put a hand to my head, and a thought fluttered at the edge of my consciousness. I…I’d chosen this, hadn’t I? I’d chosen to…do what? For a moment, I seemed so close to answering that. Then it was gone.
Regardless, it didn’t look like I’d arrived at a “suitable location” to recuperate. I’d woken up in the middle of a field. A burning field. The review almost wrote itself. “An ideal experience, if you happen to be a pyromaniac cow. One star.”
Voices in the distance.
My body moved before I registered the sounds, and in seconds I’d slipped into the forest and put my back to a tree trunk. I reached to my side by reflex for…
Hell. Was I reaching for a gun? I was wearing nothing of the sort, but I found myself uncomfortable by how quickly—and silently—I’d dodged for cover. It didn’t necessarily mean anything nefarious, though. I mean, maybe I was just a champion player of hide and seek. Or, um, paintball hide and seek.
I’d just been thinking about finding help, so I should have been happy to be noticed. But something made me stick there, behind that tree, my breathing slow and easy, deliberate. Whoever I was, I had experience at this sort of thing.
I was close enough to hear when the people arrived.
“What is it, Ealstan?” a timid man’s voice said—speaking perfect, modern English, albeit with an accent I couldn’t quite place. It sounded vaguely European. “Landswight?”
“This was no act of wight,” a stronger male voice said. “None that I’ve seen, least.”
“Logna’s flames, maybe?” a woman’s voice said. “Look at the outline of that figure. And there were those incantations, scattered about…”
“It looks like someone was burned alive,” the first voice said. “Fires from heaven consuming him. That clap of thunder, on a sunny, bright day…”
The deeper voice grunted. I stayed in place, and resisted the urge to peek. Not yet, my instincts whispered.
“Call everyone together,” the firm voice eventually said. “We’ll put out sacrifices tonight, as if from a harvest. And Hild…that skop. Did she leave yet?”
“Earlier today, I think,” the woman said.
“Send a boy to chase her down and beg her return. We may need a binding. Or, worse, a loosening.”
“She’s going to like that,” the woman said.
Another grunt. Then footsteps on the soil, retreating. I finally peeked around the side of the tree, and picked out the three people walking back toward the distant buildings. Two men and a woman in archaic clothing. Tunics and loose, baggy trousers on the men—weren’t they supposed to wear hose under those? I could swear I’d seen that in a museum or something. Both were dyed in faded earth tones, though the taller of the two men had a yellow-orange cloak, of a color so vibrant, I had trouble believing it was period authentic.
The woman had on a sleeveless white-brown dress over a darker one of a slightly longer fit. Other than the orange cloak, they looked the part of old-school peasants—at least, better than I did, with my jeans. So…another point in favor of this being a theme park? I mean, they’d been speaking English, after all.
Yet, wouldn’t workers in a theme park would speak with some kind of “old-timey” British affectation? Thees and thous and m’lords and the like. Plus, why would they keep up the act when nobody was around?
I needed more information. And as I peeked after the retreating figures, I noted some others gathering and sifting through the field, picking up something.
Scraps of paper. From the book. It seemed that most of the pages had blown that direction.
All right. Mission accepted.
I needed those pages.
Part of me wanted to stalk out and demand answers. Play the role of irate customer, make them break character.
Yet… Something about all this… It felt like I shouldn’t do that. It felt like I should stay hidden.
As I considered that, I realized why. A part of me was convinced that, somehow, they weren’t actors. That this was all, insanely, authentic. At least, whatever was going on here, my gut said those people were unwitting participants.
Damn. That sounded ridiculous, didn’t it?
Nevertheless, I felt like I was a person who trusted his gut. So I stayed put, watching covertly from the shadows as the sunlight waned and the peasants began to gather back in town. Soon after sunset, the place went dark.
Like, really dark. Basement from a horror movie dark. Clouds had moved in, obscuring the stars—and there was apparently no moon tonight. Plus, I didn’t see a single light in the town. No electric lights, of course. But I’d expected some torches, some bonfires, for the guests.
I patted the tree I’d been using for cover. “Thanks for the cover,” I whispered. “You’re a good tree. Tall, thick—and most importantly—wooden. Four and a half out of five stars. Would hide behind you again. Half a point off for lack of refreshments.”
Then I paused.
That had just kind of slipped out. But it was the second time I’d done something of the sort. So, was that a clue to who I was? I was some kind of…reviewer? Who rated, um, trees? I wouldn’t have guessed that was a job, but “imitation peasant” seemed to be one, so who knew?
I slipped out from behind the four-and-a-half-out-of-five-tree and found that my skills as a sneak were exceptional. I moved through the rows of partially-grown plants, barely making a sound, despite the darkness. Awesome. Perhaps I was a ninja.
And again, why the hell did I know what a ninja was, but not what I’d done for a living?
Beyond the field, I found the road, which was fashioned of packed earth. I crouched there, looking toward the town, glad that the clouds were opening up a little starlight. It turned the village from “horror movie basement” dark to something more like “horror movie in the woods” dark. So…improvement, maybe?
I wasn’t used to this kind of primal darkness. The shadows seemed deeper, as if strengthened by the knowledge that I couldn’t control them with the flip of the switch. I moved among the silent homes anyway, and found that there couldn’t be more than twenty buildings here. All of a triangular shape, wood and thatch. Two out of five. Probably has terrible wifi.
I thought I heard a river somewhere in the near distance, and there was a large lump of darkness further on. Maybe a much larger building? I skirted the village, and on the other side, found the river—well, the stream. Here, I knelt and scooped up some water to drink. I figured my medical nanites would neutralize any bacteria before it gave me too much trouble.
I froze in place, hands halfway to my mouth.
Yes, tiny machines inside my body that performed basic health care functions. They weren’t cheap, but they would keep me generally healthy. They’d stop toxins, prevent disease, and break down what I ate to provide ideal nutrition and calories. And in a pinch, they could provide emergency wound-healing functions. Last time I’d been shot, I’d been back on my feet within the hour—but my nanites had been knocked completely out for a good two days.
All that came back in a flood. Hot damn! That was a piece of the puzzle. Did I have any other augments? I couldn’t remember, but I did know I’d need more food than an average person. In specific, I needed high-calory food, or…carbon? I mean, technically anything organic would work. It’s kind of the meaning of the word. But some sources were better than others.
I glanced back at the town. Somewhere, a child had started crying. That should have calmed me, as it indicated something was alive back there. Unfortunately, nobody comforted the child, and the solitary wails creeped me out even further.
I controlled my nerves, and crept up along the river until I reached a wooden bridge. After crossing this, I was finally close enough to make out more of the large shadow lump. That was a log wall—a fortification.
It looked sturdy enough, though I’d have expected something tall and stone. Castle-like. To find a wooden one left me a tad disappointed. I withheld my review for now, though. Maybe it was period accurate.
This had to be where I’d find the more important people in the town—like perhaps the man with the deep voice who had spoken authoritatively to the others. Indeed, though I couldn’t tell for certain, it seemed that light was coming from in there.
I scouted around the entire outside of the fortification—it wasn’t terribly big, probably only large enough to enclose a few buildings—but unfortunately, the gate was closed. Could I, perhaps, scale the wall? I looked up at it, and though it was only ten feet high or so, I didn’t fancy my chances. Plus, there was a single tower, which also seemed to be wood, at one corner. A guard post. I’d been quiet when doing my initial inspection, but I’d never climb that wall without drawing attention.
Therefore, I used my entire life’s experience—roughly half a day so far—to devise a plan. I found a nearby tree with a view of the gates, then hid to wait until it opened.
(Tree report: Three out of five. Uncomfortable root network. Not for an inexperienced hider. See my other reviews of trees in the area for more options.)
I’d thought I might need to wait until morning, and was contemplating demoting another half start from the tree, when I saw lights approaching quickly along the road. For a brief moment, my heart leaped. A car? Was the entire façade going to finally collapse? I’d be whisked away to a hospital and treated for amnesia?
Why did the idea of going to the hospital suddenly fill me with a sense of panic?
Well, it didn’t take long for me to determine the lights weren’t on some kind of vehicle—at least, not unless horses counted. Did they? I mean, a chariot is a vehicle—but it only moves when it’s attached to the beasts. So are the horses part of that vehicle? And arguably, a saddle is just a small, wheelless chariot, right? So…
Anyway, the lights proved to be wobbling lanterns hung on horses—and the two beasts were travelling way faster than I thought safe to do at night. Still, it seemed like it might offer an opportunity, as the wooden gates slid open as the horses approached.
I couldn’t tell much about the two riders beneath their hooded cloaks. They slowed their horses and trotted in through the gates. A few lights were lit further inside, illuminating two larger structures—one of stone, the other of the same slightly-ramshackle wood-and-thatch of the village. I couldn’t really call this a castle; it was more two barns with a really big fence.
Those inside didn’t immediately move to close the gates, perhaps anticipating that the riders might leave again soon. The two did have the look of messengers. So, I took my opportunity, slinking forward through the darkness. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t doing anything dangerous, that this was just some extravagant kind of play acting.
And yet, my worry persisted. Why was part of me so certain, against logic, that this was all real?
Well, my sneaking skills got me in through the gate without being spotted. It was still pretty dark, and I just had this instinct for how to stick to the shadows, how to not present a profile, how to move without making noise. The fact that I kept wanting to rest my hand on the non-existent gun made me concerned about where I’d gotten these skills. They didn’t seem the type of abilities that belonged to a law-abiding citizen who spent his days reviewing trees.
I slipped up to one of the buildings, crouching beside some barrels, taking stock of what I could see. In the center of the courtyard was a large black stone, taller than it was wide. It seemed made of obsidian, and had a jagged top. Like a small version of the Washington Monument, only with the top broken off. There was a small stable on the far side of the courtyard; view of it had been obscured by one of the buildings. Here, the two riders had dismounted and handed their horses to a groom.
I couldn’t hear the conversation, but it caused another boy to go running for the stone building. It seemed to be of much finer construction than the others, so perhaps it was the lord’s manner? And that other big building, the wooden one, was perhaps a meeting hall?
Curiously, set in front of the stone building was a series of dishes with lit candles at the sides. It seemed like…bowls of fruit, some saucers filled with cream, perhaps? And…
And a single piece of paper.
The boy soon left the manor and ran back to the two strangers, gesturing for them to follow him. The three entered the building I’d guessed was the town hall, and I thought I heard the word “refreshment” from the boy. Perhaps I should have been interested in those men, but my attention was held solely by that sheet of paper. Was it from my book? Why leave it out in front of the building like that?
This all seemed so bizarre. Was I maybe…part of some ridiculous social experiment? A reality television game?
I forced myself to wait a few tense minutes until, as I’d expected, a man in an orange cloak left the manor, accompanied by two soldiers—at least, they carried long, one-handed axes and round, wooden shields. No armor that I could see. They had a vaguely Viking look to them.
“Hey, Oswald,” one of them shouted toward the wooden watch tower. “Close the gate.”
As the lord and his two men entered the hall, a younger soldier came scrambling down from the tower. He grinned to the others and bowed a little too much to the lord. He crossed over and began to swing the gate back closed. For how big it was, it seemed kind of flimsy.
The lord was inside and the guard’s attention was on the gate. Time to move.
I was out and scuttling across the courtyard before I had time to think it through. My body seemed to know what to do—knew that waiting would make me miss my opportunity, but also knew that I shouldn’t sprint. That would make too much noise. Feeling exposed, I swiftly walked past the large black stone, then past the bowls and the candles, where I snatched the paper.
Within seconds, I had crossed the courtyard and found cover beside the meeting hall. My mind was still trying to catch up to what I’d done, but my heart was thundering. I took a few long, quiet breaths to calm myself, then glanced at my paper. But there wasn’t enough light to read by.
Right. Darkness. Horror movie. All that. Well, there was a window a little further along the meeting hall. The shutter was latched, but light seeped out. I crept up to that, then held up my paper close to the cracks.
It was filled with printed words, matching the other pages I’d found. But this one was barely singed. It read:
Chapter Two: Your Own Dimension
The intricacies of dimensional travel are unimportant, and we recommend you not trouble yourself with them. We here at Frugal Wizard Inc.® have done the hard part for you. All you need to do is pick the package you want, and we will deliver to you one pristine, Earth-lite™ dimension.
I stopped reading, the words blurring as my eyes unfocused. I remembered. Not everything, not even very much—but a tiny piece snapped into place.
I knew where I was. This wasn’t a theme park. It wasn’t some kind of strange social experiment, nor was it a game.
This was another dimension.
And I owned it.
Your Own Dimension
The intricacies of dimensional travel are unimportant, and we recommend you not trouble yourself with them. We here at Frugal Wizard Inc.® have done the hard part for you. All you need to do is pick the package you want, and we will deliver to you one pristine Earth-lite™ dimension.
That said, a little history never hurt anyone. Unless you end up getting stabbed by a knight! (That’s just a little inter-dimensional humor. Our dimensions are perfectly safe1.)
Anyway, though interdimensional travel was discovered in 2084, only recently was the technology declassified and deregulated. This allows not only recreational dimensional tourism, it offers the opportunity of a lifetime! As an Interdimensional Wizard™ you are part of a bold new segment of explorers. Like the ancient homesteaders who rushed to claim the wealth of lands in the American West, you may stake your own claim on a unique dimension!
Frugal Wizard Inc.® has obtained a band of the 305th spectrum of category two, medieval-derivative dimensions. That fancy lingo that just means our dimensions are mostly kind of similar to one another, and are two categories removed from Earth itself. Things will be familiar in there, but not too familiar! We want it to remain exciting, after all.
We spend all our time pouring through the dimensions, selecting only the most favorable for Wizard inhabitation. Act now, before the good dimensions are all claimed, and you are left without2!
(Footnote One.) Legal Disclaimer: This statement is made for entertainment purposes only. The interdimensional traveler takes any and all responsibility for all killings, maimings, injuries, dismemberments, and impalements that might happen to them in their respective dimensions. By signing with us, you agree to arbitration in the event of a dispute, to be adjudicated in the dimension of our choice.
(Footnote Two) Legal disclaimer: This statement is made for entertainment purposes only. Dimensions are, technically, infinite and we cannot “run out.”
Yes, I owned it.
Like, I owned England. I owned this planet. I owned this entire universe. On paper, at least.
I wasn’t sure about the specifics—my memory was still performing at a decided 0/5 level. But the page I’d recovered indicated this was new technology—or, at least, new to the general public. I didn’t have a ton of experience with this sort of thing; that might explain why it had taken me so long to remember.
Regardless, I did remember some. People could buy dimensions. Well, technically, you bought exclusive access—managed by an unbreakable quantum passcode only you could unlock—and the legal right to do whatever you wanted in that dimension. Courts had ruled that our world’s laws couldn’t be applied to other realities. I mean, in some of these places, the laws of physics (as understood in our dimension) didn’t apply. So why would the UN General Constitution?
I seemed to remember something about how these dimensions weren’t considered quite as “substantial” as our Earth. Whatever the reasoning, this place was mine—it was a playground the size of a planet.
But…what did that make me? Tourist? History buff? Would-be world-emperor? What had been my motives for coming to this place? And why had I woken up in a field, rather than in some pre-prepared stronghold or…some…I don’t know…science…place?
Well, I definitely hadn’t been an academic. But I was pretty sure that in buying this place, I wasn’t supposed to have been sent off to land in a field. Something had gone wrong.
As I considered the implications of all this, voices from inside the gathering hall reminded me to pay better attention to my surroundings. Right. I was unarmed, abandoned, and hiding outside some rural lord’s feast hall. If I were to saunter in, explain that I technically owned all of this, and ask them all to kindly obey me… Well, I suspected they’d saunter over to me, explain that the sword they’d rammed into my gut didn’t care what I claimed, and ask me to kindly avoid bleeding on the rug.
Could I do something to impress them with my fantastical futuristic knowledge? Uh… Did I have any of that? I wracked my brain, but it seemed my “futuristic knowledge” equated to a handful of movie quotes. I also knew that computers, some day, would exist. They involved circuits. And, uh, processors.
I had medical nanites, but that would be difficult show off in an impressive, “Hey, look, I’m a God” sort of way. My most consistent “superpower” was the ability to get coughed on a lot, but not get sick. I could heal once from a larger wound, but that would leave me exposed in case someone decided to see if I could replicate the feat. None of that felt like a good peasant-quelling mechanism.
Maybe I could get bitten by a snake or something, and not die? Where did…one find a snake, anyway?
I had to find the rest of the book. Maybe it would include some kind of help line I could… Send a carrier pigeon to?
I made my way carefully around the back of the building, approaching a closed window closer to where the voices were speaking.
“…I would certainly not wish to offend the earl,” a deep voice was saying. I recognized it from earlier—mister orange cloak, the local lord. “But this is most unusual. We have a skop in town. Perhaps she could—”
Another voice said something, quieter. It sounded threatening, but I wasn’t close enough to hear.
“Now?” Orange-cloak said. “You want to visit the site…now?”
The other spoke, and I wished I’d been close enough to make it out. But footsteps followed, and they left the building. Great. I’d spent so long trying to decide how to prove I had superpowers that I’d missed the entire conversation.
I snuck around the side of the building, hoping to catch something relevant as they left. Indeed, as they stood in the courtyard—waiting for the gate to open—the lord turned to the cloaked newcomers.
“If this man you’re seeking is nearby,” the lord said. “We shall find him. But I must warn you…it looked very much like he had been struck down by act of god or ancient king.”
The messengers didn’t reply. Together, they strode out the front gates, and the lord—seeming distinctly annoyed—followed with wide strides, shaking his head.
They were looking for me?
They were looking for me.
Relief surged through me. Something had gone wrong during the transfer to this dimension, so the people who maintained this all had obviously sent rescuers. It seemed I was wrong—I wasn’t the only one who could get to this dimension. Maybe I’d left them with the key and permission to come help.
I stood up from behind the boxes I’d been using as cover, the raised my hand, preparing to call to them. But then, I heard a sound from behind me.
I reached for my non-existent gun yet again as I spun and found two people just behind me, in crouching postures. They’d been creeping up through the shadows behind the hall. As soon as I turned, the person in the back—a twenty-something woman—pointed at me with a panicked expression.
A younger man in front of her carried a knife, which he immediately swung—and which I easily blocked, by instinct, with my forearm.
And…hey, it didn’t hurt.
Why on Earth didn’t that hurt?
The young man had hit hard with a blade, and I’d just stood there, taking it like an utter champion. I hadn’t been harmed, not even a nick. I did have other augments, didn’t I? Platings under my skin? I was a fighter! I could…
I heard…shouts. In my memory.
Flashes of light. From a time before.
I felt pain, shame.
The man backed up, then swung again. This time, I was slower to block with my forearm. Doing so, fighting again, I felt a deep, nearly uncontrollable panic.
I… I’d fallen… I’d…
The man blade connected with my exposed wrist, and his eyes widened as his knife didn’t cut me. He backed up a step. I mimicked him, stepping back. Feeling overwhelmed by the fragments of memories.
Those flashing lights. Those angry voices, hating me. I…
I…I blinked and glanced to the side, where the woman had found a wooden board somewhere. She swung it, and I didn’t respond this time. I was too unnerved. But theoretically, my platings would protect me from—
The board connected with my face, and felt a flash of agony before my nanites cut out my pain receptors. I briefly saw stars, but at least I was unconscious by the time I hit the ground, so the terrible memories stopped assaulting me.
FAQ: Have I Time Traveled?
Most Interdimensional Wizards™ are surprised to discover that they have not, in fact, traveled back in time. This might seem counter-intuitive, as you’re probably living in your own castle at the moment, commanding legions of peasants while you engage in a Wizard Better than True Life Experience™ such as inventing electricity, writing Shakespeare’s plays, or attempting to speedrun the conquest of France.
Yes, your surroundings might seem medieval, but Your Personal Dimension™ has seen roughly the same number of centuries as the true world has. The year is going to be the same one you left from—only, our specially cultivated band of dimensions have moved slower through technological and social development. Therefore, you get a semi-accurate experience in Medieval England, but you haven’t time traveled.
Sidebar: A helpful method of visualizing this is to think of Nebraska. Nebraska is a landlocked state in the center of the United States of America. Because of its general lack of importance—and its distance from trendy population centers—it generally lags between the coasts a few years in fashion, music, and distribution of collectible card games.
You might feel like you’ve time traveled when visiting Nebraska, but careful scientific experiments using synchronized timepieces has proven no time dilation is in effect. (See Luddow, Sing, and Coffman, “Nebraska really is just like that” in Journal of Relativistic Studies, June, 2072.)
As Nebraska is a few years behind everyone else, your Personal Dimension™ is behind the true world by half a millennium or so. You have, essentially, just purchased your very own, unique Super-Nebraska™.
When I woke up, the young woman and man were standing on the ceiling.
Or…wait, I was upside down. Yeah, that made more sense.
My head throbbed from the plank-to-face contact, and my hands and legs had been bound tightly. Was…I tied to the wall? Yeah, it looked like they’d hung me from the ceiling beam, then tied my hands behind me, perhaps using part of the window or shutter to wrap the rope around.
Who ties someone upside down to the wall? I mean, it was an innovative interrogation technique, and so I gave it a point for originality, but…wouldn’t a chair be more effective? It was an old sand-by for a reason. (Three out of five. Watch more spy movies and report back.)
As soon as I opened my eyes, the woman stepped forward. She had blonde hair in tight curls that barely reached to her collar, and a dress that was deep black—over the top of a white one that was a little longer through the cuffs and hem. It had some nice maroon embroidery on the neck, but the white ropes wrapping her waist had a frayed look, as if to give it an intentional, hand-made air.
She stepped close to me, narrowing her eyes.
Right then. How to get out of this? The shame and fear I’d felt before had faded completely, replaced with embarrassment at how I’d frozen. I obviously had physical augments, but I’d just stood there and let a woman plank me in the face? Unprofessional.
“You’ve made a terrible mistake,” I told her.
She didn’t respond, instead cocking her head.
“I’m a very powerful being,” I told her. “And you have just angered me.”
The youth from before hid behind her, peeking out at me. He seemed unremarkable—a shorter fellow with similar blonde curls and a slight build. Upon closer inspection, he looked younger than I’d assumed. Perhaps just fifteen or sixteen.
“Sefawynn,” he hissed, “I don’t think the inversion is doing anything. He still has his powers!”
“Has he eaten you yet, Wyrm?”
“I don’t imagine so.”
“Then the inversion is working,” she said.
“It’s not working,” I said to them. “I’m gathering my powers as we speak. Release me now, or I’ll bring fire and destruction upon your house.”
The woman narrowed her eyes further, then raised both hands, fingers up and thumbs out toward one another. Then she spoke.
“I know my kin / and kiss their palms
I love them well / and live their light-words”
As she finished, both of them leaned closer, as if to see the effect on me.
“Uh…” I said. “That was nice.”
The youth squeezed the woman’s arm. “Try a stronger boast.”
She nodded, and made the same sign with her hands, stepping closer and speaking again.
“I banished the beast / of bastion hill
“I am the skop / who sings strongest.”
I frowned, and both of them shied back further.
“Not even a flinch,” the youth whispered. “That’s bad, isn’t it, Sefawynn?”
“I don’t know,” she said, folding her arms. “I’ve never loosed an aelv before.” She tapped her index finger against her arm. “Fetch the little father, but do it quietly, so the visitors don’t hear you.”
The boy nodded, then paused, as if worried.
“I’ll be fine,” the woman said without looking at him. “The inversion has rendered him helpless.”
“But he said—”
“Once again, Wyrm,” she said. “Have you been eaten?”
Again, he looked down, as if he needed to check.
“If the aelv’s power weren’t bound,” she said, “we wouldn’t be standing here. We’d either be controlled by him, or we’d be puddles of human-juice, mashed to the floor. Go fetch the little father. I’ll be fine.”
The youth bobbed a nod, then hurried out the door. I revised my assessment of his age even further. He seemed to act younger than I’d pegged him, so perhaps he was just big for his age.
“Could you at least,” I said to the woman, “put me right-side up? I’m starting to feel light-headed.”
She didn’t respond, instead standing with arms folded, studying me.
“So…” I said. “You keep calling me an…eelev? I’m not rightly aware of what that is. Maybe you could fill a guy in?”
“That younger fellow is your brother?” I asked. “And the lord of this place…he’s your father, right? So you’re the lord’s daughter?”
Yeah, she wasn’t saying anything.
“You saw the youth try to hit me,” I said. “And you saw his weapon bounce off of my arm. I’m warning you. I’m a powerful person, and I’m growing upset. We can still work this out, though.”
And… Her eyes were like steel, her face completely expressionless. Zero out of five. Would rather have a conversation with a corpse. At least it wouldn’t be glaring at me the entire time. Would probably listen better too.
In instead turned my attention to my augments. I was fairly certain I had some sort of improvement on my forearms, in fact, as I’d thought earlier, it was called…
Plating. That’s it. I had a micro-filament mesh under my skin, backed up by structural nanites and bone reinforcements. Basically, it would take an industrial strength laser or some kind of military-grade weapon to cut through my flesh—at least, as long as my nanites continued to function. Another augmented person could punch me senseless, with enough time, but I’d be invulnerable to a bunch of medieval peasants.
As I thought of it, by instinct, I brought up a display that hung in my vision, visible only to me. It listed my platings, and their status. Looking at that…I had platings from the tips of my fingers all the way up to my elbows. It also worked for force-redistribution and gave me some strength advantages, mostly in gripping ability.
It was an extremely expensive augment. As I recalled—which, granted, wasn’t saying much at the moment—it wasn’t uncommon to start plating a few body parts, then move on to others. Most people would go for the head and the chest first. That made the most sense.
However, my throbbing skull and nose indicated I hadn’t done that. I frowned at the menu, which listed that I did have skull platings and chest platings—but those were listed as non-functional. What the hell? Why not?
I had the vague impression that I hadn’t paid for the augments. I worked for a living, and didn’t have that kind of money. I’d apparently even bought a budget dimension, rather than going with one of the premium services. So maybe…whoever had purchased my augments hadn’t finished installing my head and chest platings? But why were the ones on the arms functional?
My memory provided no answers, so I tried to wiggle enough to untie myself or something. Unfortunately, the knots were good, and my enhanced grip strength wouldn’t help if I couldn’t reach the ropes. None of the muscles in my chest seemed to be augmented, as a little exploratory flexing didn’t lead to me ripping free or anything. I probably looked silly, though.
Eventually, the door slid open, and the oil lamps on the small room’s table fluttered as two figures entered. One was the youth from earlier—Wyrm, she’d called him? The other was Orange Cloak. Muscular, and a good six-foot-four, this fellow towered over the woman. His beard was streaked with grey, as was his hair, and he looked to be in his mid-forties. But man, he looked like he could have gotten into a boxing match with a boulder, and won.
Weren’t people in the past were all supposed to be much shorter than modern people or something? And the colors of the oranges and yellows on his clothing were much brighter than I’d have thought they could make in these olden days.
“I’ll be frank, Little Father,” said the young woman—what had her name been? “I have no idea what to do with this one.”
“What is he?” the lord asked, eyes narrowing as he studied my jeans—now fully on display, with the bottom of my tunic flopping down to the tie about my waist.
“Not a landswight,” she said, “since obviously we can all see him fully. But look. He’s clean shaven as any woman, with shorn hair, feminine hands—”
“Hey!” I said.
“—and not a particularly muscular build—”
“I’ll have you know I’m considered quite athletic among my people.”
“—plus pale skin and delicate features through the face,” she finished. “Also note the perfect teeth and pristine nails. Though I’ve never seen an aelv, I know the lore, Little Father. This man matches the descriptions perfectly.”
“Not a god, then,” the lord said, relaxing.
“Plenty dangerous,” the woman said. “Perhaps more so. A god would want something natural of us. An aelv…”
“He took one of the offerings, little father,” the youth said. “The incantation. He didn’t care for the food or drink.”
“Written word,” the lord said, stepping closer to me. “Did you bring it to our realm, aelv, or did its arrival draw you? What can we do to appease and loose you?”
“Cut me free,” I said in my most intimidating voice, “and apologize for the treatment I’ve suffered.”
The lord smiled—and I’d been prepared for a mouth full of dingy and rotting teeth. Looked like I’d been wrong about that guess as well, as he seemed to have all of his teeth—and while they weren’t pristine white, they weren’t rotting either. They weren’t exactly straight, but for a guy living in a time before—I assumed—dentists, his smile wasn’t half bad. (Two and a half out of five. Won’t break the camera.)
“Cut you free?” the lord said. “You think I’ve never heard a ballad before, aelv?”
“It was worth a try,” I said. “Very well. I shall require a berry that has never seen the sun, two stones polished by a frog, and one leaf of nightshade—in return I shall leave your quaint village with a blessing and return to my people.”
The lord glanced at the woman, who shrugged.
“I’ll…see what can be done,” the lord told me.
“Or,” I said, “you could tell those two men looking for me that I’m here? Then you could turn me over to them…?”
“Ha!” the lord said. “Again, you think I’ve not heard any ballads? Besides, though I suspect you have the power of glamor when not inverted, you don’t have it now. You aren’t red-haired, nor do you have the features of a foreigner, like the man they claim to be hunting—so they wouldn’t want you.”
The men weren’t looking for me?
The lord turned back to the woman—I still thought she might be his daughter. Both she and the boy were dressed better than the others in this town, after all. But why did she call him “little” father?
“I need to attend the earl’s messengers before they find my absence strange,” the man said to her. “Something is odd about them, about this entire day. Will you stay here, or join me?”
“I’ll stay,” she said. “Take my brother; send him to me with word if anything truly unusual happens with the messengers.”
Orange-cloak nodded to her and left, the younger man trailing after. The entire structure shook as he shut the door with force, and—though I was getting light-headed—I found his interaction with the woman curious. She wasn’t bowing or scraping nearly as much as I might have assumed. Barely a m’lord mentioned.
It seemed I really just should throw away everything I thought I’d known about the past.
The woman was still watching me. Great. Was this going to be another “conversation” with a wall?
“Look,” I said, “can we—”
“Let’s cut the lies, stranger,” she interrupted. “I know what you really are.”
“You…do?” I said.
“This is a good village,” she said, “with a strong and diligent thegn. Yet, they don’t have much. Why upon the seas would you pick here to run your scam?”
“Oil with a stencil to create the burned out figure,” she continued, “which I’ll admit, is more ingenious a creation than I’ve seen in the past. Scattered pages of text is nothing new, though I’m shocked you were brazen enough to take one from an offering. That had me considering for a while. But the demands you just made of the thegn? Ridiculous.”
Ah… She thought I was a grifter, come to pretend to be a creature of mythology in order to bilk the locals. Actually…that was a good guess. It matched events well, and…I mean, I was a grifter, in a way. It was an apt description of a dimensional tourist.
“Next time,” she added, “flinch at my boasts. I find it incredible that you could put so much preparation into your scam, but do so little research. You made yourself up to look exactly like an aelv—even shaved your beard—but you couldn’t do a little play acting? How can you be so incompetent yet capable at the same time?”
Play along, my instincts said. You can ride this.
“The hit to my head,” I said to her. “Did you have to swing so hard? When I woke up, I barely remembered what I’d had for breakfast, let alone what my plan was.”
She grunted, arms still folded, golden curls wobbling as she shook her head at me. “You can’t be alone. Those messengers are with you? They have your accent.”
“Yeah,” I said. “They’d have told your father how to get rid of my haunting. Then I’d have appeared to him in the night, give him a scare, to encourage him along.”
“Why do you think Ealstan is my father?” she asked.
“You called him…”
“Little father? Thegn? Lord of the local lands?” her frown deepened. “How could you make such a mistake as that? It’s like you don’t know words, yet you speak them. My brother and I are not from this town—we were only passing through, then brought back as they needed a skop.”
“Oh,” I said. “Um…hit to the head…”
She sighed. “But why Stenford? Wellbury is just down the road, and they’ve twice the resources to pay you.”
“I’m known there,” I said. “Look, we’re not greedy—we didn’t need much. Just a little to get us on our way. We wanted your lord to get all frightened because he’d seen an eelev, then pay us to leave.” I gave an upside down shrug. “My friends aren’t going to be happy I got caught, by the way.”
She sighed again, rubbing her forehead with thumb and forefinger, eyes closed. “Why do they have your description wrong?”
“I was supposed to put on a wig,” I said. “To look more exotic. But look, we’ve got an easy out. You give me another boast or two in front of the lord. I’ll act however you tell me. Then you can hand me off to my friends, and we won’t demand anything of him. Everybody walks away happy.”
“Huh,” she said.
“That’s not an unreasonable ask,” she said. “You know to cut your losses.”
“Of course I do,” I said. “I promise you, I just wanted to grift a little. A warm meal. We weren’t going to scam anyone hard—we’re off for bigger winnings elsewhere, and just were running low on supplies.”
She nodded, as if she expected something similar.
And damn. I… Well, I was actually kind of good at this. Uncomfortably good. Sneaking. Combat augments. Practiced at grifting…. I was building quite the unflattering picture of who I’d been.
But if I had been some kind of thief, why did my stomach immediately turn at the idea? Why did my very instinct resist it so strongly? Surely, if that was me, it would feel right to acknowledge it.
Instead, a piece of me was screaming. No, it said. That’s no you. That’s not who you are.
“Look,” I said to her. “What was your name again?”
“Sefawynn,” she said.
“Right. Sefawynn, you’re obviously not the type who wants to see a guy get hanged because he’s trying to get something to eat. Let’s just do this the easy way. I’ll even let you know how I did the arm trick, if you want.”
“I suspect you’ll find this ridiculous,” she said, finally opening her eyes, but turning her head away from me. “But I’m not like you. I want to help these people.”
I trusted my gut, which said not to reply to that. She’d say more, and anything I could say would reveal my ignorance.
“I know your type,” she said. “Far too well. I know you’ll take whatever you can get. That you’ll turn on me in a second. But don’t try it, all right? I understand you better than you think I do.”
“Sure, all right,” I said. “I’ll play this straight, Sefawynn. Promise. Do we have a deal? After this, I’ll stay far away from this village and anyone in it—you have my word.”
“For what that’s worth.”
I shrugged again. “It’s either that, or you try to convince the Little Father I’m a liar—then I do my best scary eelef imitation, and we see who wins. But in that scenario, someone also has to lose.”
“Aelv,” she said. “Ae-lv. At least say it right.”
“Aylev,” I tried.
“Closer.” She walked up to me, slipping a knife from her pocket. Hey, a pocket in her dress. Funny to find someone living in the Middle Ages who had one of those, when Jen had always complained that her dresses didn’t have any.
Wait. Who was Jen?
Sefawynn cut my hands free, and I thought I saw her posture tense. She was preparing for a fight, just in case. I brought my hands out very slowly in front of me, then rubbed my wrists in a non-threatening way.
“Thanks,” I said in the most reassuring way I could.
“Brace yourself,” she said, then untied the rope holding my feet.
I used my hands to do just that, then performed an instinctive tuck and roll, coming up on my feet, which I kicked free of the ropes. See that, I thought. Athletic. Not feminine. But I kept my actions otherwise calm and non-threatening. I didn’t bolt for the door. My best bet at getting free was to have her turn me in to those messengers.
Except, they hadn’t described me. But she’d said our accents were similar? Hell, I really needed more information.
“Don’t suppose,” is said, “you have the rest of my ‘incantations’ stashed around here? Those were kind of hard to get ahold of.”
“You shouldn’t be playing with written word from other lands,” she said. “You’ll attract the attention of the gods.”
“I’ll risk it.”
She shook her head at my apparent foolishness. “I’ll get them for you—honestly, I wasn’t sure what to do with them. Burning them would draw Logna’s ire for certain, but merely having them will draw Woden’s. So just take them. And carry the wyrd away with you and your foolish aers.”
Aers? Did that mean ears? Whole lot of gibberish there, but I nodded to her in thanks. The papers still seemed my best bet at learning about this place. I was practically a baby here, for all I knew about the Middle Ages. Jen would laugh at me for…
Jen was dead.
It was strange to feel that sudden sense of loss, that sudden pain, for Jen. A person whose face I couldn’t remember. But it was there, a knot inside of me—no, like a scream inside of me, suddenly audible, now that the door had been opened.
I missed her terribly. This was raw pain. Like a bruise before it went blue. I’d lost her. Somehow, I’d lost her. It felt it fresh, as if it had just happened again.
I stumbled, putting one hand to the nearby wooden pillar. I put the other to my head. Jen. Hot damn…this had been her dream. This place, this was what I had left of her. She’d have been aghast by how many assumptions I’d made about this people.
Isn’t it incredible, her voice drifted into my mind, to think? Generations upon generations—thousands upon thousands of years—worth of people have lived, but they’re all the same as us. Teleport someone from Ancient Egypt to the modern era, and they’d be indistinguishable. Same passions. Same cleverness. Same biases, if about different things.
You’ll see. Someday, when we can afford it, you’ll see…
I held my head. I didn’t remember much more than that at the moment. Just some words, a…voice, so beautiful. And the pain. Too personal to joke about. Too real to belong to me, the man whose life was a lie, or a joke, alternatingly.
Sefawynn stepped closer, watching me with suspicion. Yeah, this looked like a classic weakness-feint, and she likely worried I’d make a play for the knife. Instead, I forced out a wan smile.
“Sorry,” I said. “Hanging upside down did not help this headache. Again, did you have to swing so hard?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Did you roll just your eyes at me?” I demanded.
“Oh, look,” she said, doing it again. “Cobwebs near the ceiling.”
“You’re lucky,” I told her, “that you caught me surprised. I can be very dangerous in a fight.”
“Careful,” she said. “The spiders in the eaves look for empty, unused spots to build their webs. Keep talking, and they’ll investigate the vacuous spot between your ears. Aelv.” She gave me a flat stare.
“Just saying,” I told her, folding my arms. “What next?”
“We’ll go out and tell the lord I managed to use your ancient name to bind you. If he asks, tell him the craeft has forced you to do my bidding, and I am banishing you.”
“Crayft,” I said. “Got it.
“Craeft,” she said.
“Your accent…” she said with a shake of her head. “You’re Waelish, aren’t you?”
“Welsh?” I said, figuring that one out. “Uh, yeah. Totally. And this place is…”
“Weswara,” she said. “Home of the Weswarans? You can’t actually think I’ll believe you don’t know that.”
Uh… Weswara? My British history wasn’t the greatest, granted, but…shouldn’t I have heard of that place?
“Well, come along then,” she said. “We’d best go talk to Lord Ealstan before your friends end up saying something that ruins our plan.”
I followed behind as she took one of the lamps, blew out the others, and we finally left the room. Turned out, we’d been in some kind of side chamber of the great hall, pretty close to where I’d been dropped. I guess that made sense.
We rounded the building to the main courtyard, which was empty for the moment—though the candles still illuminated the bowls in front of the lord’s manor, one full of berries, the other brimming with what appeared to be milk. I had to guess this was some kind of folk superstition. A way to appease these “landswights” I’d heard people mention.
“So,” I said, “you’re a poet. Who performs boasts and ballads? A…skop? Is that the term?”
“No need to act so amazed,” she said, eyes forward as we walked up to the front of the manor, where the young guard from before stood at the door with axe and shield.
“Uh, hey,” he said to her. “Um… I’ll just see… If you can go in?”
She nodded as he went in to check for us. I glanced over my shoulder, a little extra wary. Face-board me once, shame on you. Face-board me twice, and…
The milk and berries were gone. The candles were still there, as were the dishes. Their contents—which had been there just moments ago—were gone.
Sefawynn noticed that I’d suddenly gone tense, because she spun, hand going to her dress pocket. “What?” she hissed.
“The berries and milk,” I said, pointing. “They’re vanished.”
“Yes,” she said. “The wights have been staying near you. If you’re nice, I’ll try a loosing for you. I think one of them may be upset about the page you stole.”
“It was mine!”
“Not after it was offered to them, it wasn’t,” she said. “I did warn you about inscriptions…”
All right, that was uncanny. I was sure I’d seen those dishes full. So how had the contents vanished? I scanned the courtyard, and though it seemed empty, those shadows could hide plenty. As I’d proven. By, uh, getting caught.
This has to be some kind of sham, I thought.
I wasn’t given much time to think about it, as the guard returned. He seemed a good-natured fellow, and eagerly held the door open for us. He even bowed to her as she entered. Poets were given a lot of respect here, it seemed. Miss Bushman, my middle school English teacher, would have been proud.
Hey, that was another bit remembered! It seemed to be coming back, if slowly. Grinning, I followed Sefawynn into a small entryway at the front of the manor. It held a pair of oil lamps on the walls and a bright orange-and-red rug on the floor. Sefawynn walked forward with her hand sheltering the flame on the lip of her lamp, which was one of those old-school ones—the kind that looked kind of like a gravy boat.
She turned left and led me through the entryway into a larger room beyond—a big open one, with a firebox in the center and a cauldron above it. It had a high ceiling—didn’t seem the structures here had second floors—and the walls were decorated with shields and spears.
Near the fire, Lord Ealstan and a tall woman—I assumed his wife—were speaking with the two messengers. They were facing him, but I could see them from the side, in profile.
It was actually the first time I’d seen their faces, and as soon as I did, I stopped in place. I knew them. That one on the left—the tall brute whose chin and forehead were trying to outdo one another—was Ulric Stromfin.
A man who absolutely, one hundred precent, no question about it wanted me dead.
Explanation and influences
Well, there you are! A sneak peak of Secret Project #2 for you to enjoy. As with the first one, I have some interesting notes about where it came from.
Generally, books form when multiple ideas stewing in the back of my brain combine in interesting ways. The most obvious idea for this one is my desire to do a Jason Bourne type story. I know it’s a little tropey, but there’s something about me that genuinely loves the type of story where you find out about the characters as they remember who they are. I think it’s because I love books structured in such a way that the reader and the character feel the same things at the same times.
There’s this beautiful sense of discovery to a book, and though it could (obviously) get old, I personally enjoy the occasional story where you get to enhance that feeling by starting with a blank slate character. (When I’d GM role-playing games, I loved to have all the characters start with no memory and the players discover and develop them as they went.) So, I hope you’ll forgive me for using a trope that can sometimes be a little eye-rolly (amnesia). I promise I do some interesting things with it.
The other big idea that led to this was one I’ve had for years about “time-travel tourism.” A lot of time travel stories focus on changing (or not changing) the present. I wanted to throw that worry out the window and play with the idea of “past as playground.” You can hear Dan and I discuss this concept (though I’d already written this book in secret by then) on episode 18 of our Intentionally Blank podcast: “Time Travel Disaster Tourism.” As these two ideas melded into “Time Traveling Jason Bourne,” I knew I had something that would be fun.
The final element that connected here was me realizing—as I started working on this—the uncomfortable nature of the topic. Playing with the past meant playing with people’s lives, and there were some parts of this that I felt I needed to hang a lantern on. That’s when I decided to use interjections from the Frugal Wizard’s handbook. (I’d actually had this idea as a title with no context years before.) I figured I could highlight the inherent ridiculous—and somewhat immoral—nature of the basic premise with some satire, making it okay to laugh at the situation all while we talked about human nature. Because I think this is really something we’d do if we had the chance to travel to the past without consequences in the future. So it’s worth talking about it in narrative. That’s part of what SF/F is for—exploring the impossible now so that when some impossible things become reality, we as a society have already had a chance to investigate how we feel about the subject.
Anyway, those three things combined into this story. While Secret Project #1 has a fairy-tale tone, I intend this one (when in the protagonist’s viewpoint) to be more action/adventure. The Frugal Wizard inserts are comedic, but the main text is not a comedy, save for the occasional sarcastic or amusing comment by the narrator.
Next week, we’ll be back with something that (this time) is a little more familiar, but still pretty strange in its own right.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this excerpt!