Frugal Wizard | Chapter Two
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 . . .
A part of me was convinced that they weren’t actors. That—insanely—this was all authentic, and I should stay hidden.
Damn. That sounded ridiculous, didn’t it?
Nevertheless, my gut said I was a person who trusted his gut. So I stayed put, watching covertly from the shadows as the sunlight waned. I waited a little too long, because eventually, the place went dark.
Basement from a horror movie dark. Clouds moved in, obscuring the stars—and there was apparently no moon tonight. Plus, I didn’t see a single light in the town. I’d expected some torches or bonfires.
I patted the tree I’d been hiding behind. “Thanks for the cover,” I whispered. “You’re a good tree. Tall, thick—and most importantly—wooden. Four and a half stars. Would hide behind you again. Half a point off for lack of refreshments.”
Then I paused.
It was the second time I’d done something similar, and I found myself itching to record the experience and my thoughts about it in a notebook. Was that a clue to who I was? Some kind of . . . reviewer?
I slipped out from behind the highly rated 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.
Beyond the field, I found the road, which was fashioned of packed earth. I headed toward the town, glad that the clouds had thinned enough to let a little starlight through. It turned the village from “horror movie basement” dark to “horror movie in the woods” dark. An improvement, maybe?
I wasn’t accustomed to such primal darkness. The shadows were deeper than any I’d ever seen, as if strengthened by the knowledge that I couldn’t control them with the flip of a switch.
I reached the village and moved among the silent homes. There couldn’t be more than twenty buildings here. All with wooden walls and thatched, triangular roofs. (Two stars. Probably has terrible wifi.)
I heard a river somewhere in the near distance, and there was a large lump of darkness farther on. I found the river— wide, but shallow—on the other side of the village. Here, I knelt and scooped up some water to drink. My medical nanites would neutralize any bacteria before they gave me too much trouble.
I froze in place, hands halfway to my mouth.
Medical . . . nanites?
Yes, tiny machines inside my body that performed basic health-care functions. They’d stop toxins, prevent disease, and break down what I ate to provide ideal nutrition and calories. 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.
Hot damn! 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. Specifically, I needed high-calorie food, or . . . carbon? Technically, anything organic would work. But some sources were better than others.
I glanced back at the town. A child had started crying, and the solitary wails creeped me out.
Controlling my nerves, I slipped along the river until I reached a wooden bridge and crossed it. The large shadowy lump turned out to be a fortification of upright logs, driven down into the ground with sharpened ends toward the sky, about eight feet tall.
The wall looked sturdy enough, though I’d have expected something taller and made of stone. Castle-like. A wooden palisade left me a tad disappointed. I withheld my review, though. Maybe it was period accurate.
This had to be where I’d find the more important people in the town—like the man with the deep, authoritative voice.
I scouted around the entire outside of the fortification— it was only large enough to enclose a few buildings—but the gate was closed and there was a big pit dug all the way round. There was also an elevated wooden platform at one corner, inside the wall. A guard post. I’d never make it inside without drawing attention if I tried to jump the pit and climb the fence.
Therefore, I used my entire life’s experience—roughly half a day so far—to devise a plan. I hid behind a nearby tree with a view of the gates, then waited for them to open.
(Tree report: Three stars. Uncomfortable root network. Not for an inexperienced hider. See my other reviews of trees in the area for more options.)
I was contemplating demoting another half star from the tree when I heard something approaching quickly along the road. For a brief moment, my heart leaped. A car?
No. Beating hooves. Two horses with riders emerged from the gloom, illuminated by starlight, traveling way faster than I thought safe to do at night. The riders stopped by the gate and called to those inside. I was too far away to hear the exchange, but the double gate wobbled open soon after.
I couldn’t tell much about the two hooded riders as they trotted through the gates. A few lights inside illuminated two larger structures—one made of stone, the other made of the same wood-and-thatch of the village.
There was apparently something odd about the visitors, for most of the people inside—including the guards—gathered around them. Leaving nobody watching the gates.
I took my opportunity, slinking forward through the darkness. My sneaking skills got me through the gates without being spotted. My instinct for how to stick to the shadows, how to not present a profile, and how to move without making noise made me concerned about where I’d gotten these skills. That, and the fact that I kept wanting to rest my hand on a nonexistent gun. They didn’t seem the type of abilities that belonged to a law-abiding citizen who spent his days reviewing trees.
I crouched beside some barrels, taking stock of what I could see. In the center of the courtyard was a large black stone with a jagged top, taller than it was wide. Like a small version of the Washington Monument with the top broken off. On the far side of the courtyard was a small stable. There, the two riders had dismounted and handed their horses to a groom.
A boy ran for the stone building. It seemed to be of much finer construction than the others. Perhaps it was the lord’s manor? And maybe the wooden one was a meeting hall?
Curiously, a series of dishes with lit candles at the sides were set in front of the stone building. Bowls of fruit, some saucers filled with cream, and . . .
And a single, singed piece of paper.
The boy soon returned and gestured for the two riders to follow him. The three entered the wooden building I’d guessed was the meeting hall, and I thought I heard the word “refreshment” as they entered. Perhaps I should have been interested in those men, but my attention turned wholly to that sheet of paper. Was it from my book? Why leave it out in front of the building like that?
This was all so bizarre. Was I 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 men carrying long, one-handed axes and round, wooden shields. No armor that I could see. They had a vaguely Viking look to them.
“Oswald,” one of them shouted toward the wooden watchtower. “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, then crossed over and began to swing the gates closed.
It was time to make my move. Like the old saying goes. Carp diem. Seize the fish. I was out and scuttling across the courtyard before I had time to think. My body seemed to know that while I couldn’t miss my opportunity, 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 found cover beside the meeting hall. My heart was thundering. I took a few long, quiet breaths to calm myself, then glanced at my paper.
Right. Darkness. Horror movie. All that. Well, there was a window a little farther along. The shutter was latched, but light seeped out. I crept over, then held 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:
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 one pristine, Earth-lite™ dimension to you.
I stopped reading, the words blurring as my eyes unfocused. Another tiny puzzle piece snapped into place.
This wasn’t a theme park, a strange social experiment, or a game.
This was another dimension.
And I owned it.