Snippet – The Stranded – Experimental Story, ASB near-AH

26 Nov

Hi, everyone

The Stranded is something of an experiment – the basic idea is that a trio of magic kids in another universe (I thought about turning this into a Schooled in Magic spin-off, but decided against it) accidentally messed up a spell and found themselves unexpectedly transported to our world instead.  As they struggle to adapt to the strange new (old) world, they draw attention from some very dangerous forces lurking in the shadows…

All comments are welcome; spelling, grammar, continuity problems, moments of dunderheadedness, etc.  (This is at least partly intended for YA readers, so please keep that in mind.)

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Prologue: England, 1524

The Sacred Grove felt … dead.

Anne shivered, despite herself, as she reached the edge of the clearing and peered towards the sacred stone.  The air was warm, yet cold and devoid of life.  Moonlit speared down from high overhead, casting the scene into sharp relief.  There should have been magic dancing in the air, as she’d seen when she’d been a little girl visiting a shrine for the first time, but instead the air felt barren.  Something tore at her heart as she stood and watched, tears prickling at the corner of her eyes.  The prophecies and prognosticates and everything else insisted that this was the last chance, that if she – and she alone – wasn’t in the clearing when the moon reached its zenith their world would be doomed, but what if it was already too late?  What if …?

She shuddered.  Her grandmother had known magics, magics the world hadn’t seen for decades.  Her great-grandmother had known magics beyond her daughter’s dreams.  Her … their world was dying.  The magic was slipping away.  And Anne was here, alone, in a desperate gamble to save a world that might already be dead.  Once, the shine had known magic, like the hundreds of others scattered over England that had pulsed with light and life and everything else that had given the folk meaning.  Now, it might be the only shine left open to them.  And …

Anne took a breath, then shrugged off her dress.  Skyclad, she stepped across the circle and into the clearing.  The world seemed to hold its breath as the moonlight illuminated her.  She hoped, praying to all the gods of her ancestors, she wasn’t imagining it.  The magic grew harder with every passing month, the spells she’d been taught only a few short years ago no longer workable, even by the strongest of the folk.  And the burners were coming for them, as the prophecies foretold.  Their world was doomed.  They were doomed.

She pressed her fingers against the sacred stone, feeling something tingling against her bare skin.  Magic?  She closed her eyes, muttering words she’d been forced to memorise in preparation for this night.  The old women had drilled her time and time again, insisting it had to be absolutely perfect.  They couldn’t afford a mistake.  And yet, doubt assailed her as she finished her chant.  It was hard to believe anyone was listening.  The days when the folk had been able to call on the power of nature itself, to heal and to harm in harmony with the world, were gone.  The universe was growing barren.  The wonders her grandmother had known were gone.

Anne slumped against the stone, her thoughts churning as despair threatened to overwhelm her.  She’d failed.  No one had answered her call.  Tears dripped from her eyes, splashing on the stone.  She’d have to go home and tell the old women it was over and … and what?  She didn’t know.  It was the end …

… And then the world shifted around her.

A flash of alarm nearly brought her to her feet.  Someone – something – was behind her.  It was standing so close she could feel its breath on the back of her neck.  She wanted to stand up, to turn and face the being she’d summoned … the being she felt, now, had been there all along.  And yet, her legs refused to move.  She couldn’t even turn her head.  She nearly panicked, despite everything she’d been taught.  The being felt more … real than the world around her, as if it was the light and she the shadow.  It was hard, so hard, to keep herself calm.

“You could not gaze upon my face,” a voice said.  It was male and female, young and old, airily light and deadly serious … a chorus that echoed through the air and beat against Anne’s mind.  “And yet, you call upon me?”

Anne swallowed, fear washing down her spine.  The Good Folk were gone.  She’d called something worse, far worse.  And yet, they needed help.

“Great One.”  Anne’s mouth felt dry, yet she dared not stop.  “We need your help.  We beg for your aid.”

“This world is turning away from the light,” the being said.  It spoke dispassionately, as if it cared nothing for the destruction of Anne’s entire world.  “The magic is fading.”

“Yes.”  Anne wanted to scream.  “We need your help.”

She couldn’t see the being, but she could feel the cruel smile behind her.  “And if I give you my aid,” it said, “what will you offer me in return?”

Anne gritted her teeth.  She’d been cautioned there was no hope of sympathy, let alone goodwill, from beings so inhuman they were dangerously unpredictable.  It wouldn’t help the folk out of the kindness of its heart.  It didn’t have a heart.  But it would bargain.  Perhaps.  It was the only hope her people had.

“Anything,” she said.  She knew the folly of making such promises, but what choice did they have?  Time was not on her side.  The moment the moon started to set, the being would be gone.  “Help us survive and prosper and I will give you whatever is in my power to give.”

There was a faint hint of a chuckle behind her.  “The magic is leaving this world,” the being said, as if she didn’t already know it.  “I cannot keep it from slipping away”-  it paused, just long enough for her to feel despair once again – “but I can assist you to open gates to another world, a place where magic remains strong.  You can go there and live there and regain the magics you thought long lost.”

Anne shivered.  “And the price?”

“You would have been wiser if you’d asked that earlier,” the being said.  The amused condescension in its voice made her grind her teeth, digging her nails into her palm to keep from snapping back.  She’d heard it before, from a father who saw her as nothing more than a pawn to be married off as he pleased.  “To do what you wish, I require an anchor to tie me to your world.”

“I …”  Anne composed herself.  “I will do whatever you wish.”

“The king’s marriage is without issue,” the being informed her.  “You will marry him.  You will bear his child, who will rule the country.  The gates will open when that child is on the throne and close, for a time, shortly after your blood no longer sits on the throne.”

Anne blinked.  She hadn’t been sure what to expect, but … marry the king?  It was unthinkable.  The king was married to the love of his wife, a woman who had already borne him a daughter.  And yet, she had heard disturbing rumours.  The king wanted a son, wanted him so desperately he was prepared to do anything, even divorce his wife, to get a legitimate heir.  Anne hesitated, torn between fear and something she didn’t care to look at too closely.  If she made the bargain …

Her voice sounded weak, even to her.  “My son will rule the country?”

“Your child will rule, in time,” the being said.  “And your people will be safe.”

“Then I will do as you ask,” Anne said. She wasn’t sure how she’d do it, but she’d figure it out.  She had to.  “My people need to leave now, before we lose everything.”

“You do,” the being agreed.  Power sparkled around them as the bargain was made.  “And there is one other thing …”

Anne shivered, helplessly, as the being whispered in her ear.  She’d always been told the future was in flux, that predicting the future allowed her to alter it, but now … she knew, on a level she could not deny, that her future was now fixed.  The bargain would hold true.  She would bear the king’s child, walking a path she could not escape, a path leading directly to her death before her people reached the promised land.  She would never see the world she’d saved …

… And, as the moonlight faded away, Anne Boleyn wept,

Chapter One: Mystic Albion, Now

“I’m telling you, this will work!”

Richard frowned as he studied his friend’s notes, struggling to read them as the air carriage lurched from side to side.  He’d never quite gotten used to flying in a carriage – pitchforks, as was traditional for me, were so much safer – even though he had to admit the carriage was a great deal more comfortable.  The riders were not in control of the carriage, leaving that to the complex network of spells woven into the wooden and dragon skin wings.  It just didn’t feel very safe.

“Brains, you’re using your own spell notation again,” he said, as he scanned the parchment sheets.  “It’s confusing.”

Brains – his real name was Hiram of Hardwick, but everyone called him Brains – shrugged expressively.  “I had to invent half the notation for myself,” he said.  “If anyone else is doing researched into magical topography, specifically how it interacts with gate spells, they’re keeping it to themselves.”

Richard sighed, well used to his friend’s tendency to plunge into research without thinking of the need to explain his findings to others.  Brains was a genius, by any reasonable standard.  The only reason he wasn’t top student was that he couldn’t be bothered doing anything that involved interacting with other students, at least outside the classrooms and research labs that made up a third of the school.  He didn’t care.  He’d never put his name down for Head Boy, let alone made a show of proving he could handle the job.  He lived and breathed for pushing the limits as far as they would go.

And that’s why someone needs to keep an eye on him, Richard thought.  Someone has to remind him to eat, every so often, and to try to keep his notes in order.

He sighed again.  Brains was the rarest of magicians, a Head and a Heart in one body.  His detractors had made snide remarks about jacks of all trades and masters of none, but his combined talents gave him insights into magic that few could match.  Richard was a Head and he knew that, given time, his plodding approach to magic would yield results, yet Brains was capable of moving ahead by leaps and bounds.  It didn’t bother him.  His friend was a good person and life with him was never boring, even though it could be dangerous at times.  It would be a long time before anyone forgot the trip into Always Summer, or the scolding they’d received when they’d returned to the school.  If Brains hadn’t been such a rare magician, and his family not so important, Richard feared the affair would have ended very badly. 

His lips twitched.  They were both seventeen, but beyond that their appearances had little in common.  Richard was brown-haired, Brains was blond; they both wore school robes, yet Richard wore his with style and Brains looked as if he had a habit of sleeping in his clothes, without even bothering to cast cleaning and ironing spells on his outfit before heading to class.  Richard was the commoner and yet, people had a habit of mistaking him for the aristocrat.  It was perhaps fortunate, he reflected at times, that Brains didn’t care.  His betrothed certainly did.

“You may have to explain your notes to me,” he said, with a sinking feeling.  Brains’s explanations were always fantastically detailed and practically incomprehensible.  He wasn’t trying to mislead, when he explained, but he understood the material so well he didn’t quite grasp that everyone else didn’t.  “And then we’ll need to translate them into something everyone can understand.”

Brains nodded, although he looked mulish at the thought of going back over the material instead of charging into the unknown.   Richard was good at convincing him to break the explanation down to the point anyone could understand it, provided they had a good grounding in applied magical theory.  It was one of the reasons Richard had been fostered by Brains’s family, after they’d met at Gatehouse.  Richard had been told the family oracles had foretold he’d be someone important, but he suspected it wasn’t true.  The problem with predictive magics was that everyone, certainly everyone who was anyone, had access to them too, making the future dangerously unpredictable as forecasters moved to change the futures they foretold.

He put the thought aside as he worked his way through the parchments.  Brains had been digging into advanced magics for years – Richard knew he was a good student and he still found it hard to keep up – and he’d digging into the spells behind gates.  He’d wondered why it was so hard to open them in certain places and so easy in others and, undaunted by the lack of prior research, started trying to figure out the answer.  If he was right …

“It’s like building a bridge,” Richard reasoned.  “The greater the distance between the two sides, the harder it is to build the bridge and, at some point, you just can’t muster the effort you need to build it.”

“At some point, the power requirements go well beyond your ability to produce,” Brains agreed, in a tone that suggested Richard’s explanation was right and yet wrong at the same time.  “But if there is distance, where is it?”

Richard frowned.  The question was a good one.  It was easy to open a gateway between Dùn Èideann to Londinium, but much harder to open one between York and Bolton even though the two towns were much closer together.  Logically, it should have been the other way round.  Magic bent the world out of shape – Gatehouse was far bigger on the inside than the outside – but there were limits.  Surely.

“I think we don’t understand the true nature of magical topography,” Brains continued, tapping the parchments.  “Imagine you’re standing on the lakeside, looking at the lake.  To you, the lake is a flat surface.  You don’t see the bottom and so you don’t know what it looks like.”

“You might jump in the lake and hit the bottom because you think the lake is deeper than it actually is,” Richard said.  It was rare for Brains to come up with an analogy of his own.  He wondered, with a sudden spark of jealously, if Helen had suggested it.  “Or sail across the water and hit a rock, lurking under the surface.”

“Precisely,” Brains said.  “So tell me … what rocks are lurking under the surface of magical topography?”

He launched into a long and complicated explanation, drawing in observations from both earlier researchers and his own experiments.  Richard reached for a notebook and hastily jotted them down, resolving to turn them into something a little more readable later.  Brains wasn’t given to worrying about people funding his research, but Richard had to.  Brains’s family had invested a great deal in both of them, over the last few years.  They wanted some kind of return on their investment.

“And I think we should be able to solve the problem,” Brains finished.  “If we can make it work …”

Richard felt a thrill of excitement.  It wasn’t easy for a village-born lad like himself to make an impression, no matter how talented he was.  The thought of creating something everyone would use … he smiled as the carriage brushed against powerful magical currents and lurched again.  No one would hold it against him, if all he really did was translate Brains’s vastly complicated notes into something actually workable.  Hearts jumped ahead, everyone knew; Heads filled in the blanks afterwards.  There was nothing shameful, he’d been told, in taking an idea and making it work.  As long as he didn’t claim all the credit, he’d be fine.

Helen won’t be pleased, he thought.  But she’s a Heart herself.

He shook his head as the carriage started to lose attitude and glide towards Gatehouse.  The school always took his breath away, even after being a student for nearly six years.  The castle itself was immense, wrapped in so much magic it was hard to tell what it really looked like.  The human eye just couldn’t make sense of the interdimensional structure, a blur of towers and keeps and arenas and things that were simply incomprehensible.  Raw magic flowed around the building, currents of power flowing through the Land of Always Summer and vanishing into the distance.  A shadow fell across the carriage as a dragon flew overhead, untouched and untouchable.  The Dragon Riders were up early, bonding with their mates as they ploughed through the sky.  Richard had wanted to be one of them once, but no dragon had wanted to bond with him.  He didn’t regret it.  Much.

Small flecks zoomed around the school, coming into sharp relief as they came in to land on the rooftop.  Men riding pitchforks, women riding broomsticks … snapping spells at each other as they practiced before hurrying down to class.  Richard smiled and waved at a trio of younger students, flying with the squeamish determination of children flying under their own power for the first time.  Stronger magicians could fly without a broom – Brains’s father had boasted he often flew from one end of the land to the other – but it would be a long time before Richard mastered the art himself.  His spells were solid – it was the main advantage of being a Head – yet he lacked the raw power to fly. 

The magic crashed over him as they landed, the box doors slamming open to allow them to escape.  Gatehouse was the centre of magic, he’d been told.  The very first Gate – the one that had allowed the Folk to escape OldeWorld and flee to Mystic Albion – had been opened at Gatehouse, the first to open and the last to close.  There were others, hidden under the Princely Castles, but they were far less important.  Gatehouse had once been the key to the world.  In a sense, it still was.

Brains caught Richard’s hand as their carriage flew off, returning automatically to its master’s hall.  “We need to go to the library.”

“I think we need to visit the Great Hall first,” Richard said, wryly.  “They have to welcome us home first.”

He saw Brains’s expression – his friend looked as if he’d bitten into something sour – and nodded in understanding, even as he led the way down to the hall.  The annual welcome speech for older students was boring – the Merlin, the head of the school, had a tendency to drone – yet failing to attend would mean a demerit and probable detention.  Brains might get away with it – the staff hadn’t been pleased when he’d outsmarted the anti-cheating wards designed to make students actually serve their detentions – but Richard certainly wouldn’t.  The Merlin would probably come up with something new and horrific, just to teach everyone else a lesson.  Too many other students had tried to follow in their footsteps.

And most of them failed, Richard thought.  They didn’t realise how Brains ducked the spells.

He smiled at the memory as they made their way into the hall.  It was huge, so huge the hundred seventeen-year-old students who made up the year looked isolated in the middle of vastness.  The glowing lights overhead cast the room into sharp relief, drawing his attention to the podium in the centre of the hall.  The spells running through the air ensured that the audience always saw and heard the speaker, whichever way he was actually facing.  It was hard to avoid listening, although it didn’t stop students from trying.  The important information was always conveyed by letter, sent two weeks before the students returned to Gatehouse.  Privately, Richard had always suspected the Merlin wanted a good look at the students before classes resumed the following morning.  The headmaster was supposed to be very good at spotting students who felt like fish out of water and making sure they got the help and support they needed to grow accustomed to the school.

The doors slammed shut with a loud BANG.  Richard jumped, even though he was used to be effect by now.  The podium, empty a second ago, was suddenly occupied by the headmaster.  The Merlin – a middle-aged man with long dark hair and a short beard – stood there, his eyes seeming to peer deep into Richard’s soul.  It was an illusion, but it still held him still.

Brains nudged him, breaking the trance.  “Helen isn’t here.”

Richard blinked in surprise.  Brains rarely paid attention to anyone – out of sight, out of mind – even his betrothed.  It was odd for him to even notice Helen was missing … Richard glanced from face to face, confirming his friend was right.  Helen was going to be in some trouble when she finally reached the school, unless she’d been delayed for some reason.  The Merlin would probably send her straight to detention.  And yet …

His heart sank.  What had happened, while he’d been away?  What could have happened, to make Brains take notice of Helen?  He wasn’t sure he wanted to know and besides, there was no point in asking Brains.  He might be a genius when it came to magic and all related subjects, but emotions were a closed book to him.  He hated to think he might be governed by them, to the point he couldn’t acknowledge and comprehend his own emotions let alone someone else’s.  Odd, for a Heart, but part and parcel of what made him. 

The Merlin was still speaking.  Richard dragged his attention back to the older magician, wondering why he had to use ten words where one would do.  They could be on their way back to their rooms by now, or heading straight to the library before dinner and bed.  They were old enough, now, to set their own bedtimes.  He was certain there’d be no problems from going to bed after the witching hour.

“And you will have the chance to showcase your abilities,” the Merlin continued.  “This is the start of your final two years at Gatehouse.  Your yearly project will let you show off to potential masters, both your talents and your skills at thinking outside the box.  If you do something new …”

Richard heard a rustle of excitement rippling through the hall.  Gatehouse had always encouraged its students, particularly the Hearts, to think outside the box, but there were limits to how far they were allowed to go.  Brains had cheerfully broken them, time and time again, yet even he hadn’t gone that far.  Most of his work had been either theoretical or suggested improvements to earlier works, which had been tested elsewhere.  The idea of being allowed to step outside the box and try something new, something wholly their own idea, was intoxicating.  It would be fun.  And who knew?  They might discover something new.

“You may pair up, if you wish, or work alone,” the Merlin continued.  “If the former, please remember the rules.  If the latter, remember you must provide a detailed outline of your work tied back to your sources.  We don’t want any confusion over who did what.”

Richard glanced at Brains, who winked.  Whatever they did, there would be plenty of work for both of them.  Richard wouldn’t be hanging on Brains’s coattails, while Brains wouldn’t be getting frustrated by having to go back and explain his work to examiners who didn’t understand what he was saying.  Besides, Richard would have to take the idea and see if they could actually make it work.  A theory was good, and it might get them a pass if it stood up to scrutiny, but something practical would be far better.  They could write their own ticket, find their own masters ..,.

“And remember, Always Summer is out of bounds,” the Merlin finished.  “I do not want to have to bargain again, not now and not ever.”

He vanished.  The doors crashed open again.  Richard wondered, as the students headed to the stairs leading to the dorms, just what had happened.  There were agreements between Gatehouse and Always Summer, agreements that should have kept students from being seriously harmed.  The entities who lived deep within the forest were inhuman and yet they always honoured the letter of their agreements.  If something had happened, something that had forced the Merlin to enter Always Summer and talk to the entities …

“We can make an anywhere-gate,” Brains said.  “I already have the theory.  If we can get it into practice, the prize is ours.

Richard nodded.  Trying and suceeding would be brilliant.  Trying and failing … if their theory was good, if impractical, they’d still get plaudits.  His mind raced.  They’d talked little about the future, over the years, but if they actually made the concept work they could go anywhere, do anything.  Magic flowed through the air, all around them, as they hurried up the stairs.  Richard felt his soul lighten as the power brushed against his skin and touched the core of his magic.  It was hard to believe there was anything it couldn’t do.

“Yeah,” he said.  If nothing else, they’d get respect for trying.  He had a feeling most students would look for improvements on well-known spells, rather than striding boldly into the unknown.  The examiners wouldn’t be too impressed with yet another spell to turn someone into a frog.  There were so many of them that even first-year students could cast them.  “If we can get it to work …”

Brains grinned.  “The theory is sound,” he said.  “We should be able to craft a spellcloud capable of assessing the hidden topography and allowing us to determine a way to compensate, then steer around it.  The trick is actually making it work.”

“And even if we can’t improve the gate spells, we can at least predict where the spells will and won’t work,” Richard said.  It would be nowhere near as impressive as an anywhere-gate, but it would be a valuable contribution to society and one that would give them a good start in life.  “What could possibly go wrong?”

8 Responses to “Snippet – The Stranded – Experimental Story, ASB near-AH”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard November 26, 2021 at 2:27 pm #

    “What could possibly go wrong?”

    Famous Last Words?

  2. Naule November 26, 2021 at 6:13 pm #

    What could go wrong indeed. Ahaha. Excellent work as always Chris, if you keep on with this one I’ll definitely buy it.

  3. Bman November 26, 2021 at 7:33 pm #

    I would buy this. I actually got excited reading this excerpt which hasn’t happened to me much since Schooled in Magic wrapped up it’s original arc.

  4. UpnOut November 26, 2021 at 8:30 pm #

    It looks very interesting. I think it would really be fun if there was another main or significant character they meet on Earth who was a hacker or some kind of *grin* tech wizard. I think you mentioned in a Schooled in Magic side piece that a teenager wouldn’t be able to cope with the severe differences without some kind of help on the native side.

  5. randallberger November 27, 2021 at 7:53 am #

    Chris … you are such a tease! The snippets always get my mind “drooling” for more, if there is such a thing. I’ve always said your 2013 A LIFE LESS ORDINARY is one of
    faves of your books, and this gave me the the same feelings of wonder. Looking forward to the rest!

    • Randall Berger December 21, 2021 at 12:58 pm #

      Having just finished the commenting and correction process on the 40 chapter beta version of Stranded, I can say it is the best first Chris Nuttall novel in a new series I can remember! And it is a cliff hanger (or Chrishanger) that mentions a tantalizing two titles that could come if it succeeds … I hope so!

  6. George Phillies December 21, 2021 at 10:37 am #

    It turns out to be well-done!

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