Episode 8: Friends, Acquaintances, and Nemeses

The Multiverse Chronicles

Season One: Episode Eight

“Friends, Acquaintances, and Nemeses”

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The Multiverse Chronicles: Trials of Blood and Steel - Cart Ride

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A horse-drawn cart—loaded down with supplies and a sleeping pterosaur—ambled over a series of potholes in a well-worn road. A warm breeze ruffled the fields of barley on either side, the lazy sun painting the land vivid gold. The cart bumbled along, its two sorrel mares uninterested in the stiffness of their cart’s occupants.

Trish craned her head to the pale blue sky. Above her, mere silhouettes against the noonday sun, a team of pterosaurs and riders flew toward their new home. They coasted on the warm currents, occasionally flapping their wings to maintain formation.

She let out a breath as the pterosaur brigade flew onward. She was part of this now, even though she was not up there with the rest of them. The old, musty book in her lap—the one she was supposed to be reading—attested to her newfound ties.

The cart ahead of them swayed over a pothole, sending its occupants wincing against the frame, and Trish braced herself for the pending jolt. Her cart lurched and the young man next to her yelped under his breath.

Sean Ó Riagán was lanky and pale—made more pale by his flame-orange hair and prominent freckles—and he sported a bright pink sunburn anywhere that was not covered. Trish guessed he couldn’t be more than eighteen, given his baby face. Even so, he still donned the crimson uniform of Her Royal Army, though his nametag didn’t designate any rank—common for mercenaries and civilian workers.

He drew back the reins and slowed the horses. “Easy there, Norwich,” he crooned softly. “You’re going to break your leg if you hit one of those holes directly.”

The mare nearest to him shook her head as if to protest. In fact, Trish got the distinct impression that Norwich was more likely to break his leg if he didn’t give her a little more lead. He frowned uncertainly and loosened the reins.

“So…” He glanced at Trish, licked his lips nervously, then went back to watching the roads. “You’re the one who can control the rogue?”

Trish blinked. Mr. Ó Riagán—it was odd to be calling someone younger than her “mister”— hadn’t spoken more than a mumbled “hi” until now—except his occasional comments to the horses.  She turned to the cargo behind her, the rogue pterosaur. The creature slept peacefully, drugged so that the trip wouldn’t be stressful. Since Trish wasn’t a trained pterosaur rider, this one had to be brought in by cart.

Still, she nodded to the young man and smiled fondly at the sleeping pterosaur. “You could say I can control her, but I think that’s only because she likes me.”

The young man bit his lip and smiled. “Rumor has it that you have a familiar bond.”

“A what?” Trish frowned.

His green eyes lit up. “You don’t know about familiar bonds?”

She shook her head.

“Oh, I’m sure the colonel will explain when he has the chance.” The young man grinned. “I would try, but I’m afraid I’d butcher the explanation. I graduated from the beastmasters’ academy in Oxford, but—”

“Wait. You went to Oxford?”

“Yeah, well…” He scratched the back of his neck, sheepish. Trish hadn’t thought his sun-burnt cheeks could get any redder, but they did. “The instructors said I was gifted. I started using beast mastery when I was eight.”

Trish gaped at him. “You were eight?”

Here she thought she’d been special, given the strength of her powers. But those powers had manifested when she was thirteen, around the same age as most other people with special abilities.

Mr. Ó Riagán nodded enthusiastically. “I liked to scare my older sister when she was reading. I’d have Jesse—she’s our terrier—sneak up behind her and bark real loud.” He chuckled. “I was such a twerp.”

Trish forced a smile. “What do you do now? Are you a rider, a pack leader…?”

“Nah. I’m the head assistant for Lady Akeyo Kaburu.” He puffed out his chest with pride. “She’s the caretaker for the beasts. Just call her Lady Akeyo, though. She says Akeyo Kaburu sounds too formal. At least, it does unless she doesn’t like you. By the way, I’m Sean. Do you mind if I call you Trish?”

“Um… sure.” Trish wasn’t sure what to think of him. He had been so quiet earlier, and now he was so… chatty.

“Hey!” he called out to the horses. “Stop trying to aim for the potholes!”

The second mare nickered, as if she were blaming Norwich, but they maneuvered cleanly around the rugged hole that the cart ahead of them had hit square on.

Trish eyed him, amused. “Do you talk aloud to all your beasts?”

Sean shrugged. “Well… sometimes. Most the soldiers around here don’t talk to me. Granted, these fellows don’t talk either,” he said, gesturing to the horses, “but at least I get their general feelings.”

Trish nodded sympathetically. She hadn’t gotten much chat from the riders, either, though that might have had something to do with the short notice in which she had joined and been deployed to this particular station.

The silence grew loud, despite the snoozing pterosaur’s occasional grunts, and Trish fidgeted on the hardwood seat. “So… you mentioned familiar bonds?”

“Eh?” Sean glanced over at her. “What’s that?”

“A familiar bond. You said you might butcher the explanation, but could you explain the basics?”

“Ah. Well. Let me see…” He ran a hand through his bright red hair, mussing it before finally answering. “General Buford and Ruger have a familiar bond. Together they serve as pack master, and everyone treats Ruger as if he’s the general. Granted, the general can look through his eyes or listen in, so it’s kind of like he has an extension of himself running around the base. Works the other way, too. If the general is ready to sit down for a meal, Ruger will be right there at his side, waiting to see if he drops anything.”

“Does he?” She tilted her head, perplexed.

Sean laughed. “How would I know? I haven’t sat down to lunch with him. I usually take my meals at odd hours, anyway. That way I can care for the beasts.”

“So they serve as the pack master together. Interesting.” Trish leaned back in her seat, thoughtful. Was Sean right? Did she have that kind of connection with her pterosaur? She wasn’t sure she wanted that kind of bond.

The cart hit a particularly deep pothole, sending them slamming against their seats. Norwich whickered protest, as if it were Sean’s fault for not being more perceptive, but Trish’s pterosaur snoozed on, unperturbed.

“What’s her name?” Sean asked.

“Hmm?”

“Your drake.” Sean jabbed his elbow toward the sleeping pterosaur. “I assume she has a name.”

Trish glanced over her shoulder. Until now, the pterosaur’s designation was DJ7-467. She hadn’t really thought about naming the pterosaur, since she wasn’t even sure she could. “I’m allowed to name her?”

“Officially, no. But everyone does. Well… except Owsten. He’s a bit of a hard-nose. But don’t mind him. Everyone else names their charges.”

“What names do they choose?” Trish asked.

He shrugged. “Depends on the rider. Sometimes they name their drakes after significant others or family. Other times, provinces. Whatever suits them best.”

Trish rubbed her chin. She didn’t have a significant other, and a province felt too… formal. Especially for the pterosaur. She was too free-spirited. “I want to name her something that fits her… character.”

Sean grinned, revealing even more freckles. “I think you’re going to get along with Lady Akeyo. She likes people who consider their beast as more than inventory.”

Trish smiled. At least she had someone to look forward to meeting.

Minutes later, the cart topped a hill and revealed a large military camp in the close distance. Trish eyed the rows upon rows of canvas tents, men marching in formation, and packs of wolves running attack drills on wooden manikins. Further back, two giant, open-ended tents stood atop a hill.

As Sean drove through camp, soldiers wandered along the grounds carrying boxes or books, setting up canvas tents and moving in furniture. A few constructed a basic wood cabin at the center of the camp to house more vulnerable items off the ground, in addition to the few weathered storage units that had likely been around from the year before. Horses trudged along with carts of onions and potatoes, and sacks of flour for the mess hall storage. A pair of pterosaurs swooped down beside one of the large, canvas tents at the edge of the camp. Their riders dismounted and led them inside.

“Wow,” Trish whispered. “Is that where they keep the pterosaurs?”

Sean nodded enthusiastically. “Pterosaurs, wolves, horses… and the occasional dragon.”

Her eyes went wide. “Do you have dragons there now?”

He shuddered. “No, and trust me—they’re not as fun to work with as they’re made out to be. They’re hard to control when they’re young, and super stubborn once they get older. I got to study one during my training. The creature was… tricky. They’re also pretty arrogant, though if I were a ten-ton, fifty-foot-long death machine I’d probably come off as arrogant, too.”

Trish grinned. She didn’t often hear someone talking about their experiences working with dragons, let alone someone who was younger than she was. If all went well with training her pterosaur, someday she’d be a dragon rider. One of the elite.

Sean pulled the cart into the large tent the pterosaurs had entered. The edges of the canvas walls were lined with straw beds where wolves lay sleeping. A pile of crates sat in the corner beside a bewildered, uniformed man trying to wrestle a sabertooth cub off the crate in front of him. Above the wolves and the crates, a system of catwalks had been installed. Pterosaurs perched there, roosting. A small group of riders chatted below.

Though most of the beasts roamed free, there were a still a few cages scattered around.

“Welcome to the stables,” Sean said, gesturing with open arms. He handed off the reins to one of the other assistants and hopped down from the wagon. Trish followed his lead. By the time they were both situated on steady ground, a slender woman with dark brown skin and short hair had walked up behind them.

Sean beamed when he saw her, but he didn’t salute her as would be customary when addressing a ranking officer. Instead, he clasped her hand in a firm shake. “Lady Akeyo, this is Trish Ivers. Trish… Lady Akeyo. She’s the beast master in charge.”

Trish snapped to attention and saluted. Sean might be on friendly terms, but she wasn’t ready to make an enemy just yet. Seemed most of the people she had worked with thus far wanted the formality.

Lady Akeyo shook her head and sighed. “Please do not salute me. I may wear a uniform, but I am not enlisted.” Her vowels were light and lyrical, like many of the merchants from Kenya.

Trish eyed the uniform and noticed for the first time that the woman’s rank badge wasn’t that of an officer, but that of hired mercenary, same as Sean’s.

“Yes, my lady.” Trish bit her lip apologetically.

Lady Akeyo passed the two of them and went around to the back of the cart. “This is the rogue?”

“Yes,” Sean said, bouncing on his heels.

“I see.” Lady Akeyo drummed her fingers along the rim of the cart, then reached out to stroke the sleeping pterosaur. “Pretty girl. I hope she does well.”

A tiny bit of warmth stirred in Trish’s chest. If the beastmaster already liked the pterosaur, maybe she wouldn’t be too hard on them. Maybe they actually had a chance—

Lady Akeyo sighed and turned to Sean. “We’ll keep her in the cage in the southeast corner near my desk. I want to keep an eye on her.”

Trish recoiled. “Why in a cage?” she protested. “The other pterosaurs are free.”

She glanced up at the roosting pterosaurs, then remembered her military position—a second-chance private—and grimaced. Perhaps she shouldn’t have spoken so quickly. Right now, a hired hand outranked her. Especially a beastmaster. She pursed her lips.

Lady Akeyo placed a hand on Trish’s shoulder. “My dear, this pterosaur is a rogue. If she gets out of hand, she will be difficult to corral.”

But… Trish didn’t speak aloud for fear of crossing her superior. If she was booted out again, the cage would be her pterosaur’s last concern.

Lady Akeyo looked over Trish, her face gentle. “I understand your concerns. But we must take precautions. This is why you will assist us with her caretaking.” She beamed. “I expect you here at 0500 every morning to help prep her for your drills at seven. We’ll also need to run her on a flight line for exercise twice a day. I will keep a life artifact handy, in case there are any incidents in which she needs to be sedated.”

Trish gaped at the beastmaster, unable to hide her astonishment.

Normally, caretakers would prep the pterosaurs at 0600 and the riders would report to duty at 0700 to run their drills. Instead, Trish would have to do everything the caretakers would, and her own chores. “Yes, ma’am.”

“My lady,” Akeyo corrected.

Trish winced. The lady might not have liked certain formalities, but she certainly could be stern.

Then again, she genuinely seemed to appreciate the pterosaur, and Sean hadn’t spoken ill of her.

“Now,” Lady Akeyo continued, “you are to report to Colonel Pearson for further briefing. Captain Owston will take you there.” She gestured to one of the riders climbing down from the catwalk.

Sean winced. “Try not to take anything he says too personal,” he whispered.

Lady Akeyo shot him a warning glare, then smiled pleasantly at Trish. “By the way, what’s her name?”

“She doesn’t have one yet, my lady,” Trish said, careful to use the correct title.

“Then we shall have to remedy that.” Lady Akeyo dipped her chin politely before turning her attention to the approaching captain.

Trish stood to attention. Captain Owston couldn’t be that bad, could he?

“Private.” The captain scowled as he eyed her, then tapped his forehead in an all-too-blatant reminder that she was supposed to salute.

She quickly saluted. “Yes, sir.”

These people just couldn’t make up their minds.

“Follow me.” He turned sharply, his heel grinding into the dirt of the stable floor. Without pause, he strode toward the exit.

Trish lowered her salute, cast a glance back at Sean—who shrugged helplessly—before falling behind the captain. She caught up with him, but he never once made eye contact.

“Off the records,” the captain said, his voice as stiff as the wooden cart she’d been riding, “I must inform you that—with all due respect to General Buford and Colonel Pearson—having you here is a ridiculous mistake. A disgrace to Her Majesty’s army. Given your record, you should have been permanently discharged.”

Each word fell like a blunt rock, and his careful, articulate enunciation did nothing to help the effect. Trish’s shoulders slouched. At least the passing soldiers were too busy with everyday duties to notice her being chastised.

“Even worse,” Owston snarled, his face cruelly blank, “they put an unruly maverick like you in charge of a rogue. That fiend should be put down.”

Heat flushed in her cheeks. You insufferable—

She bit her tongue—hard—and winced when she tasted blood. She’d punch out the cur if it weren’t for the threat of her pterosaur being culled. She didn’t mind being called an unruly maverick—it was a fair enough claim—but to call her pterosaur a fiend because she was strong-willed—

“If you wish to make your stay here pleasant, let me give you some advice,” Owston continued. “Stay away from my men and our drakes. When we are running drills, stay out of our way.” He stopped short on the deeply grooved path and pointed to a row of tents. “The colonel’s tent is the third one down.” He snubbed his nose at her, and then strode haughtily back to the stables.

Trish took a deep breath. Given that he was a rider, he’d probably figure it out if she sent a lark to peck his over-groomed head, or a pigeon to squat. She sighed, counted to ten, and then slowly walked to the colonel’s tent. She didn’t want him to see her with murderous eyes. Not after he’d been so kind to her.

Once her face felt cool and the urge to push the captain off the London Bridge had dissipated, she entered Colonel Pearson’s office. Inside, an enchanted gold pterosaur model lit the tent with pure light. The colonel sat at his desk—which was moderately clear of papers since they had only recently arrived—and worriedly thumbed through a local Frankish newspaper.

Trish eyed the paper, then gaped when the headline finally became clear:

Prussian Assassin Murders the Dragon Princess Cassandra.

* * *

With one hand behind his back, Lieutenant Gerard Kerner rapped on the door to Captain Bess’s temporary office at the embassy. The elderly Britannian officer opened the door. He raised his pale blond eyebrows. “Lieutenant Kerner, you have news?”

Kerner shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck. “Unfortunately, no. How about your men? Are they having any luck?”

The captain scratched his chin, reaching for the tips of his sideburns before he frowned. “No, which is puzzling. We should have found something by now.” He stepped aside and waved his hand for Kerner to enter. The lieutenant followed, eyeing the meager trappings the captain had brought with him to decorate: a woven portrait of the Dragon Queen, a few brass paperweights in the forms of sitting dragons, and a small plant that looked like it had been imported from the tropics.

Given the drooping leaves, and dull, once-colorful flowers, Captain Bess lacked a green thumb or plant artifact to help keep the thing alive.

Kind of like his precious guards and their princess.

Kerner forced the thought aside. They both still lacked any actual proof that the assassination was an inside job.

The captain shut the door behind Kerner and returned to sit at his desk. “We looked through your records, Lieutenant, and according to those papers, Miss Alia Behringer has no powers.”

“That is correct,” Kerner replied. “We rely on mechanical marvels rather than powers for our military recruits.”

Captain Bess absently flipped through an open file folder. “How does a non-powered person manage to disappear—without a trace—while being pursued by two of Her Royal guards?”

“Artifacts?” Kerner suggested, annoyed. The Britannians certainly were fond of them, though the various powered artifacts had become popular in recent times for industrial piece-parts.

The captain closed his folder and looked up at Kerner. “Such would seem to be the case, Lieutenant, but neither guard reported any sign of a portal or evidence of teleportation. No rush of speed, no flight…”

Kerner rested his hands on his hips. “Alia couldn’t have done this. Impossible. Sure, she has a life-spirit diamond in her gun,”—a handy way to drop distant trouble-makers—“but transportation artifacts are not her strong point. Perhaps your guards didn’t notice or think to mention something?”

Captain Bess shook his head. “No. These are Her Royal Guard. They are trained to be observant and detail-oriented.”

Kerner frowned. He’d read the guards’ report, and if he recalled the paper correctly, that report had been no more detailed than any other report. Vague, even. “With respect, sir, your guards’ report was not particularly detailed.”

Captain Bess didn’t say anything for a long moment. Then he finally gave a small, almost imperceptible nod. “I know. They should have noted a use of their life-spirit artifacts, but they evidently did not use such devices in any attempt to knock out the assailant.”

“So, you do think your men have been compromised?” Kerner asked.

At this point, they had no one else to blame.

Captain Bess sighed. “That possibility is more likely than I would like to admit. One of our men is missing, and we haven’t had a chance to scan the others.”

“Missing? Then we shall confront the remaining guards,” Kerner insisted. “Find out what they know.”

“No.” The captain waved him off. “If the group responsible for this is powerful enough to infiltrate Her Royal Guard, then it would be best to track who they are before they know we are onto their schemes.”

“So… what should we do?” Kerner rested his hands behind his back, uneasy. The Britannians were known for their strict ranks and undisputable loyalty. For someone to have broached their ranks like this was unthinkable—unless the Britannian ranks were not as tightly controlled as the queen wanted everyone to believe.

Captain Bess retrieved a map from his desk drawer. “Using psychic tracking on one of our missing man’s uniforms, I have traced the uniform’s origin to a place not so far from here.” He unfolded the map and pointed to a location that he had already circled in a large arc.

“The missing man came from somewhere in these woods,” he continued. “A rendezvous point, I suspect, though he evidently knew how to blank his memories from minor trackers.”

“I assume you intend to investigate this on your own, given the nature of the situation,” Kerner noted. Not a favorable situation for the Prussians, but not out of the question.

The captain shook his head. “Actually, I was hoping you would tag along.”

Kerner raised an eyebrow. “Oh? How do you know you can trust me?”

Captain Bess laughed. “I can tell you are just as curious as I am, m’boy. And thus, you are just as clueless as I.”

* * *

The adventure continues in the next episode, when the prince and his bodyguard are pursued by mysterious marksmen…

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