The Multiverse Chronicles
Season One: Episode Nine
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Alia, Alfons, and the cinnamon-colored rat stared at the glowing, approaching eyes. The closer the eyes came, the more visible the automatons grew. Their metal limbs clanked and whirred. Though their bodies were painted in alternating splotches of greens and browns—difficult to see through the foliage of the woods—they most certainly looked to be five mechanical men.
Alia and Alfons exchanged glances. Neither of them had seen any such creature before. Sure, the Prussian army was fond of their tactics generators with basic computing spirits and gigantic metal hulls, but these…
These were another being entirely.
The automatons had slender, mechanical arms and legs. Their eyes faintly glowed with enchanted gold. They wore dark green, metal helmets like any soldier might, and they carried rifles in their spiny hands.
But their faces were blank, with a dark, open rectangle for a mouth. They lacked any expression. Their torso, though chest-shaped, was blocky, and they carried some large mechanical assemblage of a pack welded to their backs.
“Halt,” one of the automatons commanded. Its voice was shallow and echoed within its hollow interior.
The five automatons stopped their approach and raised their rifles.
I suggest we run, Henry said telepathically. The rat scurried onto Alia’s shoulder. Alia— run right. Your Highness— run left.
They raced through the trees, dodging low hanging tree limbs and musty green leaves. Tiny thorns in the bramble tore at Alia’s stolen breeches, catching and snagging like greedy fingers, and she hiked up the pirate’s over-sized pants.
Couldn’t Henry have found a pirate her own size to snag the clothes from?
“Shoot to injure,” the lead automaton ordered.
“Shoot to injure—shoot to injure,” the others echoed.
Their rifles fired. Five shots deflected off twigs. The bullets scarred tree trunks and dinged off rocks.
Alia and Alfons split in opposite directions and fled deeper into the wood.
“Pursue with caution. Targets must be returned in living condition,” the lead automaton commanded. Its hollow voice whooshed through the trees, like a harsh, metallic wind. Two automatons chased Alia. Their skinny metal triangles for feet speared fallen leaves.
The other two automatons and the lead pursued Alfons.
Run straight ahead, Henry ordered. Keep your vectors parallel.
“What?” Alia gasped, winded. “How do you know what do?”
I was trained to protect the princess of Britannia.
“Yeah, and we know how well that—”
A tree limb exploded in front of her.
Splintered bark sprayed across her face. She jerked back, cursed, then yelped as another bullet impaled the ground beneath her feet. Dirt erupted in a dusty gray cloud.
“Halt,” said the automaton.
“Besides, I’m trained, too,” Alia muttered. “And my charge is still alive.”
For the moment, Henry countered. Now keep runnin’ toward that tall evergreen.
Alia grunted in exasperation, but she changed course. No time to argue. Her heart pounded in her ears. The automatons clanked behind her. She doubted she’d be hearing Henry over the commotion if he weren’t a blasted telepath.
Another bullet whizzed low. Alia’s pulse thrummed through her veins as she raced toward a giant, looming evergreen. Thick, cloistered needles offered her meager hope of protection. Just beyond that tree were more evergreens, a lovely cluster that would at least obscure the automatons’ vision.
“Halt. You must come with us,” the lead automaton ordered again. “Shoot to injure—”
“Shoot to injure—shoot to injure—”
Three rifles fired simultaneously. Alia dove. The rat went flying, shrieking before landing in a pile of leaves. Sharp pebbles and bramble tore at Alia’s elbows. Pine needles rained on her in a green shower from the failed shots. She scrambled forward on her hands and knees, ignoring the snags in her garb and the thorns in her hands.
The automatons walked steadily ahead, their metallic clanks rhythmically calculated.
“So, Henry,” she muttered, “how am I supposed to get out of this one?”
I’ll let ya know as soon as the trees stop spinning. Ya coulda warned me—
Alia ignored him and scrabbled behind a thick trunk and gathered her breath. The cloyingly-sweet pine scent clogged her nostrils. The hot, humid air tasted like a stagnant pond during late summer. Her rugged shirt was slick with sweat, and her palms were sticky and damp.
The clanking stopped.
She held her breath.
The forest was silent.
Alia peered over her shoulder, afraid of what she might see. Maybe those mechanical beings had some other trick up their metal sleeves. What if they had a firepower other than their rifles?
But they just stood there, frozen outside the thicket.
A trickle of sweat worked its way from Alia’s forehead to her eye. She blinked it away. Why weren’t they pursuing her?
With the grinding of gears, the two automatons knelt on hinged knee and drew their rifles into firing position. “Come out,” they ordered in unison.
Alia frowned. Surely Henry’s choice of a hiding spot hadn’t worked that well. But a row of trees stretched for a good distance between her and the automatons. Perhaps this denoted some sort of border at which they could not cross.
Her wonder ceased when she heard the shots from the other automatons pursuing the prince a short distance away.
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Just out of sight from the rat and Alia, Alfons skidded right. A bullet lodged itself into a tree beside him. He kept running, the dank wind whistling in his ears and through his hair.
Deep breaths. Keep running. Deep breaths, he told himself.
“Stop the target before he enters the woods,” the lead automaton instructed. “If necessary, shoot to kill.”
“Shoot to kill, shoot to kill—”
For the love of all things clockwork…
Did the blasted alchemists have to make soldiers, too?
Alphons swung a hard right and dashed for the line of evergreen trees. Prussians had good tech, especially in terms of their military wonders. So he was fairly certain that the automatons’ shots were being thrown off by their orders not to kill him from earlier.
At least, they were if their manufacturer was of any caliber.
He dodged a tree limb and ignored the smaller branches slapping against his chest.
Now that the automatons had been given the license to kill, Alfons suspected that he had just become a larger target.
He had no desire to test that theory.
Gunfire cracked, obscenely loud in the forest despite the twigs cracking under his feet. Another shot whizzed dangerously close to his ribs.
He dove between two of the evergreens and skidded on the ground, snagging his borrowed pants on a rock and scuffing his knees and elbows. A bullet flew harmlessly over his back—where his chest had been mere seconds before—and buried itself in the tree behind him.
A gray squirrel chattered angrily and skittered to safety.
Alfons took just long enough to get a breath that he noticed the raw skin on his elbows stinging miserably, but looking at the flattened bit of scrap metal in the tree behind him, this was preferable over the alternative.
On the other side of the tree, two of the three automatons kneeled to the ground and raised their gun to where they might have had shoulders if they had been human.
“Make the targets come out,” the lead automaton demanded. It alone remained standing.
“Come out, come out—” the others echoed.
Alfons stared at the machines, perplexed. They had a clear shot. Why did they not fire?
“No!” he yelled back, defiant.
“Come out,” the lead automaton repeated.
Alfons wiped the sticks and dirt from his bloodied elbow. This was strange. Why did they pause here? What was so special about here?
“Come out and we will take you in living condition to our leader. No harm will be done.”
Alfons snorted. Sure, like you can be trusted. A spirit-based computer did not usually lie, but given the automatons’ close proximity to the pirates, he could only assume that their leader was also a pirate.
He would not put it past a pirate to program one of those spirits to lie. Besides, pirates were not known for showing kindness to runaways.
Alfons would take his chances here, wherever here was.
“Sorry, but I must turn down your generous offer,” Alfons retorted.
He stood, wincing at his aching limbs, then limped in the direction where he assumed Alia had run. And he walked…
At least ten minutes passed with no sign of his companions.
Had he been walking in circles?
“Alia, Henry?” Alfons called.
A squirrel chattered at him insistently. He looked up and did a double-take as the squirrel darted around to the other side of the tree.
He could have sworn that thing wore a tiny glass monocle and carried a tiny wooden pipe.
Your highness, I can smell you and hear you, but I cannot see you. Where, pray tell, have you been?
“Trying to find you,” Alfons muttered. “Something is not right in this part of the wood.”
Aye. But we need to find a way out that does not involve those automatons.
Alfons stooped to the ground and looked the direction where he had left the three machines. Where were they now? Though they refused to cross the row of evergreens, the least they could have done was follow him along the other side.
But he was not on the other side. There was not an evergreen in sight. Only beech and oaks. No sign of the distinct row he had crossed.
The air was cooler, too, though no less damp.
He shivered. Goosebumps raised on his skin. He had heard stories—
Footsteps crunched through the underbrush and he spun around. He started to duck for cover, but Henry’s voice slipped into his mind, gentle. Don’t worry, Your Highness. It is only us.
“Alfons?” Alia called. She stepped through the thick trees.
Alfons breathed a sigh of relief. “I am here.”
Alia rushed forward, and she looked like she was about to hug him before restraining herself at the last moment. She cleared her throat and brushed the dirt off her pants. “What were those things?”
Alfons frowned. “I have no idea. I have never seen anything quite like them.”
Wait. That wasn’t Prussian tech? Henry interjected.
Alfons glanced between Alia’s face and the rat on her shoulder. “Not that I have seen.”
Henry hummed thoughtfully in their heads. All right. Who might be behind all this, and what have they got to gain?
“Why are you asking us?” Alfons protested. “I just said I have no—”
It was a rhetorical question, Your Highness.
Alfons scowled, but Alia spoke next. “Henry, why are you still a rat? You aren’t a burden to carry, but your tail does tickle. Why don’t you go back into human form? We’ve lost the automatons. You’re not a target anymore.”
The rat sniffed the air indignantly. It is not for a lack of trying, I assure you. Something in these woods is keeping me from using my shapeshifting.
“Your powers have been blocked?” Alfons asked.
The rat fixed him with a beady-eyed stare. If my powers were blocked, I wouldn’t be communicating right now. And I would automatically return to human form. Believe me, there are no shields involved. It’s the woods, though I have no idea why.
“So… any idea where we are?” Alia asked.
The three of them looked around, and Alfons edged closer to his bodyguard.
A strip of warm sunlight flickered through the bright leaves above, but the air had cooled and the edge of the forest had vanished completely.
They hadn’t moved since meeting.
Alia bit her lip, and Alfons shifted uncomfortably on his feet. Pollen flitted around them as if it had a life of its own. A hand-sized, brightly colored pterosaur peered down at him from a high oak branch. It cheeped and tilted its beak, then squawked and disappeared into the thick canopy above them… which grew thicker, blotting out the patches of sun. Alfons lowered his gaze.
Surely he could not be right. Everything here… just a trick of the light.
A tree root shifted subtly, and Alfons’ eyes widened.
Alia took a step back from the tree. “We’re in the Deep,” she whispered. “No wonder the automatons didn’t follow us!”
The Deep? Henry twisted his furry head toward her. I thought that was only a legend you used to scare wee lads. Something about lessons to keep them from wandering into the woods?
Alfons cringed. He wished the Deep was just a legend.
Alia scoffed. “Our legend is real. Better than your idea of a queen being descended from a dragon. Besides… look.” She pointed toward a now-glowing clearing. Bright flowers dotted the leafy green bushes. Giant pink petals obscured a tall, orange-tinted tree, and a large, butterfly-winged horse fluttered nearby, its monarch colored wings catching the sunlight, straight out of an illustration from one of their fairytales.
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“Captain!” A fuzzy-faced pirate interrupted Tillens in the middle of reading a day-old newspaper, an engaging story segment regarding a two-bit constable squaring off with a band of well-to-do ruffians. The captain paused, marking his spot on the page with his thumb, then looked up at the man in front of him. He winced. The man—Émile—was about five-nine, wore a tattered cotton shirt, dingy pants, and looked like he hadn’t shaved in over a month.
Tillens wrinkled his nose. The man smelled worse than the imperial pig sty they raided back in ‘42. Good bacon, good profits, but it had taken weeks to get the stench out of the cargo hold.
No wonder his crew got such a bad name.
“For Pluto’s sake, man, you look like you haven’t encountered a shower in years. Tell me what’s bothering you, then shape yourself up,” he ordered.
“Captain, the prisoners have escaped.” Émile gasped for breath, his eyes wide, and his Frankish accent came thicker than usual, a sure sign that the problem was worse than the initial explanation.
Tillens narrowed his brow. “What do you mean, ‘escaped?’ ”
“They broke out of their cells and ran into the woods.”
“They got past the automatons?” Tillens blinked. Now that was a surprise. Given the supplier, he would have figured the automatons to be decent at capturing them… or at least corralling an unarmed prince.
“Captain…” The burly man twiddled his thumbs and cleared his throat. “That’s the other thing. Those clunky machines claim the prisoners ran into the Deep. I think we need to get an alchemist to check their spirit stones. Their sense of reality seems a bit off.” He demonstrated with a tiny space between his thumb and index finger.
Tillens rested a hand on his forehead. Explaining the Deep to the Frankish man was not going to be a pleasant task. He rubbed his temples, thinking. “Those spirit stones are usually more accurate than we are, Émile.”
The crewman’s eyes widened. “But I thought the Deep was just a myth. An exaggerated part of the story of the Elders.”
Tillens shook his head. “Not exaggerated. The Deep is real—I’ve been there. Took a lot of luck and wit to make it out alive. The borders shift. They’re never in the same place for more than a moment in time. Time—time doesn’t play right in those lands, either. You might be there a day, a week… a year could pass in the outside world, and you’d never know. If that weren’t bad enough, you’ve got faeries to contend with. And other creatures, if they show themselves. I fought a herd of unicorns with glowing red eyes that could scorch you with beams of light. Snuck past manipulative ants the size of wolf pups. Had tea with a dapper anteater. He was rather gentlemanly despite his fondness for ants in his sugar cubes—normal sized ants. Not the giant ones.” He frowned. “There is only a slim chance that our quarry will get out any time soon, if ever. But either way, we should start searching the nearby woods in case they escape. Tell Rodney I need to meet with him. He’ll head the search party.”
Émile nodded once, then dashed from the room.
Tillens dog-eared his newspaper, set it aside, and plucked the golden watch from his pocket. He dialed the knob to contact Mr. Hardy and sighed. Given the nature of the call, this was not going to be a pleasant conversation.
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The adventure continues in the next episode, when two rival commanders play a friendly game…