The Multiverse Chronicles
Season One: Episode Eleven
“A Little Bit of Mischief”
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* * *
Spots of sunlight danced between the trees as Alia and Alfons made their way through the thick undergrowth of the Deep. A cinnamon-colored rat scurried along the bramble, unhindered and well-ahead of the two humans.
“Let me get this straight,” Alfons said, ducking a thorny vine above his head. “You saw Alia walk into the princess’s room, but you knew it was not her because you could not smell her?” His pants caught on the prickly edge of a thistle. He cursed and untangled the fabric.
Yes, lad. How many times do I have to tell ya? Henry sent. My sense of smell is more than a wee bit heightened when I’m a rat. Believe me, your pirate friend was apparently hesitant to wash during this last week.
Alfons scowled. “You suggested I steal his clothes.” He wrinkled his nose. He had noted the musky, overpowering stench many times since escaping the dungeon, no need to be in the Britannian’s atrocious rat form. “If you knew something was wrong, why did you not do something?”
Far as I could tell, the only people in the room were the princess and myself.
Alfons clenched his fists. “Then how was she shot?”
Henry heaved a mental sigh. I do not know. The assassin must have had other powers. Perhaps they weren’t even in the room.
Alfons paused under the leaf-strewn sunlight. He was going about this all wrong. What if this was all a setup?
“What if you were the assassin?” he demanded. “How would I know if you are lying?”
If I was the assassin, why in the queen’s name would I help you escape the pirates?
“So we would get lost in these woods and you could fetch the ransom for yourself. Or perhaps you mean to kill us where no one could ever find us.”
Oiy! You’ve been reading too many of yer Prussian fairytales, haven’t you? The rat stopped its scrambling and turned to face the prince. What reason would I ever have to drag you into the Deep and get myself lost? If I really wanted to kill ya, I would have slipped arsenic in yer drink, tied a cement block to yer legs, and then properly dropped you down an abandoned coal mine. I don’t need some mystical forest to do my work for me.
Alfons opened his mouth to speak, but could not find the words. He shut his mouth uneasily. “You have this rather thoroughly thought through.”
The rat squeaked. That was one of a great many plans I had prepared in the event that I needed to defend the princess’s honor.
“Some good that—”
“Can we please focus on getting out of here?” Alia interrupted. She stopped atop a fallen log and glanced between Alfons and the rat. Henry scrambled up Alia’s arm and perched himself on her shoulder. “It’s going to get dark eventually.”
“Oh, sure,” Alfons said. Might as well. That would be the best way to distract himself from the loss of his fiancé. In his mind, he still had the feeling that when, if, he got out from the Deep, his princess would be waiting for him with open arms.
Maybe the rat was lying. Maybe the only thing that happened was that he and Alia were kidnapped by pirates. Yes—that did make sense.
For now, he would not believe a word the rat said.
He nodded affirmatively.
Thus, they continued their trek.
* * *
The trees grew thick as the trio delved deeper into the forest. In time, little specks of light flitted in front of Alia’s eyes. She blinked, trying to clear them, and then realized that the specks were not bits of sunlight at all.
Tiny pieces of rainbow glitter fell from the leaves like a light morning sprinkle.
“Alia…” Alfons started. He swatted at the glitter decorating his hair and clothes.
“I see it, too,” she said uncomfortably.
An unnaturally blue bluebird swept between them, singing joyously.
Alia shivered. How in Athena’s name had they got themselves trapped in the Deep? This place was worse than one of the Britannian’s fables about their dragon queen.
This place was actually real.
Henry sniffed the air. I’ve smelt that tree before.
Alfons stopped where he stood and rubbed his forehead. “We have been walking for hours, passed countless trees, and you have smelt that particular tree before? It is a tree. Trees do not have smells.”
“Actually—” Alia started, but silenced at the prince’s glare. In all fairness, he had been under a lot of stress. Captured by pirates, shot at by automatons, learned that his fiancé was murdered…
“I am well aware that trees have smells,” Alfons corrected himself. “I am talking about individual smells.”
Well, this particular tree has the odd scent of pigeon blood, Henry informed them.
“Pigeon blood?” Alia asked. She glanced at the rat. “That is very particular.”
Alfons crossed his arms. “You could have mentioned this before. How much time have we lost, walking in circles like madmen?”
You wanted me to mention pigeon blood? I figured the smell wasn’t that unusual given we’re in a forest. But this… this is rather specific. Might be a good idea to mark where we’ve been.
Unfortunately, they had not come to the forest prepared to be lost. They only had their pirate garb, which was lacking in fabric as it were. Given the legends, Alia expected the weather to be dank and chill, and though she could easily tear strips to place in the branches, she was not certain this would be a bright idea when the night was sure to soon come.
And she would much prefer to keep her clothing intact.
While Alia looked for something else they might use, Alfons paced between the trees. “What if we broke branches as we went along?” he finally suggested, several minutes later. “Or marked their trunks with a sharp stone?”
Not a bad idea, Henry sent.
“Beats anything I have,” Alia agreed. Better than using their meager clothing, anyway. “But we should be careful. Let’s not alert any predators to our presence.”
And your prince’s clomping around the trees hasn’t told them already?
She shot the rat a glare. He shrugged his furry little shoulders, and the three of them continued. Here and there they broke a branch, hoping they might avoid backtracking. Several minutes later, Alia had walked a good fifteen meters. She grabbed the next thin branch between her hands and snapped it with a sharp twist of her wrists.
“Ow!” the branch cried.
Alia hop-skipped back and stared. Had the branch—
Either she was going mad or that branch had protested her breaking it.
Fifteen more meters ahead, Alfons broke a separate branch.
She must have been hearing things. She moved forward in the trees and broke another branch.
She peered around either side of the tree. She did not see anyone there.
“Did you hear that?” she called.
Alfons glanced up from his branch. “Hear what?”
“The branch said ‘ow.’ ”
Branches can’t talk, Henry sent. At least, not unless yer a plant elemental. Even then, I haven’t heard of one whose plants could talk back. Unless your Deep is different—
“But this one did! Look—” Alia walked up to the branch and broke it again.
Well, of course it wouldn’t make a sound while everyone was looking.
Alfons and the rat exchanged glances before returning their stares to Alia.
“When is the last time you had something to drink?” Alfons asked. “Perhaps you are dehydrated?”
Alia tossed the broken branch from her hands. “I swear, the branch spoke!”
The branch giggled.
Alia spun around. “There! See? You hear that?”
Alfons and Henry stared at the branch.
Well, that is odd, Henry agreed.
A small humanoid creature popped out from behind the tree. She giggled and waved her hand, only a third of a meter tall. Tiny flowers were woven through delicate braids in her red hair, and she had translucent, orange butterfly wings sprouting from her shoulder blades. Her upper chest and waist were covered in strands of woven grass and fern.
“You guys are a blast!” she said in German, still having a giggly fit.
Alfons arched his eyebrows high. Alia gaped.
Fairies? Fairies belonged in fairy tales. Not… real life.
Even the Deep…
Henry crawled onto Alfons’ shoulder and sniffed the air. Indeed, there does seem to be a small, fleshy creature ahead of us, he informed them. What did she say?
“She said we were a blast?” Alia shook her head, trying to decide which was worse: a fairy, or a talking tree.
Talking trees might tell them if they’d passed by before. Fairies were known for being… mischievous.
But what was she thinking? This was all just myth! Sure, the Deep was as real as the Elders, but all the nonsense about fairies being tricksters and talking animals granting tidbits of wisdom—ridiculous!
The fairy flapped her delicate wings and hovered beside Henry. She poked his tiny nose, which he wrinkled in disgust. “Oh, such a cute rat!”
Alfons cleared his throat and spoke in Latin, presumably so the rat could understand him. “She said you make a cute rat.”
The rat sniffed. If I remember my Prussian lore, these creatures are blatantly mischievous, aiy? Might be advantageous to keep her in the dark. Agree about my being ‘cute,’ but let’s not tell her everything.
For security purposes at least, Alia could agree. “He is cute, isn’t he?” she said in German. She patted his head, earning a squeak of protest. “He is certainly the cutest, most adorable rat I’ve ever seen.”
Henry grimaced. What did you tell her?
“She agreed that you were cute,” Alfons said quickly.
The fairy glanced between the two humans. Then she quirked her head and grinned, and jabbed her thumb at the prince. “Why does he talk funny?”
“My friend?” Alia looked over the fairy. “You don’t speak Latin?”
The fairy frowned. “Latin?”
“I’ll take that as a no.” Alia gestured to Alfons and—remembering what Henry had warned them—said, “he only speaks Latin.”
“Speak only Latin do I,” Alfons repeated with a grin.
Alia resisted the urge to smack him. The fairy eyed them suspiciously. “A Prussian prince who only speaks Latin?”
“Yeah. Strange times.” Alia laughed nervously. If Alfons didn’t stop acting so ridiculous— “Wait. How did you know he’s a prince?”
The fairy shrugged. “He looks it.”
Alia blinked. “No he doesn’t. He looks like a pirate with all that piratey… stuff.” She looked him over and frowned. Despite the tattered garb, he looked too… clean to be a pirate. Too neat and trim.
“Uh-huh.” The fairy gave Alia a skeptical look, then flew in front of Alfons’ nose. She gave an elaborate bow, then gestured to the forest around them. “Don’t worry, my dear prince—I can get you out of these terrible folds.” She smiled cheerfully, her green eyes bright.
“You can help us get out of here?” Alfons’ eyes went wide.
Alia raised an eyebrow, then lowered her voice and spoke in Latin. “Are you sure we can trust her?”
“Better than snapping branches that talk.”
I’m with the lass on this one. We shouldn’t trust a fairy, Henry thought flatly. And I don’t suppose you realize you just responded to something you weren’t supposed to understand.
“Do not worry your little rat self,” Alfons said. “She already suspects I am the prince. Unless you want to return to snapping twigs…”
Henry curled alongside of Alfons’ neck. Seems I remember your lore better than you do, lad. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.
Alia sighed. “Very well.” She turned to the fairy. “He says we will gladly accept your assistance.”
The fairy covered a giggle with her miniature hand. “Follow me.”
Alia glanced back at Henry and Alfons. “I guess we follow her.”
The fairy spun in mid-air and clapped her hands. She pointed to Alia. “I must take you to meet my friends first. They do not speak Latin either, so your prince friend may want to stay behind.” She winked at Alfons before eyeing Henry. “And I am uncertain how they feel about rats, so maybe he should stay behind, too?”
“We really shouldn’t separate,” Alia said firmly.
“Oh, don’t you worry.” The fairy zipped back and forth in a blur of green and orange before settling on a mossy rock. “You’ll all be in eyesight and earshot. But you have to cross this creek first, and it is protected from outsiders. If you do not speak German, you cannot cross.”
Alia winced. There was indeed a burbling creek in front of them. The bed was lined with smooth pebbles, and the creek was just wide enough that she couldn’t expect to hop over. However, a small, wooden bridge linked the two sides, and on the other side hovered three giggling fairies, each waving to the outsiders.
“Why don’t they come over here?” she asked.
The fairy sighed wistfully and laid a hand across her brow. “They cannot. If they do, they will lose their magic.”
What’s taking so long? Henry asked.
“I’m not sure.” Alia squatted beside the fairy. “Why would they lose their magic?”
“They are obviously not old enough to cross the creek,” she said.
Alia sighed and returned to Alfons. “Apparently, they’re too young. Listen, I’m going to go ahead and cross the creek to make her happy. If anything happens, come and get me, okay?”
Henry squeaked protest. Not a bright idea, lass.
Alfons shrugged. “Do what you think is best.”
“Are you coming?” the fairy called, hands on her hips.
“I’m on my way.” Alia turned around and stepped onto the bridge.
One step, then another.
Surely it would be fine. She was just crossing a—
The bridge disappeared.
Alia shrieked. Her tailbone hit the rocky bottom. She gasped as the freezing water rushed over her lap. The four fairies’ giggles turned into rolling fits of laughter as Alia struggled to her feet, shivering, and then waded to the other side of the bank. She rubbed her arms fierce. “You said if spoke German, I could cross!”
“You weren’t talking, silly.” The fairy cracked with laughter. “Now you really have to get out of those folds if you don’t want to catch a cold.”
“Folds… you were talking about clothes?” Heat flared in her cheeks, turning her face a furious red.
“Do not worry, we can replace them.”
The fairy grinned, but what did they expect her to wear when they were a fifth of her size?
Ten minutes later, Alia stepped out from behind a tree feeling utterly ridiculous.
She wore a woven skirt of grass and leaves that tickled her legs and threatened to give her a rash.
Her “shirt” was no better. Mere bits of fern twined together by four giggling fairies, then strung around her like an undergarment.
Alfons’ cheeks went red when he saw her. He started to open his mouth, but she pointed one accusing finger at him and the rat, her whole body trembling.
“If you say anything, I won’t be the only one to fall into the water.”
I can’t speak, now can I? Henry sent thoughtfully.
Alia narrowed her eyes. “You know what I mean.”
I did warn ya. Haven’t you read yer own lore? Never trust a fairy?
Alia’s face burned, but before she could protest, the fairy spoke.
“Don’t get your panties in knot,” the fairy scolded. “Seriously. If you do, you’ll show too much.” The fairy waggled a finger.
Alia whirled around, her firsts clenched.
“Now, if you really want out of here, you need to go to the top of that hill,” the fairy said.
“If this is a trick—”
“No trick. But I need to go before it gets dark. I suggest that you do the same. That’s when the monsters come out.” The fairy grinned and jetted into the air, stopping momentarily beside Henry.
“You are just so adorable!” she squealed.
With that, she disappeared into the darkening wood.
“She said you are adorable,” Alfons said before Henry could ask.
“Let’s go,” Alia grumbled, shifting on her bare feet.
Once at the peak of the hill, the three wanderers found themselves overlooking a valley.
A tiny stone cottage nestled alongside a stream, and behind the cottage was a white, picket fence housing a vibrant garden with all sorts of leafy greens. Around the garden were several tall, tall trees. Lights were strung along their limbs, glowing and crackling with fine gold. Round glass vials had been hung periodically around the perimeter. The vials were filled with a slow, silvery liquid. All the while, a cool, evening breeze whispered through the leaves, and Alia hugged herself to keep her midriff warm.
“First fairies, now this,” she whispered, chilled.
What is this place? Henry asked.
Alfons shuddered. “It looks like a witch’s cottage.”
You mean the witches that eat children?
“Yeah, those.” Goosebumps ran down Alia’s arms. Her skin tingled with uncertainty. They should get out of here. Take their chances with the coming darkness.
Surely they could figure something out.
As much as she hated to admit it, the rat had been right about the fairies.
Well, it’s a good thing we aren’t children, Henry stated matter-of-factly. Let’s see if the owner of that cottage can help us get out of these woods.
Alfons frowned. “You did not trust the fairies. Why would you trust a witch?”
How do we know if the owner’s a witch unless we speak to them?
“Still, I do not like the feeling of this place—”
“Ah, such a pity,” a female voice said in German.
Alia and Alfons spun around.
A woman stood behind them, her hands clasped in her skirts. She had dark pink, frizzy hair—no doubt the work of an alchemist—held in check by a purple bandana. Unlike the fairies, she wore a brown, patchwork skirt and a flowing green chemise with crimped sleeves.
“Am I that misunderstood?” The woman smiled brightly. “I don’t eat children. I lock them in closets until they are ready for slaughter. Then I eat the adults.”
Alia’s heart leapt to her throat. But before she or Alfons could react, the woman flicked her wrists. Vines sprang from the ground and lashed tight around their ankles. Alia struggled as the ivy looped around her legs and up to her wrists, but the vine held fast.
She glanced at the rat. “Run!” she shouted.
That rat was their only hope of escape.
Henry squeaked and dashed toward safety. The woman chuckled, one hand on her hip, and she flicked a finger. A series of tiny roots sprung from the moist earth and surrounded the rat in a flowery bird cage. He gnawed at the roots, but they thickened and grew until Alia could no longer see him between the bars.
The woman shook her head and smiled apologetically. She turned to Alfons, beaming proudly. “And what a feast I now shall have?”
He paled, and Alia glared at the witch. Yes, they should have braved the darkness, never mind what the fairies said about monsters.
The witch withdrew a handful of pollen from a pocket within her skirt. She giggled, her eyes bright, and then one by one, she blew the pollen into her captives’ faces. Alia struggled to remain conscious—a futile act—before passing sleepily into the care of the witch’s vines.
* * *
“If they catch onto us, we’re dead,” Kerner said as he and Bess walked a long hallway of the “abandoned” warehouse. While the outside of the building was fashioned to look deserted, the inside had been built with an elaborate system of hallways and rooms that resembled a labyrinth from the tales of the Deep.
“They left the door unlocked, so surely they must welcome newcomers,” Bess stated, earning a shrewd scowl from Kerner.
“Hey! You there!”
A man in a plain, cotton tunic and tattered trousers ran down the hall.
“Yer not part of the crew!”
“No,” Bess said with a grin, “but I was hoping we might remedy that. You see, me an’ my mate here worked for a smugglers outfit. The, er…”
Kerner winced. He quickly recalled knowledge of a smuggling outfit that had been disbanded by the Prussian authorities, then injected the name, “the Black Pegasus.”
He forced a smile.
“Yes. That is the one.” Bess gave Kerner an appreciative nod. “Now we seek other employment.”
The pirate raised an eyebrow. “How did you know where to find us?”
“Trade secret, mate,” Bess stated, his accent a touch too thick to Kerner’s ear.
Most pirates he’d met weren’t nearly so inflected in their voices.
But the pirate smiled approvingly. “You’ll have to talk with our captain. This way—follow me.”
They continued down the hall to a small office.
Inside, the pirate captain made notes on a ledger. He had one gold eye—no doubt enchanted for sight—along with an iron plate bolted across the back of his head. A few wrinkles creased his worn face from years of work in the sun, and his clothing was simple and worn, yet still modestly elegant.
“Gentlemen.” The captain looked up from his work and nodded once to the both of them. “What can I do for you?”
Kerner recognized the man, though they had never met. Of all the pirate captains he had heard of, Captain Wolfric Tillens was known for being the most respected and the most resilient, and the Prussians had already “killed” him once, only to have him return from the grave—albeit likely with a the help of an alchemist and sketchy surgery.
Kerner let out a breath. “Captain Tillens, I presume.” He straightened his back and squared his shoulders. “We are in need of employment. We previously worked for the Black Pegasus.” He licked his lips and glanced at Bess. He just had to dig into his memory—recall the operations he knew about. “We were part of the Rostock run, and we had just gone on leave before the Pegasus was raided.”
Tillens rubbed his smooth chin and nodded. “You were among the lucky ones, then.”
“Seems our luck ran out,” Bess stated, his accent still obnoxious. “If we cannot find ourselves a good employer soon, there won’t be a pfennige between us. Never mind the luck.”
The captain tented his fingers in front of him. “I have a few simple rules. Do not steal from myself or another crewmember. Be ready to fight at all times. Do not desert the crew during battle or any other time of need. Comply with the orders of your superiors unless they are absurd, and report any undercover agents to me so that I may dispose of them before they cause any harm to our jolly fellowship. Follow these rules and you’ll get your fair cut of any heist you participate in.” A smile quirked at the edge of his thin lips.
“Reasonable enough,” Kerner stated, though his chest constricted tight, and he was certain his fingers had a nervous twitch.
The pirate’s rules were reasonable, he had to admit, but he had already decided to break the last rule.
Wasn’t going to rat himself out to pirates, after all. He had a mystery to solve.
* * *
The adventure continues in the next episode, where the prince and his bodyguard meets the Keeper of the Deep…