Episode 12: The Keeper of the Deep

The Multiverse Chronicles

Season One: Episode Twelve

“The Keeper of the Deep”

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The Multiverse Chronicles: Trials of Blood and Steel - The Witch's Cottage

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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.

Alfons rolled underneath his covers and tugged them to his chin. Some dream. Dreams were not usually so memorable. He could almost believe he had woken in a jail cell, escaped under the guidance of a rat who claimed his fiancé had been murdered, ran from mechanical soldiers into a magical forest, been duped by mischievous fairies, and finally been captured by a man-eating witch.

At least his dream had ended with his capture and not after being fired, baked, or broiled alive.

He sighed and stretched, but his feet smacked against a footboard.

Odd. Had his bed shrunk?

Alfons rolled onto his side, then sniffed the air. The room smelled too earthy.

He snuggled deeper into the covers. He frowned. The bed sheets were warm and soft, not cool and silky.

What was all this? Was he still dreaming?

He opened his eyes.

A woman peered over him, grinning. Her dark pink hair spilled out from a bandana and framed her face in stringy curls. “Are you ready for breakfast, Your Highness? I have warm bread, cheese, tomatoes, and fresh sausage that is to die for.” She giggled before straightening her posture and resting one hand on her hip.

The witch!

He bolted upright. The covers fell to his lap and he clenched his fists. “Where is Alia?”

“Oh, don’t worry, dear Prince. I have her prepared.” A sly smile crawled across her lips. His heart leapt to his throat.

Prepared?

He eyed the lump of sausage on the table. Dread rushed through him. Had the witch actually—

The woman laughed and set a glass pitcher of milk on the table next to the sausage. “You are far too gullible, Your Highness. Your friend is changing into something a little more presentable than a grass skirt. Seems you had run in with my tricky neighbors?”

Alfons shifted uncomfortably on the mattress—despite the fact that it was far more comfortable than he would have expected for a witch’s cottage. Had she enchanted it somehow?

“What is in the sausage?”

“Pork, of course.” The witch smirked. “What else would it be?”

“Uh… never mind. What happened to the rat?”

“Henry is currently enjoying a breakfast of soft cheese and rye.” She motioned to the table at the center of the cottage. “Join us. Your lady friend will be with us soon.”

“How do you know his name?”

“Magic.” She winked and took a bite of sausage. “Come, come, sit. I do not often bite my guests.”

“Often?” Alfons reluctantly stepped out from the bed. Then he spotted the cinnamon-colored rat chewing through a slab of brie on the table. Alfons pulled out a wooden seat that looked like several thick branches wrapped together with twine. “You could have told me what was going on,” he mumbled.

The rat twitched his nose and lifted a tiny, pink paw. I don’t speak German, remember? Normally I’d use telepathy to get a feel for the conversation, but it seems the only thing I can do at the moment is send thoughts. Best I could tell, the lady isn’t trying to eat us. Haven’t been locked in a closet, anyhow.

Henry switched to nibbling at the bread and scattering crumbs everywhere.

“He is quite the character is he not?” the woman asked.

Alfons grunted. A character indeed. He eyed the cheese and his stomach rumbled, but he would not trust this witch so quickly. “You seem to know a lot about this area. Do you know a way out of these woods?”

The woman clucked her tongue. “For a prince, you certainly don’t show your manners,” she scolded. “Haven’t even finished your breakfast, all freshly made as a gift, and already you want to leave. Haven’t asked my name, either.”

Alfons scowled. The witch might not have eaten him, and that was thanks enough in the Deep, but he still had little reason to trust that she had no ulterior motives for keeping him alive. He took a deep breath and raised his chin. “I am Prince Alfons of House Egilhard—”

“I know who you are, silly goose. Why do you think I have not asked? It is you who do not know who I am.” She quirked a dark, pinkish-brown eyebrow.

“Then… who are you?” Alfons asked.

The witch splayed a hand over her heart. “Well, if you must know, I am Queen Rachel, ruler of the Deep!”

“Queen?”

She did not seem very… queenly.

She laughed and passed him a ceramic plate. “Not really, but the name sounds fantastic, no? Just call me the Keeper. Now eat up. You have long day ahead of you.”

A door creaked and Alia stepped into the room. Alfons did a double-take. She was clean of dirt, and a scent of lilac wafted from the bathing room behind her. Her short, blond hair was still damp, tousled from a towel, and she wore a light blue sun dress over a white, cotton blouse.

He gaped. Rarely, if ever, had he seen her wearing a dress that was not for formal purposes. Sure, there were ballroom dances and diplomatic dinners where she was not required to be on duty, but even then, she had often opted for a uniform. The last he had seen her in a dress so plain, so simple, they had been mere children in the palace gardens—

And now he realized how much he missed Princess Cassandra. She might have worn something like this. Well, similar, anyhow. A long, shimmering dress that complimented her dark hair and swished around her ankles as they danced.

Alia nodded warily to him and the Keeper. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” the Keeper said, chipper. “Please, join us for breakfast.”

Alia sat across from Alfons.

He kept his eyes lowered. Better when he had thought all of this was a dream. He did not care what Henry said—there was simply no way an assassin could have snuck past his imperial guards and Cassandra’s personal guards, and a bodyguard as well.

“Has Alfons told you about our adventures?” Alia asked, interrupting his train of thought.

“No, but no need.” The Keeper smiled and sliced off a piece of bread. “The birds tell me everything that goes on in these woods, and I am far more interested in hearing what you plan to do now that you are here.”

“Well…” Alia paused. “I don’t mean to be rude, but we were hoping to find a way out of the Deep. We need to get back to Prussia.”

“Oh, I don’t mind. Not really. You are not the first person to have made such a request.” The Keeper gave Alfons a mischievous look, but he scowled. She had chided him for such a thing, but not Alia?

The two of them already seemed to be friends.

Perhaps, then… perhaps this witch did not plan to eat him after all.

“Stories have it that no one leaves these woods,” Alia said. She spread the soft cheese over her bread. “That they are eaten by bears, wolves, or witches. Or trapped by fairies or turned into animals. Is it true?”

The Keeper laughed. “Stories say? If this is what the stories say, then I must retort, ‘where do these stories come from, if not from the story itself?’ ”

Alia frowned, puzzled. “I don’t understand.”

“I have friends who are far more scary than bears and wolves, fairies and witches.”

Both Alfons and Henry turned to stare at the Keeper.

“The Deep is a crossroads between realms,” she explained. “Bears and wolves and their ilk are monsters from within your realm. Easy to understand, easy to tame. The other realms are terrifying. They bring monsters from beyond the heavens, man-made monstrosities, ghosts without souls…”

She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Why, there are creatures you have never even dreamed of! Little cats and giant caterpillars, and roots of sentient trees that drain your life to feed. Of course, there are other creatures that want to steal your soul, but we do our best to keep them from crossing over. Bad for business.” She snubbed her nose and waved her fork in the air as if to emphasize her point.

Alfons suspected his eyes were as wide as Henry’s and Alia’s. A shiver ran across his skin. “But… some people do make it out? Souls intact?”

“Yes, of course they make it out. Where do stories come from? More important, where do the people go when they leave? That is a question in and of itself.” The Keeper grinned. “But let us finish breakfast. I have a few chores for us to complete before I help you back to your realm—your original realm.”

“Chores?” Alfons asked, exchanging glances with Alia.

“Yep!” The Keeper nodded, her stringy curls bouncing around her chin. “My services don’t come free, and I don’t get many visitors. I take what help I can get when help comes by.”

Alfons swallowed nervously and took a chunk of sausage for his plate.

Realms and monsters… hopefully they could leave this place sooner rather than later.

* * *

After helping the Keeper weed her garden, Alfons returned to the cottage for a short break. He did not mind the garden work. As a child, this was the one of the few tasks he had been allowed to do that permitted him to play in the dirt. It was, however, one of the few things that he never told his fiancé. Britannian royalty were proud of their positions, and he had every suspicion that they would see such behavior as demeaning.

Assuming that the rat was incorrect in his tale of the assassination—and he must be incorrect—Alfons wondered what the princess would think of this tale.

Once inside, he poured water into a clay mug and took a sip before noticing a pigeon roosting on top of a bookshelf. It cocked its head and turned its beady eye toward him. Then it cooed and stretched out its wing, revealing bandages.

Alfons frowned. He walked over to the bird, which stared at him and puffed out its chest. Its stance reminded him of Britannian pigeons. And the bandage… the wing was not broken.

The bird had been shot.

Out of the corner of his eye, Alfons noticed an assorted selection of trinkets. A jade statue of an Asian dragon, an ornamental spearhead of metal and horsehair, a small obsidian raven…

And a canister commonly used for carrier pigeons.

Alfons picked up the canister, and the pigeon cooed disapprovingly.

 Odd.

The message had already been removed. He could see the small slip of paper half-obscured by horsehair. He replaced the canister on the table. As he picked up the message, the pigeon stared at him cautiously, but did not protest.

He unrolled the paper.

Your Majesty,

 

It is with a heavy heart that I inform you that your daughter, Princess Cassandra, has been murdered…

 

The mug shattered as it hit the floor.

Alfons wavered on his knees and clenched his eyes shut. He let the tears flow. He had been so sure the rat was lying. Had to be. There simply was no way Cassandra could be dead.

When Alfons was with the princess, they could never get a moment alone without one of her guards within earshot. And Cassandra… she was a fighter. He knew this!

How could she have been killed?

The pigeon hopped from the bookshelf to Alfons’ shoulder. The bird shifted its feet and fluttered its good wing to balance, cooing softly.

“I could turn you into a frog for digging into my stuff,” the Keeper said behind him. Her shadow from the door blanketed the bookshelf.

Alfons stared at her shadow as it fell across the many trinkets.

Why was this message here?

The pigeon had been shot…

Someone had been trying to prevent the letter from being received.

“I take it you found the letter to the queen?” the Keeper asked gently.

Alfons did not respond.

“Were you and the princess close?”

He lowered his eyes. “We were engaged.”

“Betrothed or in love?”

“Love,” the prince said. His heart felt like it was being torn between two motor carriages driving in opposite directions.

“Ah,” she said softly. “Then I offer you my condolences. I am surprised you did not already know, given that you are traveling with her bodyguard.”

The prince blinked. “How did you know he was—never mind. I did not wish to believe him. The probability of her dying was so unlikely.”

Cassandra had so many guards. So much protection. She could not have been in danger unless…

Unless the guards had been compromised.

He clenched his jaw. Such an outcome seemed more possible now that he had seen the wounded pigeon and the message it carried.

Silence filled the cottage, with only the haunting cheep of birds and cicadas creeping in from the outside world.

A moment later, Alia walked through the door. “I replaced the last of the bottles,” she noted. She held up a glass vial of silvery liquid. “You do know this stuff is toxic, right?”

“Only if you consume it,” the Keeper replied. “Or play with it. Or breathe its vapors…”

Alia glanced at Alfons, and the rat scampered up her shoulder. “What’s up with you?”

“Nothing.” Alfons smoothed his shirt self-consciously. Unlike her, he was still wearing his pirate’s garb. “I was stung by a bee. It… it had the magical ability to make me sad.”

“Uh-huh,” Alia said, unconvinced.

“Oh, yes,” the Keeper agreed. “They’ll make you cry yourself to death if you’re not careful. If I were you, I would avoid their hives. Now, why don’t we have lunch? Afterward, I have one more chore for you, then we’ll be done.”

Alfons nodded and replaced the paper beneath the canister. As he did, the pigeon hopped back to its perch.

“After you leave, you will find some things have changed in you world.” The Keeper set the table as she talked, adding a vase of flowers at its center.

Alfons paced beside the table, biting his knuckles between his teeth. If Cassandra had been murdered, and a message not properly delivered, then he imagined the world would not be in a pleasant state.

Alia’s forehead wrinkled in concern. “How do we leave?”

“You will need to find a portal.”

“A portal?” Alia echoed. “But I thought regular powers don’t work here.” She glanced at Henry, as if to make her point.

“I will give you an enchantment which will allow you to find the correct portal,” the Keeper said. She poured potato-kale soup into each of their bowls, with a smaller bowl for Henry. “But first, you must promise me that you will complete this one last chore.”

“What chore is that?” Alfons asked.

The Keeper walked to her bookshelf, rolled up the letter to the queen, and then placed it inside the canister. The pigeon cooed and stood straight before turning so that the canister could be mounted on its back. Once the Keeper had done so, the bird stepped onto her arm. She brought the bird to the table.

“I need you to take young Hermes to the Britannian forces in Francia. He carries an important message that will make things better for you once more.”

Why help us? Henry sent. Seems you’re already pretty safe.

A wry smirk formed on the Keeper’s lips. “There are lasting consequences, my dears, which may echo through all the realms if motions are properly set. I’d like to see what can be done. We’ll start by bringing Hermes back into your land, so the Queen may know she was not forgotten.”

“What all has happened?” Alfons asked. What would the Queen have done once she knew her daughter was dead? What would she assume?

The Keeper shrugged. “Plenty enough. Now let us dine. The quest out of the Deep will not be as easy as the quest to get in.”

* * *

The Britannian herald closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and hoped that whatever news he was about to deliver to his queen would be good news. The previous herald had delivered bad news and had the untimely luck of delivering said news while the queen was in her dragon form.

The surgeons said the poor man would mostly recover, which was more than could be said of the two heralds before that.

A hazardous job, to be sure. He was not paid nearly enough.

Still, the herald approached the door to the queen’s court. A large dragon had been carved into the door, its tail entangled through the knots around the frame. Enchanted gold overlaid its eyes and teeth and claws. Their glow lit tiny sparkles in the other gems that were embedded into the wood: ruby, sapphire, emerald, diamond and amber. All favorites of alchemists. Tiny brass wires wove through the dragon’s carved scales, linking each jewel.

For a moment, the herald wondered if this door did more than open and close. Such a work of art was not limited to aesthetic purposes.

Regardless, he would not improve his standing with the queen by making her wait.

He straightened his posture, and then pushed the door aside. It swung easily, despite how heavy it looked. Inside, at the far end of the hall, the Dragon Queen sat on her throne.

A breath hitched in his throat. The queen sat with her chin held high, her fingers poised just above the dragon-head armrests, but she was not in her dragon form—thank the ancestors.

Her human form had become all too uncommon since the unwelcome news of her daughter’s death. Especially since rumors of disgruntled citizens looking to the end of the Dragon Queen’s reign all but crawled out of the woodwork like roaches. Most such rumors came from bickering neighbors who sought to take advantage of the opportunity to rid themselves of one another, but still, many of these rumors carried more weight than the herald wanted to admit.

A number of known gangs and resistant groups opposed the monarch’s rule in favor of a democratic one, and despite the royal guards’ efforts to keep such ruffians in check, they now posed a greater threat than ever to the Dragon Queen’s dynasty. Coupled with the uncertainty regarding the fragile diplomacy between Britannia and the Industrial Union of Prussia, these rumors had every one—especially those closest to the queen—on edge.

The herald started down the long, crimson carpet leading from the door to the throne. Tiny tears marred the fabric where tailors could not hide the marks of a dragon in rampage. A shudder ran through his body, but he suppressed the urge to turn back.

All eyes were on him. Court ladies and noblemen. Guards and other messengers. Diplomats from surrounding nations. An alchemist. A surgeon.

 Their eyes were wide, filled with anticipation and fear.

But the queen’s… her eyes were cold and fearless. She demanded good news from the herald, despite his inability to know what his letter held, and even less to control what the message he carried had to say.

He paused right before he reached the throne, his stance rigid as he waited for the queen to grant him permission to approach. He raised his voice, allowing his vocal power to flow through and amplify his voice. “Your Majesty, I have news from Prussia.” Every muscle in his body ached in response to how tense they were. Sweat beaded on his forehead and the back of his neck.

The queen gave a subtle nod. The herald forced his muscles to relax. He had to walk up the couple stairs to the throne and hand the queen the letter.

He then promptly returned to his previous position, anxiously awaiting permission to be dismissed.

The queen unpeeled the wax from the envelope. She withdrew a crisp, cream colored letter. The room was silent, no one breathing louder than they could.

Please let the news be good…

The queen glared at the letter. Her dark eyebrows furrowed. Her eye color shifted from their normal wooded-brown to yellowish-gold. Her pupils dilated and stretched into diamonds.

The letter burst into flames.

The herald caught his breath, his eyes wide. A chill rushed through him.

Bad news. Definitely bad news.

A high ranking general beside the queen—General Edward Coel—frowned. One of her advisors, he was a large man in the sense that he had as much muscle as medals… and he rather liked his medals. His face was clean-shaven, his eyes a leafy green, and his close-shaven hair a gray mix of blond. “More rumors of the Prussian prince running off with that guard of his?”

The Dragon Queen scowled, confirming his suspicions.

“Your Majesty,” the elderly lady beside her—Lady Mildred Glover—interjected. Her frail body was not to be mistaken as weak, given the number of artifacts she wore. Several jewels pierced the length of her ears. A choker of brass hugged her neck, and a delicate handflower hung from each of her wrists. Even her long gray hair was looped and twined around chains of gold with diamond drops and rubies. All of this over her long, crimson and black robes as she mourned the death of the princess. “Do keep in mind that we should not believe these rumors until we have confirmation from our own men.”

Brave souls, the herald thought to himself. At least the queen’s attention was no longer on him.

“Yes,” General Coel said, “but many of the noblemen and women are buying into these rumors and expect action to be taken.” He paused, then lowered his voice. “Some even question your authority.”

The queen swung her head to face the general, her eyes a deathly yellow. Her fingers tightened around the dragon heads on her chair. Her fingers elongated, her nails stretching into claws. “Who of the nobility dares question my authority? I want their blood!”

A thin trail of smoke rolled from her mouth as she spoke, her voice harsh.

General Coel took a step back. He lowered his head to avoid eye contact. “I shall have them rounded up at once, Your Majesty. But if I may…”

He paused.

Probably wondering whether or not he will return home to see his wife and kids, the herald considered wryly. Those resistance groups did have a point; their queen was volatile.

And he sincerely hoped no telepaths were scanning his mind.

Judging by the fact he was still alive, they weren’t.

“If I may,” General Coel started again, “consider the image you give yourself if you punish our own people while the real culprits of this murder go unharmed.”

The queen slammed her fist against the chair. “Bring me those who question me. Now!”

General Coel swallowed hard. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

His boots thumped the stairs as he promptly left the queen’s side and proceeded to leave the court.

The herald winced. Poor fools. Hopefully their deaths would be quick.

“I hate to agree with him—” Lady Glover clasped her hands in front of her, the metal handflowers softly tinkling. “—but he has a point. To maintain your image of strength, you must act soon.”

The Dragon Queen turned her gaze to her advisor. “There is nothing I want more than to rip the life out of those responsible for the death of my dear Cassandra, but I will not be pressured by my own subjects to act before I am bloody ready!”

She snorted. A plume of smoke rushed from her nostrils.

Lady Glover bowed her head, and the thin chains of jewelry jangled in her hair. “Of course, Your Majesty.”

The Dragon Queen then turned to the herald. He stiffened. “Any word from Captain Bess?” she asked.

He shook his head. “My apologies, Your Majesty. There has been no word.”

He literally felt the heat from her disapproving glare. Her skin darkened, forming trace lines of a dragon’s scales.

“What about word from Major Henry McFee?”

The herald’s stomach twisted. Being assigned to this particular job, he was supposed to be aware of any potential contacts. But he had never heard of a Major Henry McFee.

“Sorry,” he stammered. He could not let on that he had no idea who the Major was.

“Add his name to the list,” the queen ordered. She sat back in her dragon-bone throne. “If any word comes in from either Captain Bess or Major McFee, I am to be alerted immediately.”

The herald was baffled. He could swear he had caught a hint of desperateness in her speech. Desperateness was not a trait he expected his queen to bear. But he could not let on his surprise. Not in front of the queen. He kept his face blank as he nodded.

“Yes, Your Majesty. At once.”

The queen rose, her face somber. “Court dismissed. I have preparations to attend to.”

The herald bowed his head and quickly turned on his heel. Silently, the other members of the court joined the herald as he fled the hall.

Once on the other side of the courtroom’s elaborate, jeweled doors, he breathed a sigh of relief.

He had made it out of the court in one piece.

* * *

The adventure continues in the next episode,  where Trish goes about her week at camp, facing trials of textbooks and tack…

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