The Multiverse Chronicles
SEASON ONE: EPISODE FOURTEEN
“The Test – Part Two”
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After the young pterosaur’s capture, the mangy humans kept her chained to their floating hut. At first, she fought the chain. She snapped at it and flapped her wings, but the chain held fast and the boat was anchored. Though the humans at the hatchery had kept her enclosed in their dome, they never bound her with a dirty, ragged chain, which tore at her skin and mangled her scales.
She was not a happy pterosaur.
Later that evening, the weathered man with straw-colored hair and grit in his wrinkled skin approached her with a pile of hemp rope in his hands. She shrieked at him and flared her wings, but he just smiled, revealing a set of broken teeth. The pterosaur snapped at him—let him see that her teeth were not broken! He only laughed. He dumped the rope on the sand and returned to his hut.
Shortly thereafter, the two men cornered her.
“Come now, be a good little drake. Gotta get you ready for the races. Can’t have you being too slow,” the brown-haired man jeered. The weathered man chuckled.
She tried to thwap them with her wings, but too soon the mangy men had cast a net of rope over her head. Her beak caught and her claws caught and her crest caught, too. She struggled, but the only result was to become further tangled. No escape.
Now that she was tethered, the weathered man knelt beside her and bound her beak so she could not bite, tied her claws so she could not scratch, and finally, strapped a leaden pad to her back.
They removed the net.
Furious, she tried to launch herself at them, only to stumble and collapse in the sand. How heavy were these weights, which prevented her from standing. She shrugged her shoulders, trying to at least sit upright. No such luck, for the weights held her down.
The brown-haired man frowned and rubbed the stubble on his chin. “She’s not fully grown, is she?” He gestured to the pterosaur. “Take off the back straps. She won’t get off the ground as it is.”
He gave the weathered man a sharp glare, who proceeded to remove the weights and run.
If she could have bit him through the rope around her beak, the man would have been missing a hand.
As it was, he high-tailed it to the floating boat, and she found she could stand again and shift her wings, though the weights were still cumbersome.
A fierce whistle pierced the air and a gust of steam rose from a metal pipe above the floating hut. What a terrible noise!
Then her chains lurched and she was torn into the ocean. The floating hut moved. She tried to fly, and did for a moment, but the weights quickly dragged her toward the tide. Salty water splashed into her eyes and nostrils. Her mind screamed that she could not fly, nor swim, so long as the chain held her fast. She sank, still flapping her wings, splashing.
Soon the hut navigated into deep water, and the young pterosaur used every inch of willpower to keep her head above the tide, to keep trying for her freedom, but the chains grew heavier and the weight more cumbersome, and her muscles burned from exertion until she could move no more. Her strength gave out and she sank, the ocean bubbling around her.
The world grew black.
She awoke later—uncertain how much time had passed—still chained but dry.
The mangy humans argued over a distant campfire.
Races and bets and not killing their best entry since their previous pterosaur had grown too wild to handle…
Too exhausted to care, she closed her eyes and slept.
Two days passed before the humans forced her again into the water. She tried to stay on the shore as they moved their boat into the ocean. But the sand betrayed her, parting easily to the human’s plans.
The result was nearly the same, though the near-drowned pterosaur stayed conscious as they dragged her back to land. Sand lodged in her scales, and she very much wished they would let her off the chain so she could end their miserable lives.
But the humans—for all they were mangy—had enough wit not to come too close when her beak was not bound, and thus the days blurred without chance to escape. And soon her strength grew. She started to fly above the water, not in it. She flew faster and faster. Not just along the shore, but around the island.
If she could keep up with their floating hut, the brown-haired man tossed her fresh fish. If she failed, the pain of the chain around her neck and the desire not to drown motivated her to try harder. Eventually she flew fast enough to overshoot the boat, and soon after, the mangy men took her to a small village on the mainland.
In the village were many humans of many sizes, shapes, and colors, and they brought other pterosaurs and birds as diverse as themselves. Here they chained their flying charges to long cables that stretched over the jungle.
The young pterosaur examined the contraption with trepidation. A tiny pterosaur had been chained to a cable parallel to her own. Beside the tiny pterosaur, a large vulture with a pink, wrinkled neck and a hooked beak.
Despite the cables, she puzzled at her surroundings. There were no floating huts in sight, and she wore no weights. Her wings felt incredibly light, though the hated halter had yet to be removed.
“You better bring us victory,” the weathered man warned as he stood just out of biting range, “or you’ll be flying laps all night.”
He tapped a piece of rolled paper in his hand, and then returned to the side of the clearing.
She cocked her head, confused.
A thundering boom rattled the trees!
She shrieked. The other winged creatures took flight along their cables, but she backed against the end of the lead, frozen with fear.
The humans yelled from the clearing. They shook flimsy papers and canvas bags that clinked with metal in their clutched fists.
“Get going, you stupid beast!” The weathered man threw a stone at her. She ducked and the stone sailed above her head. “Your going to make a fool of us!”
Another rock clipped her neck where the chain had been. Pain flared along her shoulders. What terrible creatures! Far more savage than the tiny pterosaurs! She lifted her wings and launched herself into the air. The cable tugged at her neck and kept her low to the trees, but she flew as fast as she could, away from the mangy men and their sharp rocks.
But the cable led her in a loop, and by the time she found the end, the humans cheered for the vulture, who spread its wings with pride in the balmy breeze.
“Stupid beast!” the weathered man scolded. “You could have won if you were not so dumb!” That night, the men flew her until she could fly no more.
A week later, they returned to the village.
“This time, I expect victory,” the weathered man told her.
The explosion initiated the savagery of the humans nearby. This time, she knew what to expect, and she had some sense of what the mangy men wanted. She flew as soon as the blast went off, and she was the first to reach the end.
This time, the vulture received the scolding.
“Yes! Victory!” the mangy men cheered. They swapped bags of rounded metal with the other humans, and when they returned to their floating hut, they did not make her fly.
As the weeks passed, the young pterosaur learned that victory meant less punishment.
As the months passed, her victories continued, and the mangy men became less mangy.
After a year passed, the mangy men wore fine leather hides, tailored to their forms. They kept their faces clean and smelled less of campfire and dung, and more of flowery perfumes. They became more tolerable, but even so, the pterosaur found that she liked them less and less.
She longed to fly free from their chains, free to get her own “victory.”
While their appearance may no longer have been mangy, they were still mangy to her.
Finally, a little over a year of giving them their victories, an ordinary race turned out to be less than ordinary. Beyond the explosion, beyond the jeering humans and the cables, she found that when she reached the end of the cable, the humans did not jeer.
New humans stood at the forefront of the crowd. Humans like the ones who had tended to her in the hatchery. One was a tall male with pale skin, and the other was female with dark skin and hair cropped near to her skull. They were clean—they smelled only of creatures in the hatchery, not of perfumes or campfires or of long weeks going unwashed—and they wore imposing red cloth about their bodies.
“Mr. Basso,” the woman said to the brown-haired man in a tongue that was at once familiar. “Are you aware of the penalty for illegally possessing one of the Queen’s drakes?”
“She’s not our queen,” the weathered man sneered. “We don’t answer to her.”
The woman narrowed her eyes as she turned to face him instead. “Fine. But are you aware of the penalty for illegally possessing a drake that belongs to the Dragon Queen? This drake is obviously one of her hatchlings.”
The man shrugged. “Look, lady, I had no idea this creature was one of her pterosaurs. They all look the same to me.” He grinned, showing his missing teeth.
Her face darkened. “You look stupid enough to think we would believe that,” she said flatly. “Regardless, we are repossessing this drake. If you try to interfere, I can say with zero doubt that you will not live to tell the difference.”
The man beside her raised his hand, and a tiny flame danced along his fingers.
The weathered man backed away, his hands raised in defeat. “Fine—fine! Take the beast. She’s getting slow anyway.” He flashed the pterosaur a scowl, but both of the mangy men backed off as the two newcomers approached her.
The tall man looked her over, then frowned. He glanced to the woman. “She is old enough to be at the academy. Do you think they can still train her?”
She sighed. “We must hope so. If not, they will have to cull her as a rogue.”
* * *
Trish eyed her reflection in the glass lenses of her flight goggles. Today was her first day flying, and butterflies took their own flight in her stomach. If she messed this up, she would be stuck on the ground for another week, chasing books and meeting with Colonel Pearson so she could be lectured about everything she failed to do right.
Even if she aced the trial flight, Pearson would probably still lecture her about every imperfection, but the consequences would be worse if she really messed up. She would be shipped home on the first airship out of Francia, and her pterosaur would be executed.
Trish swallowed hard, palms sweating, and pushed those thoughts aside. Better to think of all the books and the beast mastery drills she had completed. She tightened her fingers around the thick leather straps of her goggles. She would do well. Her performance might not be dazzling, but it could not be so bad as to get her shipped home.
She snatched her flight cap and aviator jacket from her bed, hooked them over her arms, and then crossed the campgrounds to the stables. While she had already tacked her pterosaur, she wanted to double-check the harness. Lady Akeyo did say it was loose yesterday, and all consequences aside, falling off a pterosaur at ten-thousand feet because the harness came undone could only end badly.
The stable smelt less of pterosaur droppings than it did of fresh straw, so Sean must have recently cleaned. A few pterosaurs peered down at Trish from the roost. The incoming sunlight caught their emerald- and amber-colored eyes. Trish shifted the jacket uneasily across the crook of her elbow, feeling their judging gaze like a heavy weight on her shoulders.
Like they were trying to ground her.
Trying to make sure she didn’t get another one of them killed.
She shuddered and hurried to the other side of the stable, unlatched the gate to her pterosaur’s cage, and slipped inside. The creature perked up. Anticipation and excitement emanated from her thoughts.
Trish smiled. I’m excited, too. How about you, girl? You ready?
The pterosaur bobbed her head once and Trish grinned. At least someone was enthusiastic.
Canvas rustled behind them and she glanced over her shoulder. Sean stood just outside the cage, a bag of feed at his feet.
“Do you think she’s ready?” he asked.
The pterosaur butted her head against Trish’s flight jacket.
Trish licked her lips. “I think so.” She placed her jacket on a hook at the side of the cage, then double- and triple-checked the harness.
“Wonderful!” Sean beamed. “You’ll do great. I mean, Lady Akeyo requested that I be out there today, just in case something goes wrong, but I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
Both the pterosaur and Trish gazed at Sean. A niggling worm of doubt settled in her stomach alongside the butterflies. “You think something will go wrong?”
A rosy pink spread through his cheeks, and he quickly waved his hands of the notion. “Personally, no. I don’t think Lady Akeyo does either, or she would be there herself.” He shrugged, and a tiny smile formed on his lips. “She probably thinks that having me there will put the other riders at ease.”
Right. The other riders.
Trish scuffed the ground with her boot. The other riders cast nothing more than snubbed noses her direction. They would probably be at the edge of the field today, riled by Captain Owston’s jibes, waiting for her to make a mistake.
The pterosaur snorted her disgust.
Mangy humans… always looking for errors.
Trish blinked and raised an eyebrow.
That particular sentiment had been oddly specific.
No pressure, girl. We’ll do great, Trish sent. The pterosaur nodded her head in sharp agreement.
Sean frowned. “Everything all right?”
“Yeah.” Trish forced a smile. “The other riders probably just want an excuse to watch the performance.”
“Well…” Sean rubbed the back of his neck. “That is one perk.”
Her forced smile loosened into a real one. “Thanks. It’ll be nice to have someone cheering for us. I doubt the other riders will.”
Sean’s blush burned as fiery as his hair. “Oh, don’t worry about them. They don’t matter. It’s just you and her.”
A throat cleared behind them and a wave of disgust hit Trish from her pterosaur. She nearly severed the connection in her surprise.
For the love of the queen… since when did her pterosaur get so talkative?
“If the two of you are quite finished—” Captain Owston sneered at Trish from the opposite end of the tent, and suddenly Trish was not so certain that the disgust had come from her pterosaur. “Private Ivers—bring your drake. You are up for assessment.” He tilted his chin, his eyes cold. “Try not kill anything.”
Trish froze. Pearson had said nothing about an actual assessment!
Wasn’t this supposed to be a trial flight?
This was hardly fair. Not for her first flight. And if Captain Owston was judging, she might as well throw in the towel.
She swallowed hard.
She couldn’t give up now. That would mean the end of her pterosaur.
Despite the hitch in her breathing, she saluted the dragon-blasted captain.
“Yes, sir,” she said.
Captain Owston sniffed before wheeling on his heel and promptly exiting the tent.
Trish let out her breath. “Mangy human…” she muttered.
The pterosaur concurred, and Sean whistled. “I’m glad I don’t answer to him.”
“No kidding.” Trish shook her head, giving her pterosaur an odd look, then silently commanded her pterosaur to follow. The beast raised her head, proud, and returned Trish’s command with a sense of confidence and superiority.
On the field, several senior pilots awaited their arrival—including Captain Owston and Colonel Pearson. Pearson kept casting a disapproving scowl at Owston. Perhaps he had not planned on this being a true assessment?
Or had there been an exception made, because her pterosaur was rogue, and she was a second-chance private?
She swallowed hard. The clear, dusky blue skies did nothing to calm her nerves. But only a couple birds passed overhead. If she correctly recalled her homework, then no one else was allowed to fly during the hour of an assessment. The senior pilots needed to see how she flew and interacted with her pterosaur in order to accurately judge her.
She flexed her fingers, nervous. She would be flying solo in the sky with her pterosaur, the only silhouette swooping and diving, the highlight of the other riders’ attention—
She took a few deep breaths to calm herself, and was surprised to find that she was indeed calm. Even her pterosaur brimmed with confidence. They could ace this test… and all the ones after.
That confidence swelled in her chest, thick, and slowly drowned out the fluttering butterflies. Confidence was important, especially given that General Buford himself stood among the crowd with Ruger at his side.
The general was here?
Her jaw dropped and the butterflies returned with a vengeance. If she failed, judgment would be swift.
“All right, Private,” Captain Owston said, his nose still in the air and his regal voice booming. “The rules of this assessment are simple. You must locate and retrieve a series of beacons in under thirty minutes. Any violations of the Code of Flight will be counted against your score, along with any unrecovered beacons. The clock starts now.”
He donned a smug smile and started his timer.
Trish tugged her jacket over her shoulders and snapped the flight cap tight under her chin. The goggles fitted snug against her cheeks. She mounted her pterosaur as fast as she dared, then fastened herself with a metal carabineer to the safety harness. Then she leaned into the soft leather saddle that protected the pterosaur’s back, and hooked her fingers under the harness.
Come on, girl. Let’s wipe that smile off his face.
Satisfaction filled her mind from the pterosaur. They would best him.
The pterosaur took two steps forward, raising her wings to get lift. Then she brought her wings down, swift. They were up! The air stung Trish’s face as they ascended, the pterosaur’s wings rising and falling, faster and faster, in a tangible rhythm she had only dreamed about. The pterosaur’s neck muscles rippled under the tips of her hand and the pterosaur’s body flexed under her saddle. The ground fell beneath them, growing in distance until the other riders below her were mere ants.
Trish’s stomach dropped—she was flying.
Freedom and joy rushed through her mind. For the pterosaur—caged and cooped for the past couple weeks with only a lead rope twice a day for freedom—stretching her wings and soaring in the higher altitudes was like returning home.
And for Trish, this was more exhilarating than anything she had felt before. She could stay up here forever, well above the unfair judgments of her fellow riders.
The pterosaur screamed in joyful agreement, and a hiccup of laughter burbled from Trish’s throat.
They were flying!
The wind, the trees below, the tiny people—
A glint of sunlight flashed off a stopwatch, and her breath caught in her throat.
Reality spun toward her like a harsh slap to the cheek.
They were being timed.
Suddenly the ground felt far below them and the flying was faster, more frantic than she had expected. Her pterosaur was fine, but Trish didn’t have wings—
Now was not the time.
She had less than half an hour to find five-to-eight beacons and return to the field. She pushed her fears aside and dug into her pterosaur’s mind. This was her first flight, so she had to rely solely on the pterosaur’s experience and her own book learning.
Her eyes widened, and she realized now why Pearson had given her all that homework.
The Honour of Tactical Flying had not only outlined each of the points of the Code of Flight in clear detail, but it had also outlined the procedures of exams such as this one, including the possible locations of the beacons.
She scanned the distant ground, and finally, she spotted her first candidate.
Okay, girl, she thought, transmitting the mental image of the location to her pterosaur. Head to the clearing near the creek. We should find at least one or two beacons there.
Her own eyesight was not primed for seeing at such great distances, so she slipped into her pterosaur’s thoughts and peered through the pterosaur’s eyes. This time, she met the pterosaur’s mind with no resistance. The forest narrowed into focus, every leaf crisp to their stems, the colors a blinding maze of bright shades she had never seen before. Colors were brighter, and different hues—right down to the pale purple glow at the edge of flower petals and the tiny splotches along the ground.
Trish withdrew from the pterosaur’s thoughts, overwhelmed. She had read about their greater spectrum of sight, but she had not tried more than a couple times to see the world in this detail. She licked her lips, and was about to try again to scan the forest when the pterosaur spotted the first beacon and dove. They plunged. Leaves and branches flashed toward them. Trish let out an involuntary squeak. The rushing wind, the cool air tickling the tiny hairs under her wings…
Trish returned to her own mind as the pterosaur twisted and then landed with a satisfying thud. She used her beak-like-mouth to snatch the beacon—an enchanted, gold-plated ring—from a low tree limb.
Trish could not help but laugh as the pterosaur passed the ring back to her. They had retrieved the first beacon! She balanced careful and quick, then snatched the ring in the most tricky part of the maneuver—not falling from the saddle as the pterosaur took flight again.
She clipped the artifact to the harness with a free carabineer, then patted the pterosaur’s neck. Good job, girl. They were actually doing this! But next time, don’t dive until I say so, okay?
The pterosaur snapped her beak and ruffled her wings before returning a semi-obedient if you insist.
Trish glowered at the back of her pterosaur’s crest. The side-effect of having a rogue drake was that she sometimes acted before the Trish knew what to expect.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, Trish spotted the glow of another beacon.
The pterosaur changed course. Moments later, the drake had snatched the next beacon in her beak and passed it back. In the distance, Trish spotted a small puff of smoke. Too far out to be an effective beacon, and likely set up as a diversion from closer rings.
Confidence soared through the pterosaur’s mind at the idea that they could reach the beacon and return in time, but Trish shook her head. Smoke was definitely a sign of a beacon, but with only ten minutes to find the remaining beacons, losing a point or two was better than not meeting time.
The pterosaur protested with a shallow, clicking growl, but she started scanning the nearby forest. She knew how to fly, but Trish knew the rules of the assessment.
After picking up the third and fourth ring, Trish checked her watch.
Eight minutes left.
More than enough time to return with their four rings, but her pterosaur again drew Trish’s attention to the smoke in the distance.
Trish shook her head. We don’t have that much time.
The pterosaur protested as she circled.
They could do this. Speed. They could do this.
Trish glanced hesitantly to the rings on her harness. Four rings were enough to pass if there were only five or six rings, but not enough if there were seven or eight.
Owston had not said how many rings were in this particular assessment.
Trish frowned. They could scout the nearby surroundings for more beacons, and they might not find anything, but the smoke guaranteed at least one ring.
The pterosaur’s muscles tensed. A sense of great speed, faster than before, overcame Trish’s thoughts.
They could do this…
Trish swallowed hard. Okay, girl. If you think we can get the ring, let’s try.
Joy rushed through her. The pterosaur thrust her wings fast, pushing harder and harder, then dropped at a steep slope, wings tucked close to her sides. Trish’s eyes widened as the ground raced towards her, faster, faster—
The pterosaur shot upward, leveled out, and flapped once more to gain momentum. She spread her wings, soaring with the sun on her back.
Trish held her breath, amazed. The Queen’s drakes were known for reaching speeds of up to eighty miles per hour when flying without a rider—page one hundred and two, per The Honour of Tactical Flying, Third Edition—but still, the rate at which her pterosaur approached the smoke was astounding.
They reached the smoke pit and her pterosaur circled low. One ring—two, three, four rings—
Anger swelled within them.
Four beacons lay around a small camp fire. If they had not come here, they would have failed by default.
Owston had set them up for failure.
Trish clenched her teeth, her knuckles white around the lengths of the harness.
He had wanted them to fail.
The pterosaur ignored her dismay and snatched each ring into her beak, and then immediately turned back toward the field. She did not bother to hand back the rings.
Just as well. Trish could not have secured the rings properly given the fury in her trembling hands.
She glanced at her watch.
Four minutes remained.
She concentrated on the distant field. Come on, girl, you have to do this!
Victory. Imminent victory…
The drake soared faster. The wind slashed through Trish’s jacket, cold despite the summer, and she was glad for her goggles. They would hide her fury at Owston. Vendetta raged within the pterosaur’s mind, flooding Trish via their connection.
They both knew they had been played.
But if the pterosaur lost control, they would still loose.
Trish swallowed hard. Hey girl, keep your cool. We’re doing good.
They would do well to remember the calming technique Pearson had been teaching her.
The pterosaur returned a clear sense that no physical harm would come to the mangy human. They would have victory. Anger burned in her thoughts, but so did her determination.
You’re a fiery one. Trish grinned.
They could do this.
They swooped over the field and landed in front of one befuddled Captain Owston.
The pterosaur eyed him steadily, then dropped the four beacons at his feet.
Trish quickly checked for signs of aggression, but the pterosaur held her temper in check. Better than Trish, too, had her own temper not been tested by the survival of her pterosaur.
Trish checked her watch. Nine seconds remained.
“We’ve got the rings,” she announced to the crowd.
Captain Owston eyed the two of them, then sniffed. “Your descent was far too fast—likely to cause damage to the drake. That is a violation of the Codes of Flight. Your scores will be taken into review for disqualification.”
The pterosaur started forward, but Trish gently tugged her harness. He said review, she calmed, though she personally would not have minded seeing the captain’s head between the pterosaur’s toothy beak.
The pterosaur returned a feeling of appreciation, then started they both felt a second presence enter the pterosaur’s mind.
Four rings at the smoke signal…
The presence vanished, and the pterosaur let out a rumble of protest. Trish shuddered.
“No need for the review,” General Buford said. He stepped through the crowd to stand beside the captain. Ruger followed close behind, eyeing Captain Owston suspiciously. “Given the unusual distance and number of rings at the smoke signal, I will personally overrule any issues with the descent. All other codes were followed, and all rings were collected within the appropriate time.” He turned his attention to the crowd. “Private Ivers and her drake, DJ7-467, hereby pass their assessment. Colonel Pearson—please begin training Ivers with the rest of your riders.” Buford nodded to his colonel, then turned to face Trish and her pterosaur. He smiled. Thin wrinkles formed at the corners of his eyes. “Congratulations, Private. DJ7-467.”
Both he and his wolf nodded their heads to Trish and her pterosaur in unison.
“Oh, and Captain…” The general swiveled on his polished heel to address Owston, a forced smile on his face. “We need to examine your assessment techniques and choice to call an assessment before even a trial flight could be organized. Meet me in my office at 1400.”
Captain Owston’s jaw dropped. Trish secretly hoped a fly might land there, though she did not wish such a fate on even as annoying a creature as a fly.
Owston was far too sour.
The pterosaur raised her beak, smug.
Hey, no need for that, Trish scolded. You’re better than that.
The pterosaur tilted her head, scowling at Trish, and returned the sentiment.
* * *
* * *
That night, a pigeon flew into the musty loft. The other birds cooed softly and shuffled in their cages. Some slept. The taskmaster, Sergeant Cornwell, rose from his desk with a biscuit in hand and took the letter from the bird.
Strange. It was not their usual bird.
He gave the letter a quick glance before he dropped his half eaten biscuit, his eyes wide. “Dragon’s breath!” He raced from the loft and ran the letter to the general with inhuman speed. “Harry, Harry! It’s happened! The queen declared war on the Industrial Union!” He stopped in front of the general, not the slightest bit winded despite his pounding heart.
Buford looked up from his papers, confused. “Wait… say that again?”
The taskmaster quickly brushed the biscuit crumbs from his black whiskers and stood straight at attention. “I just got the message from headquarters.”
He let out a breath.
“We’re at war with Prussia.”
* * *
The adventure continues in the next episode…