A giant metal centipede marched across the bleak winter landscape, the pilot edging it through the forest. Its multitude of legs crunched against the thick sheet of snow in awkward, sporadic movements. The soft echo of clanking and whirring gears began to slow. The machine flickered in and out of sight, the invisibility setting becoming an increasingly unreliable feature. It soon came to a stop, doing a final sweep of its tail to erase its tracks. After a pause, its hulking body collapsed into the snow, fully visible.
The centipede’s mouth lurched open with a loud clunk, and a slight sixteen-year-old scurried from the machine and sprinted to its side. Jade gathered her brown-black hair into a high ponytail before reaching into her cloak. She withdrew an oil can from her robes, murmuring curses while filling the metal beast’s crevices with black liquid. Her short tunic and slacks were elegantly stitched but still practical for maneuvering the bulky machine. She surveyed the landscape with a practiced wariness.
Jade tensed. A loud whistling shot through the frigid air. Behind her, a long stream of smoke flowed from a gigantic tank. It bounded toward the edge of the forest, leveling everything in its path. Jade rushed back inside the centipede’s mouth, sat in the cockpit, and flicked several switches. The machine responded with a series of mechanical groans, still in plain view and refusing to move.
Toolbox in hand, she hurried back out to the machine’s side and flipped open a panel, waving off the steam emitting from the circuitry. Jade jerked her head in the direction of the rapidly encroaching tank. Steadying her breathing, she set down the toolbox, crossed her arms, and held her palms upward, as if drawing energy into them. She closed her eyes and clapped her hands onto the machine. She opened her eyes. Nothing. Her hands fell to her side and she took a deep breath, closing out the sounds around her. She crossed her arms and once again clapped her hands onto the cold metal. A pale blue light ignited around her hands and flowed into the mechanisms. With a click and a whir, the machine roared back to life and became invisible once more.
Jade smiled with relief and triumph. She closed the box and clambered back inside the metal beast’s mouth, throwing the toolbox beside her before snapping its mouth shut with the flick of a switch. The centipede crept away from the forest floor and into the underbrush as the tank intruded on her location.
It ground to a halt and the hatch cracked open. A dozen soldiers in white uniforms pounced from the machine, their heavy boots crunching against the snow.
A freckled woman of imposing height strode to the front, the gold insignia of a captain pinned to her cloak. Although Kaylen was only a few years older than Jade, she carried herself with an authority well beyond her years. She sniffed the chilled air irritably, surveying the landscape with a stern and piercing gaze.
“Page,” the woman barked. A teenage boy scurried to her side. “Are you sure you sighted her?”
“The reports said that a centipede patrol pod was spotted around these parts,” he said.
“All right, spread out and scour the forest,” Kaylen ordered. “We need to get her back to the capital as soon as we can.” The party split into groups and began their search.
Kaylen marched by the centipede’s round, eye-shaped windows. Jade shifted backward, the click of metal centipede legs whirring softly.
“Come out, Jade. There’s nothing you can do for your father now. Come home and all will be forgiven.”
Jade rolled her eyes. She drew her pod back farther, but a furious tapping on the metal walls made her pause. A small yet strong creature crawled atop the machine. After a couple of rapid scratches, a panel flew off, causing the search party to turn their attention in Jade’s direction. A yellow dragon jumped from the machine and slithered out into the open. They jumped back in amazement. It was only slightly bigger than a rat with long, reedy wings folded on its back. The creature hissed at the gathering, slinging its whip-like tail in their direction.
One teenage boy choked back a laugh. “That’s a dragon?”
The rest of the party laughed, too. “This thing’s nothing like the one back in the capital.”
“That’s enough. Let me handle it,” said Kaylen. The woman removed her spear from her side satchel and flicked on a switch, making the tip sizzle with electricity. The dragon’s eyes widened in fear and alarm before spitting a tiny ball of flame onto her glove, causing it to ignite. She clapped her glove against her side to put it out.
The creature paused, turning its attention away from the gathering. A blue light shined through the trees as someone emerged from deep within the forest. A small and stout-figured young woman, around Jade’s age, held a pan flute to her lips, but there was no sound. The round gemstone that hung around her neck swung side to side in a gentle rhythm with every step she took, giving off a soft glow that radiated throughout the forest.
The dragon stood still, entranced. The young woman waved her hand toward the forest, and the dragon promptly skittered back into the underbrush. She turned to the awestruck crowd while wearing a look of detached amusement.
“How did you do that? What is that?” asked the page.
“No need to thank me. .” Her voice was as sharp as splintered wood. “This is a special flute that only dragons can hear. Tegu dragons are skittish but volatile things. You need to be cautious around them.”
The gathering continued to stare.
“Well, I was just passing through. I really must be going.” She gave a casual wave and turned to leave.
“You’re a witch?” said Kaylen, her grip tightening on the crackling spear.
“Hardly,” the woman scoffed, turning back to them with a sigh. “Just a simple trick I picked up.” She slid the flute inside her robes.
Whispers of magic weaved through the party as they continued to eye her with suspicion.
“This is magic.” She crossed her arms and closed her palms, then opened them to reveal a lump of blue powder. She threw it to the ground, creating a puff of smoke that engulfed her. The group’s coughs and sputters were followed by mocking, disembodied laughter.
“You shouldn’t have wasted your time on me. It seems your target has escaped.” When the smoke cleared, the young woman had vanished.
She materialized deep in the forest and sauntered off toward a small valley, wearing her self-satisfaction like an old, well-loved coat.
She paused. The hum of an engine approached. A metal centipede appeared before her, grinding to a halt. The mouth cracked open, and Jade soon scurried out. Snow clung to the hollow trees that surrounded them.
“What you did back there was incredible! My name is Jade of House Sol. Thank you for that distraction.” She gave a quick bow of gratitude.
“How did you find me?” said Miria.
“I just followed the sparks of magic you left behind. It’s a pleasure to meet you, um?”
“I’m just Miria. Miria Atkins. And no need to thank me, I was just passing through. You’re not afraid of magic?”
“It can be useful.”
Miria turned her attention to the mechanical centipede. “An impressive machine. My brother would love it.”
Jade ran a hand along the rusting surface. “Not always reliable, but it’s the best I have right now.”
“Could I ask why you’re so popular, Jade of House Sol?”
“That’s complicated,” said Jade, averting her gaze. The hiss of the centipede filled the silence. She took in a breath and turned to the other young woman. “You know a few things about dragons. Would you know anything about their home? Or how to get there?”
“You ask a lot of questions. That’s not safe, my friend.”
“I learned that the hard way,” said Jade, her voice cracked and bitter.
Miria gazed up at the snowfall. “The Isle of Dragons is a fairy tale. A bedtime story for children.”
“That’s clearly not what the nobles think,” Jade countered with a slight note of bitterness.
“Well, you know nobility,” Miria chuckled. “I’m sorry, Jade of House Sol, but I should be getting home to the farm. I only came because my grandmother sensed trouble. She’s good at that, you know. I suggest you find shelter, too. Good luck on your travels.” Miria shuffled down the hillside, pulling her cloak tightly about her.
“Wait! Please! I need your help! My father’s missing. I heard he was taken to the Isle of Dragons. Can’t you tell me anything about how to get there?”
Miria stopped. “I’m sorry, I really am.” She continued down the hill.
Jade shuffled through the snow. She couldn’t let her only lead slip away.
“Wait,” she whispered, her voice rough and desperate. “One night!” she called out. She rifled through the inside of her cloak, withdrawing a fat satchel filled with coins and gave it a light jingle. “I have more if you want it. Just let me stay for one night. I promise that I’ll leave in the morning, and you’ll never see me again.”
Miria turned on her heel, regarding the stranger with an arched brow. Jade opened the satchel and presented the glowing gold coins to the young woman. Her eyes grew large as she tentatively dipped a hand inside to inspect the dozens of glistening coins.
“Well then, what choice do I have?” Miria said as she took the offered satchel and secured it to her belt in a tight knot.
“I suppose we should get out of this snow,” Jade suggested.
Miria nodded. “Not the ideal weather for this talk.”
Jade dashed inside the centipede’s gaping mouth. She motioned to the compartment behind her.
“I should warn you that I’ve never been good with pods.” Once Miria slid into place, she held Jade’s shoulder with a viselike grip. It tightened as Jade flicked on switches and the pod began shuffling through the thick layers of snow, making its way down the steep hillside.
“Is it usual for dragons to attack at random?” asked Jade, trying to distract Miria from her uneasiness.
Miria wiped at the foggy porthole on the centipede’s left side. “No, not at all. They’re rather antisocial things.”
“Life of Dragons wasn’t nonsense after all then,” Jade muttered with a note of triumph.
“That old thing? You must be resourceful to have found a copy. The authors wouldn’t even write under their real names.”
“So, you’ve read it? They said the Isle of Dragons was a real place, and they were experts in their field.”
“They theorized about the possibility, yes. But that was all.”
Jade sighed. “Well, do you have any idea what’s causing these dragon attacks, like the one in the capital several months back?”
“Were you there for that?”
“It happened in my father’s fiefdom. It was a screeching pale creature that died shortly after wreaking havoc. Took everything we had to rebuild.”
“That doesn’t sound like any dragon I’ve heard of before. My best guess is that they’ve gone wild with some kind of infection.”
The pod shuffled through the modestly housed village. The rare person who ventured outside stopped to gaze in wonder as they passed. Barren fields and cottages lined their path, the long winter taking its toll on the locals’ crops.
When they reached a clearing, Miria tapped Jade’s shoulder.
“My home’s just a little farther.” She pointed to a modest cobblestone cottage with a long trail of smoke flowing from the chimney.
Jade slowed the mechanical centipede until it ground to a halt in front of a dusty wooden barn. She removed her belongings from the pod’s mouth and took in her surroundings.
“Welcome to our humble farm,” Miria said with a grand, sweeping gesture.
“You’re too generous.” After weeks on the run, Jade tried to shake off the weariness that fell upon her shoulders like a heavy blanket.
“You won’t think that once you meet my family.” Miria pointed in the direction of an old tattered woodshed. Baritone murmurs of excitement accompanied the turning of bolts and clanks of metal. The floorboards creaked as Jade followed Miria into the work shed where they were greeted by a stout mechanical bull. A broad-shouldered teenage boy sat on top of it, screwing parts into place with a wrench.
“We won’t need that old thing for another season, Dan,” Miria’s voice rang through the shed. He fell from the mechanical beast with a start.
“You always have to interrupt me while I’m in the middle of caring for Jen.” Miria helped him to his feet with a chuckle. “At least you made it back okay. I was starting to worry,” he said.
“I can take care of myself, little brother.” Miria reached up to ruffle the dust from his brown hair. Jade covered her mouth with her hand to stifle a laugh.
After dusting off his overalls, Dan’s fixed his eyes on Jade’s pod. He reeled toward it, inspecting every piece in quiet awe.
“You’re incredible,” he said.
“Maybe you should speak to the owner as well, Dan,” said Miria, pointing to Jade.
He picked up his cap from the floor and began shuffling it about in his calloused hands.
“I’m sorry, miss. Just never seen a machine like that before. Good to meet you,” said Dan, holding out a hand.
“This is Jade. Of House Sol. I found her in the woods with some less-than-competent pursuers,” Miria explained as Jade accepted his firm handshake.
“I was almost expecting you to bring another dragon home as a pet,” Dan teased.
“Please, the last time I did that I was ten. And, speaking of juveniles, we’d best go inside. The kids are probably at it again.” She turned to the cottage as the yelling grew louder.
“Jade here is a noble with an interest in witchcraft,” said Miria. “Maybe you could show us what you can do.”
“You’re a witch?” Dan asked.
“Of course not,” said Jade. “But magic can be a useful tool when you’re on the run.”
“I always think the best tools are the ones you find in the shed,” said Dan with a small shrug.
After setting the mechanical centipede back to invisible, Jade followed the siblings to the cottage.
“It was nice to get away from wild siblings, even for a short time,” Dan mused with a note of weariness.
Jade smiled. “I always wanted a brother or sister. I’m sure you’re exaggerati—”
The trio was greeted by the sight of a boy of about twelve floating in midair. He floated atop a ball of blue light, clinging to a jar of cookies while an older girl watched on. She tapped her foot impatiently, hands on her hips.
“Gran and Pa made those for a special occasion. Now get down here before you ruin your dinner.”
“They didn’t say when that occasion was. Why can’t we just enjoy them now?”
An elderly man sat by the fireside, engrossed in a book, seemingly unaware of the commotion. He traced each word with a bony finger as he peered over his spectacles, his dark eyes twinkling.
Miria stepped between the boy and girl. “Listen to your sister for once, Avi.” She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose.
The boy descended to the floor and rushed to his sister. “Did you find anything interesting in the forest?” he asked.
“I did, actually.” She gestured to Jade, who gave a self-conscious wave.
The two younger siblings turned to the newcomer. “You look like you haven’t slept much in a long time,” Avi observed.
“I haven’t,” Jade admitted.
While the boy welcomed her, Elisa locked a questioning stare on her sister. Miria shrugged, turning her attention to the man sitting by the fire.
“Pa, where did Gran get to?” she asked.
“Oh, you’re back!” The man put his book on the mantelpiece and hobbled forward to embrace his granddaughter. “Are you all right? Did your grandmother’s hunch turn out to be true?”
A husked voice rang from the top of the stairs. “My hunches are always right, Tarin. You should know that by now.” A maple wood walking stick clacked against the stairs as a hunched old woman with a crooked smile approached Jade. “Bringing home guests, Miria? The last one you brought home breathed fire and tried to eat the furniture.”
“I assure you, I won’t do either of those things,” said Jade.
“That’s good to know at least, right, Gila?” Tarin said with a light chuckle. “But where is our new guest from and what brings you to our old farm?”
“My name’s Jade of House Sol, and I was once nobility,” she said. “My only family was stolen away to the Isle of Dragons a little while ago. I need your help to find it.”
“Well, I admit that I didn’t see this happening,” said Gila. “This sounds like a long story.”
“You could say that,” said Jade, rubbing her aching joints.
“Then please, take a seat.” The old woman gestured to the rocking chair. “The best place by the fire is always reserved for the storyteller.”
Jade took a seat on the edge of the rocking chair with her back straight and her hands clasped tightly. She took in a deep breath, calling on her memories of her father’s trial.