Sirens blared. Burning buildings lit the night sky with glowing cinders. Creeping up from the dark waters below, giant plated crawlers engulfed the ground. From the air, large, feathered creatures swooped down to feast on the fallen townsfolk. Bodies littered the pathways.
Everywhere, everyone was running in a panic—away from the monsters, the fire, the pirates—carrying babies, children, possessions. They poured in waves onto the docks to squeeze onto the last evacuation screams filled the air, mixing with the crackling of the fires and the sickening crunches of corpses being devoured by wingers. Amidst the waves of people, a girl with orange hair wandered in shock. The rushing crowd almost knocked her down. She touched her arms, which were bloodied and scraped from her fall moments before.
Her legs trembled and she fell on her bruised and battered knees on the cobblestone pathway. "I… I don't understand…." Her voice quivered. "Why are the pirates here…? Where are the special forces she sent to protect us?" A heavy moment passed as she sat in confusion and horror. She whipped her head to either side, then darted off. "Oh no. Grandpa. I have to save him!"
She ran, scrambling through the chaos until she reached the workshop out of breath. Based on the damage done to the building, it had already been plundered by the pirates, and her grandfather lay against the edge of his work table, impaled by a sharp metal pole.
A terrified squeak escaped the orange-haired girl, quickly evolving into a desolate cry. "Grandpa!"
He was barely still alive. His shaky hand searched around in the air for her face. The girl with orange hair dove into his arms. She grasped at him shakily, trying to find and cover any wounds she could while avoiding the lethal pole.
"We'll get help, Grandpa," she said, failing to get her sobbing under control. "Help is coming—I'm sure it is—"
"No… I didn't want you to see me like this," said her grandpa. He let out a blood-splattered cough.
"You have to get to the boats, Grandpa—"
"You'll have to leave me, dear." He stroked her head. "My heart died forty years ago. It's time for my body to meet it…." He trailed off, the life fading from him.
"Grandpa!" Her eyes, already red and sore from crying, welled with fresh tears. She recoiled from her grandpa's body, hugging herself. She tossed her head back and started to bawl. "No! I did everything!" she screamed. "I did everything."
In the old castle, an elderly woman in an elegant gown stood at the ready, sword in hand. It was the Queen herself. The windows before her shattered, enabling a hoard of pirates to pour in. She was surrounded.
"Not so safe anymore without your royal guards," said a man before her, humanoid but creaturelike in his features. He tilted his tricorne hat upward. There was bloodlust in his eyes and the moonlight glinted off of them in a sickening fashion.
"I'm not too old that I can't win a fight," said the Queen, drawing herself into a dignified fighting stance. "If you're looking for the diaries of my father, I burned them all."
"My sources tell me otherwise." The man unsheathed his cutlass, grinning ruthlessly. Their swords clashed.
In an instant, it all went black. Sometime afterward, the Queen's body washed up on shore. Whenever it happened, and whatever it meant, who could say? There were no other witnesses to the fight, other than one lonely spectator not a soul could see.
Kass's first thought when she awoke and touched the drool on her chin was, Oh, no, I fell asleep in class again, didn't I?
Her second thought, as the schoolteacher shouted "Kass Cooper!" repeatedly, was, They didn't skip my presentation, did they?
She turned her head about in a daze. Her friend who sat next to her, Nell, shook her arm. "You were sleeping," he whispered. Yeah—she knew. She sunk into her chair in embarrassment, feeling oddly shaken up.
She sniffed, wiping the rest of the drool with the sleeve of her shirt. She had been dreaming—about something important, probably—but what was it again?
She was given no time to consider. "I find it quite odd for my star pupil to have fallen asleep in the middle of class," said the schoolteacher with her hands on her hips, "especially during project presentations."
"I—I know. I'm sorry." Kass looked apologetically toward the student who was presenting, whom she was now interrupting. "I was too excited. I—I stayed up all night."
The teacher gave her a nod. "You will present after Samuel, then."
"Yes. I'm sorry."
Kass knew she was guilty, but she didn't let it keep her down. After all, today was project presentation day! Every year the boarding school did this to celebrate Thendor's industrious history, and have something to write home to parents about ensuring that they were training the next generation of aspiring innovators and leaders.
She listened intently to her classmate's presentation. He had made a paper-mache model of a new cage design for crawlers. It had to be a relatively large size—the invasive varieties ranged from sizes of a fist to a toddler. Worked to 60% efficiency, he claimed. Tested it on a giant snail.
"Any questions?" Samuel asked.
Kass's friend Nell rose his hand. "I think you're underestimating the tremendous bite force of some of these creatures," he explained. "There are many types of stag and ground beetles that could easily chew through your—"
"Shut it, nerd."
"Yes, okay." Nell shrunk in his seat.
Kass tossed him a sympathetic smile. She felt bad for him, but their classmates were just teasing. She was certain the only person who enjoyed learning about crawlers and wingersin all of Thendor was Nell. Not a lot of them to be seen in their island country, of course. Thendor was safe for a reason. It was an industrial island, one that the large, plated creatures, crawlers and wingers, hadn't touched for years, making it practically one of the safest places in all of Andethall.
"Thank you for your presentation, Samuel," said the teacher. She nodded to Kass.
Kass stifled her yawn and brought her small project, wrapped in a bit of cloth, to the front of the classroom.
"What is your name."
"Right. Uh. My name is Kass. But you all know that."
"Thank you, Kass." The teacher flipped over a page on her clipboard. "Please share how your device will help defend the island against the crawlers and wingers invading from the South."
"I'm excited for you all to see what I've built," she told the class, whipping off the cloth. Her classmates pitched forward in their seats, so she held it out so they could see it a little better. It was shaped like a winger, fit in both of her hands, and was filled with tiny wooden gears.
"I say!" said her friend Nell, adjusting his glasses. "That wooden winger looks like a sphinx moth—just like the kind I brought in!" He plopped a cage of similar size onto his desk. The classmates around him groaned and scooted away.
"We were supposed to build stuff, Nell…."
"Yeah, why you gotta always bring wingers into class…."
The teacher shook her head and signaled for Kass to carry on.
She cleared her throat. "My project is a miniature, self-operating plane. I wanted it to be confused for a winger in flight, so I made it so that its wings can move, unlike the planes with a three-axis control system. Watch this." She flipped a small switch, smiling proudly as her invention lit up. "It has a light attached to it so that it attracts wingers."
"Let's test it," said one of her classmates, snickering. He leaned over to Nell's desk and opened the cage.
"Hey—!" Nell protested.
The large moth escaped into the classroom. One girl shrieked. Kass quickly wound up her invention and set it free into the air. The moth followed it all the way to the back of the classroom, where Nell managed to re-net it and place it back into the cage.
"As expected from our star student and the apprentice of an inventor," said the teacher.
Kass took a bow. "Any questions?" She pointed to someone with their hand up.
"How did you get the engine so small?"
She shook her head. "I didn't use a steam engine. I made a wind-up mechanism with radial cylinders. It can't be too clunky or else it won't fly."
Another kid raised his hand. "How do we know your grandpa didn't just make it and you're passing it off as your own work?" he challenged, his nose turned up.
Before she could answer, the teacher cut in. "How very improper to suggest our star pupil would pirate her project." The teacher turned to Kass with her lower lip stuck out."Thank you for sharing your project, Kass. You may sit down. We have to move onto the next person," she spoke.
Kass could only stumble her way back to her seat as a key word stuck in her head. Pirate. That was it.
And then the dream all came back to her like a wave of salty seawater.
Some would say the world of Andethall was a truly awful place, filled with dangers only the masochistic would ever dare face: giant monsters adorned with armies of legs that will rip your head off. Witches that will control your actions. Pirates that will steal your greatest treasures. Assassins that will steal your life. Some would say the world wasn't safe.
Really, no one ought to live in the world. But people didn't have much of a choice, so they had to.
Among the few places where the world wasn't quite so bad was Thendor Island. Aside from being the place Kass called home, Thendor was a small island country where fish was eaten three meals a day. The mornings were marked by a blanket of fog and the quiet night skies were lit by eerie lighthouses. In Thendor, the scent of the sea clung to one's hair, the sound of metalworking echoed throughout the mornings, and parents sent their children to sleep with sea shanties as a lullaby.
One of the country's finest institutions was an academy overlooking the sea. Within the ornate school building was where Kass went to school, hung out with her friend Nell, showed off her latest inventions, and adjusted to the changing social life of a thirteen-year-old.
But soon, all of that would change. Destruction was headed straight toward their country. It was true! She had seen it all in a dream.
During the class's lunch break, Kass was surrounded by her classmates who were asking her about her invention. She broke away from them to seek out Nell, anxious to tell him about her dream.
"Kass, you're a genius!" he praised, grabbing her by the wrists. "I swear, every new invention you bring to school is just filled with intricacy. I wish I could praise you more but I'm afraid I could only understand about half the words you said when you were explaining how it worked."
She was grateful for the compliments, but her mind was elsewhere, wracked with the severity of the visions she had seen. As usual, they sat together by the campus fountain and ate. Her eyes began to wander. With the grave scene she dreamed earlier, a deep sentiment grew for her country. She wanted to soak in the scenery as much as she could. Her eyes trained on businessmen and travelers walking through the streets. Steam billowed from various different factories, combining into a thick gray cloud overhanging the city. When she was younger, she had tried to count them all, but she couldn't. There were so many of them that there was no longer any room for trees to grow. High-class folk peered out of their ebony carriages. From a distance, she could hear the clocktower in the center of the city square play its hourly song and her lips peeled into a smile. Her grandfather had helped build that tower.
Out of nowhere, Nell broke the silence as he unwrapped his lunch. "Where's everyone else? Why aren't they sitting with us today?"
"You're the only one I wanted to talk to, Nell," she replied. His eyes glistened with a meaning she couldn't puzzle out. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "I—I had adream again. In class."
"Oh no. Another one?"
"What happened in this one?" He bit into his lunch, a cornmeal biscuit.
"It's the same one it's been for the last few days," she said.
"Oh—you mean the one where the island is burning? And there are monsters?"
She nodded. "The one where my grandpa dies."
"I'm sorry…." He scratched his cheek.
Promptly, she stood up. "I'm going to stop it from happening," she decided. "At the end of the week, I'm going to speak to the Queen."
Nell started to cough. He punched his chest. "Went down the wrong pipe…" he wheezed. After clearing his throat, he looked at her sternly. "What are you talking about, Kass? It's a dream. If Thendor wasn't the safest place in the world, my parents wouldn't have sent me here to study. It won't happen."
"It's going to, if I don't do something," she insisted. "Don't you remember last week when I told you my dream about finding coins in the storm drain? And then, when we were walking home, it came true?"
"That was a lucky—"
"It felt so real, Nell. Like I was there. Watching it all happen."
His gaze drifted to his lap. "The Queen's not in Thendor, anyway. You heard the radio this morning. She's traveling abroad to Karlaton."
"Right… to the mainland." She thought a moment. "Then I'll go abroad too."
"What! You can't do that, Kass!" Nell's eyes nearly bulged out of his head. "You're the best student in the class, well, aside from me of course. The mainland isn't what you think it is—you might die out there…. Your grades will definitely drop if that happens!" He crossed his arms. "But… if you're determined to go, the only way to ensure your safety is to accompany you." He adjusted his glasses. "I'll come along and study crawlers and wingers. As the creature expert of Thendor, it's my duty to expand our current knowledge of them."
She smiled and threw her arms around Nell. "I knew you'd want to come with."
"Grandpa," said Kass when she came home, "I need you to sign this." She thrust a packet of paper toward her Grandpa.
Grandpa adjusted his eyeglasses and brought the paper close to his eyes. His face contorted. "You're going abroad?"
"Yes, it's important for my studies. The administrator agreed that—"
"What even for?"
She hesitated. Grandpa wouldn't believe her if she told him the truth, would he? Her eyes darting around nervously in a way she hoped Grandpa didn't notice, she babbled, "To study the latest Karlatonan technology. There's a… convention…? Yeah. The Invention Convention."
With a shake of his head, Grandpa set the papers down. "I can't allow this, Kass. You know that. Not after…" He pinched the bridge of his nose. "You won't be safe if you leave the island." He seemed hesitant, saying it in a way that made it seem like he didn't entirely believe it. That was enough for her. She would seize that little bit of indecision.
"But Grandpa!" she protested. "I'll be safe. They'll send a chaperone with us."
"When you get a migraine, will your chaperone know how to help you?"
Oh, was that all he had? "Nell's coming too. You know he never gets into any trouble."
He sighed. "I can't be there to protect you. And there are certain responsibilities you have now as a teenager. I need your help in the shop." He pursed his thin, aged lips together in a frown, tapped the stack of papers together, and handed it back to Kass. "No. You're not going abroad. And that's final." He raised his chin. "Is that clear?"
"Is. That. Clear!"
Kass drew her breath sharply, her eyes widening. When was the last time Grandpa had raised his voice against her? Holding this position as her caretaker over her wasn't something he typically did, and he must have been really upset to do it now. Her gaze fell. "Yes, Grandpa."
"Good. Now wash up for dinner."
She obeyed diligently, but inside her, a fire stirred.
Grandpa didn't see what she could see. He wouldn't believe her if she said that she was doing this to protect him. But she didn't have any other option. So after dinner, she quietly packed her things. She tossed some clothes into her bag, ones that she could wear at the capital, and finer ones that she would wear for an audience with the Queen. She packed some books for the long train and carriage rides. Digging through her closet, she found an old, wooden box. However, it wasn't an ordinary wooden book—it was a puzzle box. Placing it on her desk, she recognized it as an old birthday present from Grandpa. Too bad she couldn't remember the mechanism for popping the lid. She toyed with it awhile before noticing that the lid had been cracked open the whole time. Inside was a precious childhood book Grandpa used to read her, 100 Fairytales for Imaginative Children, and a gold, heart-shaped locket.
Strange… She couldn't remember the locket, or the box either. What was this weird gap in her memory? Shrugging it off, she examined the locket. She wasn't really one for jewelry, so maybe it just never caught her eye before. She clicked the locket open. On the bottom half, a small watch was set. Glancing at the clock on her desk, she twisted the key to set it to the proper time and heard the ticking of the watch as it began to whir.
A knock sounded at the door. She promptly shut the locket closed, shoving it under her pillow. "Come in."
Grandpa came in and sat on her bed. "Kass, I'm sorry you're missing the Invention Convention. I hope you're not too unhappy with me."
"No, not at all," she said, kicking her sack of clothes under her bed. She smiled politely, playing the part of a cooperative child. "I get it. You would miss me if I left."
He chuckled softly. "Yes, I suppose that is also true." He clasped her hand. "Listen… I can't imagine what would happen if something happened to you. You're my only family. Only family who's not dead to me, anyway…" he added under his breath. "You understand that, right?"
He gave outstretched his arms and she squeezed him in a tight hug. He kissed her forehead and then left her room, quietly shutting the door behind him.
Grandpa was a humble, simple man, and his overprotectiveness overrode his common sense. Back when he was a kid, he probably got to do all sorts of exploring. Just because it was Selos 8628 now and times were changing, suddenly people didn't think letting their kids out into the world was the best idea? She was going on this trip whether he liked it or not.
Rolling up her sleeves, she pulled out some paper and stubbornly set to work spending the rest of the night learning how to forge signatures.
"This is rather spontaneous…." The next day, their teacher set down their study abroad paperwork. "Since when did the two of you want to leave the island?"
"We have a mission!" said Kass vigorously. She thumped her hand on her chest. "Thendor's era of industrialization must press forward to new heights. Visiting Karlatonwould help me with inspiration for new technology!"
"I want to come too, to study crawlers and wingers, definitely not just to follow Kass around!" said Nell. "On the mainland, everyone knows how to deal with crawlers and wingers. But Thendorians don't know anything about them since they're just starting to arrive on the island. We should educate people, and I am the only person on the island who's willing to learn about these fascinating creatures."
"It looks like both your guardians have signed off with their consent." The teacher studied the signatures, sighing. "But I can't send off two kids on their own."
Nell stomped his foot. "We're not kids."
"Yeah, we're thirteen," said Kass, scoffing. "We're basically young adults."
The teacher sighed again, rubbing her temples. She grabbed her stamp from her desk drawer, looking up at the kids. "I'm going to have to send a supervisor with you. I can't bear the thought of you two getting hurt out there." She stamped off their paperwork. Kass and Nell beamed at each other.
Within the end of the week, they were on a boat. Kass kept as far away from the rails as she could and clasped her bags close to her. She couldn't remember how long it was since she'd been on a boat. She felt queasy with uneasiness and excitement at the same time. Her heart felt as if it was about to beat out of her chest. She was going to save her island.
"So, let me get this straight. You just decided one day that you were going to study abroad?" Their assigned guardian, Velvet, rested her arms on the rails of the boat. "You must really want to get off the island."
"Don't get us wrong. We love Thendor," said Kass. "We just have something we need to do."
"What exactly is that?" asked Velvet.
Kass clasped her bag tighter to her chest. "We're going to change the future."
Velvet sighed, waving her arms in the air in a dramatic shrug. "To think Iused to be a military captain…. I never signed up to chaperone kids playing make-believe."
"We're not—" Kass started, but she never finished the sentence. Up ahead was land.
A new country lay ahead of them. Adventures awaited.