Zane usually loved nature. Back on Earth, he would be the first one to sign up for the Outdoor Education classes offered as electives for school. He could hike. He could make food on a fire that he started himself. He essentially Boy Scott without actually being one. All he cared about was learning through is sketches. He always imagined himself creating illustrations for textbooks. Everything had had order. Muscles and vessels had their correct pathways that tied together with tendons, skin, hair, and fur. The world was full of symmetric chemistry that Zane was determined to capture with his pencil and paper.
However, there was only so much forest, mountains, and dirt road he could handle.
They had been walking for the better part of the day. His legs ached from running for his life the day before, and he had a pulsing headache overstaying its welcome. Zane missed cheeseburgers and crackling soda. He yearned for the softness of his bed and dark red comforter. He wanted his mom to take him to the library while they both found a warm corner of the building to read together in silence. Zane thought of his dad passing out fliers and talking on TV shows.
“Have you seen my son?”
Zane attempted to reel back those thoughts. Everything would get better once they reached Queen Inana. Queen Inana would take care of this mess. She’d help find his sisters and Ali and send them all back home.
“Do you know what the Queen is like?” Zane heard himself say.
“I’ve never met her myself,” Glue Pot mused. “The Seven Isles is pretty far from the capitol city. More towards the southern peninsula of Urnish.” He had unbuttoned his shirt and was fanning himself with a piece of paper Zane had folded into a fan. “Let’s see. She took over the crown after her father, King Esther, passed away. She rules over Urnish and the neighboring continent. Other than that, al I know are rumors.”
“Queen Inana is very strong willed,” Perceval supplied. “I haven’t met her, either, but the Elder has.”
“Are there many more continents?” Lila asked. She now had a makeshift sling along her shoulder to support her wrist. She had complained that she didn’t need it, but Perceval insisted that it was better safe than to be sorry. Lila couldn’t produce any more arguments when she saw the fox’s puppy dog eyes.
“There’s Urnish,” Glue Pot held up a finger, “Turmoile, Papaul, Scutters, Durnea, Anack, Suab, and Fontri. All difficult to pronounce. I think that the people back when places were named all voted to bequeath the continents with ridiculous titles. And if you think that’s bad, then don’t even ask me about the country’s names.”
“Ugh, I won’t. Geography isn’t the best subject in school for me,” Lila said.
“Well, I love Geography. Do you think Queen Inana will let me see a map? Maybe keep one?” Zane mused.
“Seeing as you have paper powers, Queen Inana might keep anything made from trees or animal far away from you,” Percival chuckled, showing off his needle teeth.
They lapsed into silence. They were out of jovial topics to discuss.
“Do you think they’re alright?” Lila whispered. “My brother and the others? They never came back. We couldn’t find anything that would lead us back to them.”
“That’s actually a silver lining,” Perceval said. He flicked his tawny tail. “We would have seen something if they were, um, hurt. There’s be…marks on the ground. Signs of a struggle that went wrong. And don’t you remember finding that one dead Bull Fist?”
“Yeah…” Lila stared down at her shoes.
“They have Digitalis and Tipper. Those two may act like kids sometimes but I’d trust them with my hide any day,” Glue Pot said. He continued to fan himself. “Yesh, some days I felt like having two legs would be a lot easier. Sure, I’d be slower, but then I’d overheat less.”
The group had broken free from the tangle of forest a few hours back. Now they traveled through a stretch of land littered with abandoned towns. At first there was only a tiny homestead. A house made from green brick and yellow rocks sat eerily on top of a hill. The windows were open and a single device that moved when the wind blew fluttered at the house’s front doorstep. The group had dismissed the occurrence. The occupants could have been out harvesting from the field just beyond the hill. Glue Pot had explained that the thick green stalks bore bulbous fruit seen a few hours away from the Seven Isles. The fruit, as far as the centaur could explain, may have tasted similar to corn.
As the group traveled further North and the snap of chilled winds curled around their bones, more houses in the same state as the first popped up in the distance. And then those houses bred into groups and the groups turned into budding towns. Each house lay barren. Each apparent shopfront was unattended. No mothers toting children. No fathers calling out for customers. Everything and everybody was silent. The group walked bunched together, and by the fourth or fifth town, Zane at last spoke about the elephant in the room.
“Do you think that these towns were taken by whatever is making everything disappear?” Zane asked. “The doors are all open and I see stuff on the tables.” Zane pointed at an example. “See, just inside of there. There’s a book open as if it fell in midair. And over there? I think that machine was being maned by somebody that just blipped out of existence. There. There’s a spill coming from the corner. I think the spill is from the machine cooling down without being used.”
“It makes sense,” said Perceval.
“The towns look just like what Digitalis said Pottesville turned out. Didn’t she say that there were dice and receipts and buckets laying around? Even the pets were taken?” Lila rubbed her chin in thought.
“Yes. I’m getting the creeps. All of the Seven Isles resemble how these towns are right now,” Glue Pot confirmed.