“Are they dead? You know, the people who used to live here?” Zane asked.
“I hope not!” Glue Pot stomped his cloven front hoof on the flagstones for emphasis. “If everyone is dead…my mother and brothers…” Glue Pot clutched is paper fan in his hand, crinkling the delicate item beyond use. “Anyway,” Glue Pot said with brighter tone, “what point would there be to kill everybody? Certainly not for food. No one would be that elaborate. They’d just charge in and eat.” He shuddered from the unintentional image he produced. “There must be another reason why.”
“You think they’ve all been kidnapped,” Perceval concluded. “Aaaall of them. Sub-queen Faeley. Agile and Adriei. Digitalis’s Clive and Dunkle. Your family?”
“Yeah, I think they have. Each and every one of them.”
“What would they be kidnapped for?”
“I don’t know. That’s what Queen Inana is for. We tell her what’s happened and she’ll use her Queenly magic to set everything right.”
“You sure have a lot of faith in one person. Even a Queen has advisors,” Zane said. “They can make mistakes. No one is so perfect that they can fix everything in one go.”
“I can’t do much, here. All I can do is talk to benevolent animals. What use is that? The Queen is the most powerful person in Urich. Maybe even all of Soielle.” Glue Pot shrugged.
“But she never used to be the most powerful. She only became that way when all of the humans were forced back to their homeland,” Perceval said.
“Wait. Do we have more magic that the Queen?” Lila quipped.
“I’m not saying that. It would take ten humans to match her power. But then it would take forty extraordinary residents of Soille to do the very same.”
“It’s a nice theory, but we can’t forget the other one,” Zane said. “We five could be the cause of the disappearances.”
“But the Seven Isles and Pottesville were hit before you got here,” Glue Pot replied.
”And this is why we need the Queen’s help. We’re not certain of anything. She’s bound to have more information on the disappearances and why you five humans traveled here.”
“Maybe something about that creepy Lake God, too,” Lila shuddered.
“We might be closer than we think,” Zane whooped. “I think I see an enormous city up ahead!” He pointed toward a dip in the road. The faint tips of golden spires and rooftops flashed beneath the yellow-green sunlight. Zane could feel the faint heat of a bustling city brush his skin. There were the far off cries of children playing and the sweet tunes of what could only be a violin. Zane thought of the business center of his own town. He’d go to the local art shop to purchase lead pencils with his allowance while his sisters would run off to a game store to get whatever they got there. The city here sounded just like that—friendly city folk and a busy atmosphere.
“Oh my gosh. Civilization!” Lila giggled and twirled around reminding Zane of Gabbie. “I’ve always wanted to say that.”
“I hope they have hot food. I never thought I’d get tired of jerky.” Zane rubbed his stomach.
“I smell porridge with meat and vegetables,” Glue Pot sighed.
“You eat meat?” Lila asked.
“What? I’ve been eating jerky the same as you.”
“I guess I haven’t noticed.” Then Lila sighed. “And I assumed that since you were a centaur, you’d just…you know, eat grass.”
“Grass?!” Glue Pot faked a gagging noise. “I’ll have you know that I am deeply offended! I heard stories about humans from my grandpa. That they thought we were, what was it, horses. Well, we’re not!” Glue Pot winked at Lila and she scratched the back of her head, chagrined.
“I’d be healed through and through if I had a glass of spiced mead,” Perceval said. His ears twitched happily at the thought.
Properly motivated, the four friends dashed down the pathway lined with stones and a few lamp posts. They flew over the hill that blocked their view of the city and halted. They all opened their mouths in shock.
“It’s beautiful,” Zane said.
“Ditto,” Lila agreed.
Before them was a grand city plated with gold. Although the houses and buildings resembled old fashioned architecture from Europe’s medieval past, the simple framework and pointed tops were all coated with a fine dusting of gold. There were gold doorknobs, gold nails and bolts, gold stones flecked into the bricks, gold paint manipulated into murals, and gold pillars holding the structures up. The citizens themselves weren’t saved from the waves of gold. They wore white robes and tunics embroidered with gold patterns like flowers or scenery. Their shoes were pale blues and off whites with the seams sewn with gold thread. They had gold and blonde hair worn in long loops around their feathered ears and were adorned with golden baubles and jewelry.
They had arrived at the city of Crat.
“I think I might go blind,” Lila croaked.
“We are so going to stand out,” Zane commented. “Are they okay with outsiders?”
“They’re the closest city to the capitol. They have to be alright with visitors,” said Glue Pot.
After a collective breathe, the four friends walked into the city. They passed an archway that hung right above the city’s entrance. There were two slates on each side of the archway. Zane and Lila could read what the words on the plaques.
“Welcome to the City of Golden Fire.”
“Wow, fancy,” Zane murmured.
There was a group of curious onlookers gathered beyond the archway. They whispered to one another at the front of their shops and market stalls. The city folk were elegant and graceful, but something about the dark mutterings that came from them made Zane grab Lila’s hand.
“Uh, um, hello.” One of the women from the crowd mumbled. “It’s been a long time since we’ve received visitors. You’re not from one of the villages nearby, are you?” The woman sounded hopeful.