Day 107

They found Gabbie’s and Silverskin’s packs over four days ago. The packs had been scattered as if they were hastily thrown down. They followed the trail of broken branches, splatters of red blood, and bent grass blades up until the greenery disappeared into a ravine.

Alastair wanted to find a way down to make certain that their friends weren’t hurt or worse down below. Tipper pointed out that the bridge on the other side had obviously been cut down. Their friends had made it to the other side.

“We’ll follow the ravine up until we find another bridge. There has to be one eventually,” Tipper said.

Tipper and Ginger supported Alastair. His leg like a broken twig. He had certainly broken more than just one bone.

“We should set Alastair’s leg then,” Ginger pointed out. “We can’t be lugging him around with bones growing back the wrong way.”

“Ugh, not helping,” Alastair moaned. He had a faint green pallor.

Tipper and Ginger located sturdy branches and tore strips of fabric to use as bindings. Ginger even found a long stick that Alastair could use as a makeshift crutch.

They spent four days trekking up and up the ravine. The constant flow of water eased their nerves, but only slightly. Alastair hoped that everyone had survived. He knew for certain that Gabbie and Silverskin were alright, or at least alive. As for the rest? He felt as if scuttling bugs were zipping over his skin from the panic that hit his gut.

Alastair had failed them all once again. He didn’t deserve the silver pocket watch his father gave him what seemed like a million years ago. Now he couldn’t protect anyone with his leg broken this badly. Alastair was so consumed with self pity that he barely spoke, leaving Ginger and Tipper to their own devices for the last four days.

“I’m getting tired of this stupid river,” Ginger groaned. She pointed at the dip leading to the river below. “It makes me want to pee non stop.”
“I think we’re getting somewhere, though.” Tipper was carefully holding Alastair’s upper arm to keep him from tumbling down the dangerous pathway. “We’ve been going at this incline for a while. We’ll become level with the river at some point. When we are, we can find a better way across.”

“To bad I don’t have bridge magic. You never know how handy bridge magic would be until you need it.”

“Fire magic doesn’t help either,” Tipper sighed.

Ginger and Tipper waited for Alastair to join in like they’ve done many times before. They made some jokes or comments that they hoped the youth would perk up with. He didn’t say anything. Alastair only watched his footing align with his crutch.

“We’re way off track. If the others are at Crat, then they’re have to wait five more days for us to get there. And that’s if we manage to cross this nasty river by tonight.”

“When I get there, I’m going to find the softest bed on Soielle and sleep for ten days,” Ginger panted. They had just gone down another rocky incline. “And then, when the Queen gets us back to Earth, I’m going to eat all of the spaghetti the world has to offer.”

“Spaghetti? What in the name of the Holy Matron is spaghetti?”

“This world is a dull one if you’ve never made an equivalent,” Ginger said while shaking her head. “When we get to Crat, I’ll have to point out what it’s similar to.”

“Do not go to Crat!” Someone yelled.

“Woah!” Ginger yanked out her knives. “Whoever that is, do not test me right now. I will throw these right into your head, got it?”

“Goodness. Goodness me,” the person said. “I’m not trying to harm you. I’m trying to save you!”

“How about showing us who you are before we thank you for looking out for total strangers,” Tipper growled.

“I…oh!” One of the rocks that littered the ground up ahead melted away from its brown and black camouflage. There had been a person right in front of them and they hadn’t even noticed. “Forgive me. I didn’t want to turtle you, and I did it anyway,” the person said in a timid murmur. She was small with pointed ears and a blue sheen to her skin. Her eyes glimmered with purple hues. She looked like some sparkling dancing fairy from Earthen fairy tales.

“Hey! You’re an elf!” Ginger shouted. She covered her mouth, appalled at herself. Since when did she act like Gabbie?

“Y-Yes. I am. A River Elf, to be more exact.” The little elf curtsied in her dark homespun dress. “But that doesn’t matter right now. You need to know, please. You can’t go to Crat! You—you just can’t!”

“Now hold on here,” Tipper tutted. “What makes you think you can up and tell people you just met what we can and cannot do?”
“I-I-I!” Tears bubbled from the edges of the woman’s purple eyes. Her long, silver black hair shimmered as if each strand was reflected off of a water’s surface. Her tiny limbs trembled and she may have crumpled to her knees if she hadn’t straightened her back to keep from doing so. “They—“

Before the elf woman could finish her sentence, Alastair, who had barely registered what was happening, felt faint. The ground was churning like a cement barrel and the fresh water scent of the river became too overbearing. Tipper’s grip on his upper arm tightened, but the Kitsune couldn’t stop Alastair’s vision from becoming blotchy in bright white patches.

“You!” The elf woman gasped.

Alastair didn’t know what she wanted to say. He let those white patches claim his vision entirely, eating up his head, and making everything feel safe and warm again.

“Did he really have to faint?” Ginger asked.

Tipper picked up Alastair and tried to throw the youth gently over his shoulder.

“Miss River Elf, we may have gotten off the wrong foot, but I would like to implore your hospitality, since you seem to want us to be safe. Is there somewhere we can let Alastair rest?” Tipper asked the blue elf.

Day 106

There were all sorts of citizens in the Capitol Gabbie couldn’t even give a good guess at being. There were different shapes and sizes everywhere. Wings, fins, multiple eyes, and scales adorned every person in the crowd. They milled about their daily business and left the party to the Queen alone. The roads were clean and perfect. Some of the stones had the faint glint of gold as well as the surrounded structures.

An assault of different smells crowed around Gabbie. There were sweet pastries and sour body odor. There was the fresh scent of water laced with a type of herb and the cloying smell of perfume on prettily dressed ladies. Gabbie couldn’t keep her mind on the song any longer. There was too much to see with too many different people to focus on. She clutch fistfuls of the Snog’s fur and it purred as if it were trying to cheer her up. She had grown extremely attached to the Snog after a few days with the animal.

“What do you think of the song?”

“Gabbie!”

“Oh!” Gabbie jolted awake from the memorizing new sights. “Yeah, the song was wonderful!”

“The bit at the end always gets me right here.” Withers thumped the middle of his chest armor. “I think I sang off key a little there.”

“You were fine.” Digitalis cleared her throat. “Not bad at all my friend.”

“We’ll have to leave the Snogs at a stable, I’m afraid,” Withers said after they traversed a few more blocks. “They won’t be allowed inside the palace and we’ll run out of available stables the closer we get inside the Capitol.”

“I’m going to miss you, my friend.” Silverskin gave his stead a hug. The Snog must have reminded him of Opale because the animal’s fur was opalescent just like the Deerne’s. The elf boy cleared away moisture from his eyes and hopped down from the Snog. The animal purred sadly.

Withers took the three Snogs by the reigns and registerd them into a nearly full stable as the three friends waited. The Valkryie came back.

“There we go. Let’s push on, shall we?”

They trudged up the road pockmarked with signs and street directions. Only a couple onlookers watched them as they attempted to avoid eye contact. Causing trouble in such a congested city wouldn’t do them any good. They at last arrived at the Palace polished silver gates. Two guards were positioned on either side of the opening. They were dressed just like Adriei and Agile. A pang of sadness struck Gabbie. Their guards friends had been so helpful and kind. What had happened to them? These guards were stony and expressionless in contrast. Gabbie imagined the famous guards in their red uniforms and fuzzy black hats stationed at the Buckingham Palace. Were these two ordered to stay exactly like that?

“Hello,” Withers said with a graceful bow. Some of his long silver hair spilled over his shoulder. “I have brought Master Grawr of the Night Mare’s guests. He sent a messenger a couple days of go, yes?”

The guards remained silent.

“Oh, um, ehem. H-here is what he gave to me.” Withers plucked at a pocket until he produced a rolled up scroll just like with Zane’s rolled up piece of paper. He offered the scroll that the guard ignored. “Um, t-this is for y-you. Or rather the Queen.”

“Withers, why are you so scared?” Silverskin asked.

“These are the Queen’s Guard,” Withers said as if that meant something more serious than what it truly was. “You know? Brutal. Ruthless. Can kill people with their teeth.”

“But Agile and Adriei wouldn’t hurt anyone. At least, the people who weren’t trying to do the teeth killing,” Gabbie protested.

“Agile? Adriei?” One of the guards said, breaking their silence. “You know of them? Are they safe? They have not reported back in a week. Very much unlike them.”

“Aha!” Gabbie snatched the scroll from Withers and walked up to the guards. Withers inched back, seemingly happy to no longer deal with the guards. “We’ve come with news about those two and Rockestel. Actually, we have more than just that. But we have to speak with Queen Inana as soon as possible.”

“I see.” The guard who spoke took the scroll and cracked the seal. They read the paper quickly and passed it to the other guard. “Fine. I shall take you to see Queen Inana.”

The nameless guard turned and touched something on the gate. Gabbie didn’t knew whether what they touched was a button or a gear or if they used magic altogether. Either way, the gate creaked open. Gabbie could feel her chest tighten and the blood within her veins rush up and around her body. They were going to at last meet the mysterious Queen who was supposed to fix everything. She had traveled far from the Network Prairie to the Kitsune Woods and Blood Clot Forest. She saw the rise and fall of Rockestel and survived the vicious Bull Fists in the Forgotten Valley. From the city of Crat all the way to the Royal Palace this was at last the moment she’d witness the famous Queen Inana.

The walk from the gate through the Royal Gardens was a blur. Gabbie was completely wound up. She wanted to jump up and down or to yell at the top of her lungs. She held back knowing that Ginger would give her an earful if she ever found out that Gabbie acted erratically in the Queen’s Palace.

The guard took them along grand hallways lined with familiar paintings and windows filled with crystal stained glass. There were rooms and areas Gabbie knew she should be impressed by, but she couldn’t possibly pay attention to any detail. All she could focus on were her steps.

One.

Two.

Three.

A ringing began in her ears, sharp and metallic.

The guard knocked on a set of doors. Beyond those very doors, the ones inlaid with a marbled pink and blue stone, was Queen Inana.

“Your Grace. Your vistors have arrived.”

A pause. And then.

“Enter.”

Day 105

“Good going Glue Pot,” Digitalis smiled. “Alright. We’ll go with you.” She sheathed her wooden spoon.

“Thank you for seeing it our way.” The man bowed and the other five searches followed suit. “You may call me Withers.” His coal gray eyes sparkled with jovial amusement. “What an honor to guide guests to the Queen!”

The search party brought three animals for Gabbie, Digitalis, and Silverskin to ride. They also brought an array of food and large skins of clean, cool water.

“What are these things?” Gabbie asked as she patted the animal carrying her at a gentle canter. It wasn’t a horse or a deerne. It had shaggy yellow fur that was smooth to the touch and two very long ears that stuck straight up. If she had to guess, the animal was closer to an equestrian than anything else. Was it shaggy because it was colder up near Crat?

“These are Snogs. “ Withers scratched the elongated muzzle of Gabbie’s mount. It closed its black eyes with pleasure and began to purr. Gabbie felt the strong vibrations rumbles through her rib cage. A pale ache from her barely bruised ribs echoed faintly, but not enough to incapacitate her. Gabbie had wondered why her injuries had just…disappeared. Digitalis and Silverskin’s, too.

“Doesn’t the word snog mean kiss?” Gabbie chuckled. She ran her hand over the patch of fuzz on the animal’s head. It purred even louder.

“Exactly! Snogs were named by humans because these beauties are so—“

Gabbie’s Snog craned its neck to plant a sloppy kiss on Gabbie’s cheek.

“It’s fine. I know why they’re called Snogs now.”

A day passed. The search party eventually arrived at Crat.

“We’re taking you directly to the Queen,” Withers said. “Your friends should be there by now instead of Crat.”

“Do you think we should stop to make sure Ginger, Alastair, and Tipper were found?” Gabbie asked Digitalis.

“If Tipper sticks to the plan, then he should be heading to Crat anyway. And this Grawr is aware of the situation, right?” Digitalis aimed her question at Withers.

“Yes. Even if he wasn’t new people nowadays usually draw enough attention to stop a parade.”

“We should get to Queen Inana as soon as possible,” Silverskin added.

With their path decided, the search party passed by the golden city of Crat. What should have felt like another long stretch in a journey that had lasted for a month zipped by. One moment they were watching the golden spires and archways of Crat as its people bustled around and the next they had arrived in the capitol city.

“The Capitol is said to be almost three thousand years old,” Withers said. He had bequeathed himself as their personal tour guide. He talked about the founding of Crat by three sister goddesses for the better part of the last leg of the journey. As soon as he ran out of steam, he immediately charged onto the topic of the Capitol. Gabbie had grown so accustomed to his buttery low voice that the topic change barely affected her. She felt like she was in history class back in school. Sure, she liked history, but it did feel kind of redundant at times.

“The Capitol was founded by the Great Queen Tuxten. She was the child of one of the very last sane Goddesses in the country. There may have been a few left in Soielle…in any case, she was said to have been ruthless in her magic and reign, but fair to her people.”

“Queen Tuxten constructed the palace herself, right?” Silverskin said.

“Yes! She drew the plans and helped build a good portion of the Grand Palace.” Withers grinned like a loon. His head and arm feathers buzzed with approval.

Gabbie tuned out their conversation.

The Capitol city had to be at least ten times larger than Crat, and Crat was as big as Chicago. The Grand Palace proudly towered above a city she would have expected to find when watching a medieval fantasy film. Buildings ringed the foot of a lone mountain and circled in tight bunches up to the perimeter of the Palace. There were smatterings of bunched farmsteads around the Capitol housing yellow patches of fields and farm animals. Snogs, Deerne, and other animals grazed on the fresh green and purple roots covering the ground.

“I feel like I need a lute and a good singing voice when we get into the Capitol,” Gabbie said. She had interrupted Silverskin and Withers in a heated discussion about a war one thousand years ago.

“I don’t have the lute, but I do have a good singing voice,” Withers offered. “Would you like a song?”

Gabbie never particularly understood the reason for bards until she spent an entire month without a lick of music. She missed drums and guitars. And so Withers’s offer became highly appealing.

“Sure. I’d love a song.”

“I have a good set of pipes, too,” Digitalis said. “Which song are we singing? And remember, jack of all trades,” she added after seeing Gabbie’s and Silverskin’s expressions of disbelief.

“The Lost Boy, since we were talking about the Pinnacle War,” Withers replied.

“Going for a happy theme, huh?” Digitalis said with unconcealed sarcasm.

Listen, listen one and all
About his rise and his fall
About the boy turned to man
The one who thought he’d take our land

Gabbie closed her eyes and listened as the two’s melody and harmonies melted together. They didn’t need an instrument to make their music enchanting. With Digitalis’s baritone and Withers’s falsetto, there was no song they couldn’t sing.

His family killed and people gone
The thirst for vengeance good and long

He trained magic
He trained his mind
He trained his body

The battles he fought took back his honor
But he couldn’t stop getting stronger
He at last killed his foes
But he couldn’t dash his woes

He wanted more
He couldn’t stop
Until all the world
Was his

He took
And took
And took

Tears and anguish shook
The land from their defeat
For with his magic
No one could compete.

Day 104

“We found some water, Gabbie. Come on. Get up.”

Gabbie blearily opened her eyes and yawned. She used the surface of a rock she was sleeping against to levy herself to a standing position.

Silverskin, Digitalis, and Gabbie had been walking for almost three days. Because they dropped their packs when scurrying away from the Bull fists, the only food and water they could rely on were the provisions left with Silverskin. No matter how frugal they were there was no way they could stretch what Silverskin had between three people. After they had walked along the canyon in search of their friends and another way across the three decided the best course of action was to find Crat.

Easier said than done.

Although the three’s physical injuries were mysteriously healed completely through, Silverskin and Gabbie were drained. Just taking a few steps depleted their store of energy. A cold sweat would gather around their brow and they would both lean against Digitalis for support. The first day passed and then the second. Now their only goal was to find food and water.

“Where did you find the water?” Gabbie yawned again. She was still half asleep and half inside of a comforting dream—a dream were there were a pair of strong, warm arms holding her and keeping her safe.

“There’s a lake about ten minutes away,” Digitalis said. She jabbed a thumb in the direction she came from. “There might be some berries, too. I recognize them from Pottestown, and you know how we like our berries.”

“Right. Berry picking day, I assume?” Silverskin asked. He had also been sleeping before Digitalis came back from staking out the area. They had long left the forest behind them as they continued northeast. They hadn’t encountered anyone on their trek. No people and no animals. They kept on their guard and listened, refusing to be led into another trap.

“You may think making a day for picking different kinds of berries funny, but when you’ve lived for hundreds and hundreds of years, you need something to look forward to.” Digitalis helped Silverskin up. “Especially when we use the berries for cakes, tortes, milkshakes, and teas. You end up being a jack of all trades when you’re a Lived Being.”

“Okay, then what was your favorite day?” Gabbie asked. The two children followed behind Digitalis.

“Hmm, I’d have to say Running Day.” The young woman smacked a fist into her palm. “There’d be races all day to test your sprinting speed and endurance. I’m proud to say that I won each and every race.” She puffed out her chest. “I was faster than even Long Legged Lyel.”

“All that talk of running is making me thirsty,” Silverskin mused. “Are we getting closer to that lake?”

“Just and little further and, ah. Here we are!”

Gabbie trotted over to what Digitalis called a lake. It resembled a puddle more than anything, but she assumed that the Lived Being was trying to be positive. Gabbie collected herself and bent down to cup the murky water with her palms. She never thought that she’d be so thirsty that she’d resort to drinking muddy water.

“I tried some of the water myself,” Digitalis said when Silverskin gave her a dubious sidelong glance. “And I’m still walking, aren’t I?”

“You have to do what you have to do,” Gabbie sighed while shrugging. She let the cold water touch her dried lips. The grainy pieces floating on the top of the water hit the back of her throat and she coughed. “Just like Mom used to make,” she laughed after catching her breath.

“You three!” A voice barked from their right.

Gabbie already had her throwing knives secured within her grip. Digitalis brandished her wooden spoon. Silverskin conjured wisped of wind. The three positioned themselves to face the threat.

“Lower your weapons,” a man said. He was dressed in soft leather armor with a sword tied to his belt. His three fingered hands were held up in the universal sign of ‘I’m not going to hurt you.’

“Guys, he said he won’t hurt us,” Gabbie murmured.

“I know the Glyph language,” Digitalis said, “But that doesn’t mean I’ll believe him.”

“I promise you that we mean you no harm.” The man had a face that was smooth and angular much like a barn owl’s. His long, graceful neck moved when he gestured for others to come out. “See? These five here are part of the search party. We’re here to help you.”

“Search party? Help?” Silverskin reluctantly lowered his hands. “Who sent you?”

“We’re employed by Grawr of Night Mare Inn. Yesterday four outsiders came to the city of Crat asking for our aide in locating their friends.”

“My sister and brother!” Gabbie put away her knives. “Was there anyone named Ginger or Zane in that group?”

“Yes,” the handsome man affirmed. The silver tufts of feathers on either side of his head perked up. “Zane, Lila, a Mr. Glue Pot, and Perceval.”

“Zane and Lila…” Gabbie felt a tiny weight fall away from her shoulders.

“We are to take you to Queen Inana directly,” another guard said.

“Straight to the Queen?!” Silverskin cheered. “Perfect!”

“Hold on,” Digitalis said. She still held up her spoon. “This seems to be a bit too good to be true. What proof do you have that you’re not going to hurt us or take advantage of the situation?”

“We have none other than our word.” The first man pulled out a rolled up piece of familiar sketching paper. “And this note from Master Zane.”

The man held out the scroll tied with a piece of fabric that looked like a scrap of Lila’s tunic. Digitalis inclined her head. Gabbie took that as a cue to take the proffered note.

“It says that Zane, Lila, Glue Pot, and Perceval are fine. They couldn’t find Alastair, Tipper, or Ginger but there’s more search parties out to get them to the Queen.” Gabbie waved the paper in the air. “Perfect!”

Day 103

“What did she say?” Perceval asked Lila.

“Oh, I suppose you don’t speak our tongue. That answers my question.” The woman’s reaction was defeated. Her fellow onlookers also deflated. “We were hoping that someone survived outside of our city. The residents also spoke Glyph.” From the expressions of comprehension on Glue Pot and Perceval’s faces, they must have understood what the woman said now.

The woman blinked heavily golden lashed eyes. The irises were an electric green and her pupils were slit like a cat’s. Her nose was long and sharp at the end. Tufts of feathers on either side of her head must have been her ears. Everyone’s necks were longer than a human’s and more graceful. They seemed to have evolved from a bird of prey like the silent and judging golden eagle.

“Were you perhaps on your way to meet with Queen Inana?” The woman clasped her hands nervously. She had two long fingers with perfectly manicured talons and one thumb on each hand. There were golden feather shafts all along her arms, which made the robes seem more practice.

“Erm, yes. Yes, we are.” Perceval stepped ahead of the group. “How far are we from the capitol?”

“An hour’s brisk walk.”

“Good! First, we have to wait for our friends. They ran into Bull Fist trouble.”

“Bull Fists,” the woman hissed. “A nasty lot.”

There was a ripple of discontent along the Crat’s citizens.

“Are your friends half human like the ones you brought here?”

“Yes,” Glue Pot cut in before Zane or Lila could correct the woman. “Although, there’s barely any human in them. Just a drop of blood. That was enough to make our friends look like them, isn’t that right?” Glue Pot nudged Zane.

“Yeah. My mom and dad are ground elves.” Zane nodded his head as if even he were convinced.

“I see,” the woman mused. She didn’t look entirely convinced. “Well, shall we find a place for you four to rest after such a tough journey?” She grinned and her face nearly glowed from her graceful beauty.

“What about our friends?” Asked Glue Pot.

“We shall send out a search party. It’s no good to stay out in the valley too long. There are more dangers than just those nasty Bull Fists.”

“Then we humbly accept your offer,” Perceval said while bowing his front paws. “Is there anything we can do for you in return for your hospitality?”

“Just the thought that there’s someone beyond Crat gives me a piece of mind.” She shooed away the crowd with her hands. “Go. Go! I’m taking them to the best Inn in Crat.”

“Sophia, aren’t you out of favors with them? What makes you think you can wrangle a night’s stay out of them, let alone for four travelers?” A man with broad shoulders and a well quaffed beard barked.

“They’ll have no choice but to help,” Sophia shot back. “Now, git!” She turned back to her guests. “This way. I’ll take you to the Night Mare.”

“I don’t really like the sound of an Inn being called the Night Mare,” Zane said aloud. Perceval kicked the boy. “What? The name isn’t particularly inspiring good thoughts.”

“The Night Mare isn’t malignant, I can promise you that,” Sophia said. “It’s only named as such because the owner had a nightmare about his parents’ inn never closing down.”

“A nightmare. About that?”

“Yes. If his parents’ inn never closed down, then he wouldn’t have been able to open his own.” Sophie weaved through walkways crowded with people watching the travelers ranging from young to old with wide eyes and open mouths. “Thankfully, his parents really did close their inn and he was able to construct an inn even better than the inns housed in the capitol!”

“SO his nightmare never came true. Hmn.”

“Oh, it did. The Inn’s owner was cursed with me as his grandchild.” Sophia held a clawed hand above her mouth and giggled. Zane knew it was overused to think of a laugh as the tinkling as bells, and so he revised his first thought to—her laugh sounded like his mom’s glass figurine falling off of the kitchen table because the cat knocked it off.

“What’s the story, then? Your grandfather doesn’t seem to like you for a reason. That guy from before said as much.” Glue Pot trotted side by side with Sophia. She looked up at him with a nonchalant expression.

“Gerard, that gossip.” Sophia shook her head. “Yes, my grandfather is a little upset with me. I married out of the family.” She twisted her hands and surveyed the bustling streets. “My wife and I may be struggling financially, but getting out was the best option at the time.”

“Oh. What’s your wife’s name?” Zane asked.

“Poni. Mind you, that’s just her nick name. She’d kill me if I spread her real name around,” Sophia laughed.

“I bet Poni is as pretty as you are. Actually, all of you are pretty,” Lila commented. I’ve never seen a city so, um, golden before.”

“You haven’t? Gold is a very common mineral.”

“Lila here lives near where my people disappeared. The Seven Isles,” Glue Pot hastily supplied. “We don’t mine gold there as much as up in the north.”

“I see.”
“I heard that there’s electricity in Crat. I’ve, er, never been yet.” Zane jogged up to Sophia and gave her his best boyish grin.

“Then today is a great day for you. The Night Mare specializes in supplying its guests with nothing but the best quality stay. You’ll have food cooked from an electric stove and your room heated with electric heaters.” Sophia then bent down and cupped her around around Zane’s ear. “You’ll even have heated baths!”

“Wow!” Zane didn’t hide his excitement. He never thought that he’d take baths for granted.

“And was I right? Do you have porridge here?” Glue Pot asked.

“Yes, my friend. We do.”

“Thank the Seven Patrons. Sign me up for the Night Mare!”

Day 102

“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.

Day 101

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.