The van stopped moving. Cain silently thanked the gods. His arms couldn’t take any more battering. His shoulders pressed against Glitch’s feet and his calves pressed against Raw’s. What the hell happened?
“Are you still alive, Cain?” Glitch’s voice shook.
“So far.” He grunted trying to sit up. He gave up hearing someone at the door. “When the doors open, give me a shove.”
“Great, he did hit his head.”
“We don’t know what they’re doing to DG, and we won’t know until we get out of here.”
The doors opened, and Glitch stopped arguing. Cain braced himself for the blows. He skidded across the floor. Two people climbed into the van; he would probably knock them off their feet. “Cain!” He couldn’t stop. One of the people was DG and he couldn’t stop.
The second shadow crouched. DG copied the movement and four hands grabbed him. His momentum still knocked them back, but didn’t send them flying. DG sat up again. “That happy to see me again, Tin Man?”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” His worry over what he had almost done and what might have happened to her in Longcoat hands made his voice brusque.
“It’s called a rescue. I even got your hat back.” She dropped the fedora that she had been wearing onto his face. “And most people’s first response is a thank you.”
“Thank you,” Glitch said quickly.
“I would like a smoother ride next time,” Raw added.
An unfamiliar voice laughed. “He can be your Robin and get the front seat view. I’ll stay at the BatCave.” Young, male, and sharing a joke with DG; the analysis knotted Cain’s stomach.
DG giggled as she helped Cain sit up. “Raw wouldn’t like the costume.”
“Nobody likes the costume.”
The fedora fell away and Cain could see the new fellow while DG cut the cords on his wrists. A boy younger than Jeb stood guard in the van’s doors but pivoted enough so they inside could see him. He wasn’t much taller than DG, but his lean body was more muscular than you’d expect for a boy his age. His straight black hair needed a haircut.
The last of the cords split between his wrists and Cain stretched his arms. DG paused before moving down to his ankles. She unwound his gun belt from around her torso and pressed it into his hands. The moonlight behind her hid her expression. He was sure his expression of astonishment was plain to see. DG didn’t say anything as she cut the ankle ropes with his straight razor.
Cain slid outside while DG went to free Raw and Glitch. He had his leather duster back on top of his gun belt before he noticed the orange glow in the distance. “What is that?”
“That was the Longcoats’ camp,” the boy answered. “I hope we didn’t end up starting a forest fire and pissing off Smokey the Bear.”
“Who?” Glitch jumped down between Cain and the boy. Cain resisted the urge to shove Glitch out of the way. The boy was armed with a pair of strange daggers tucked into his belt.
“It’s an Other Side thing, don’t worry about it.” Raw extended his arm so DG could climb out. Cain grabbed her left arm and only let it go after both her feet hit the ground. “He’s a Slipper,” she continued.
“Which must be better than a stiletto heel.” The boy jumped and headed around the van.
DG winced as she hurried after him. Cain gritted his teeth and followed her. “Sorry, that’s what people from the Other Side are called here.”
He shrugged a large black pack onto his shoulders. “Why? No, forget I asked. Asking why never helps.” He pulled one of their canvas packs out of the van’s cab and passed it to DG. “I’ve been called worse.”
Glitch took the next pack. “Hello, my name’s Glitch. On account my synapses don’t always fire right.”
The boy’s eyebrows disappeared under his bangs. “Zack Baker, from the Other Side.”
“Kansas?” Raw asked.
“New York City.”
DG hit her forehead with the heel of her hand. “This is Raw and this is Wyatt Cain.”
“Wyatt, Raw, and Glitch, right.” He shook his head with a chuckle.
She crossed her arms. “What does that mean?”
“No offense. One day I’m going to meet somebody named Bob on one of these adventures and not believe them.”
“What were you doing in the Longcoats’ camp?” Cain forced his drifting hand away from his gun. The boy had obviously helped DG. He slung the last pack over his other shoulder, keeping his gun hand free.
Zack cocked his head to the side as he looked at Cain. “You’re a cop.”
DG’s head swiveled between the two of them. “How did you figure that out so fast?”
“My brother died on the force. Me and my sister still get visits from his coworkers. You learn to recognize the type.” He looked at the group. “Shouldn’t we have this conversation on the move?”
Cain felt his lips twitch. The boy was right, and he didn’t like admitting that about someone he didn’t know if he could trust.
“We don’t have to worry about the forest though.” Glitch licked his finger and held it up. “A storm’s coming.”
Glitch could have the last word. “Let’s find shelter before it hits.” Cain took the lead down the road, and DG and Zack walked beside him. And if the boy thought the question was forgotten, he’d learn what made Tin Men different.
But Zack picked up the question like it was the last thing Cain said. “I was sneaking around trying to figure out where I got sent to. I just happened to be in the tent they brought DG to.”
“He took care of that Longcoat and then we rescued you guys.” DG added and Zack glanced at her curiously. She was glossing over what happened in that tent deliberately, Cain realized.
There was time for that later. “You were sent to the O.Z.?”
“I was sent here to find a lost child. I didn’t fly in by travel storm.”
Raw must have sensed Cain’s need because he clasped Zack’s shoulder. The boy’s hands moved, but he curled them into fists by his sides. “Speaks truth,” Raw answered. “Guarded, honorable, warrior. Good man.”
“What the hell?” Zack turned to DG. “Psychic Wookies?”
“Not exactly. Raw is a Viewer and they are psychics, but not like X-Men psychic.”
“Fine, but warn me before grabbing. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Cain repressed a snort. This boy hurt Raw? Getting a drop on a drunken Longcoat was a different category.
Zack’s head turned toward Cain. “Man, that gets old. My sister looks at someone cross-eyed, and they flee like she’s Freddy Kruger. I tell the truth and I get laughed at.”
“Maybe having knives for fingers would help,” DG suggested. Cain fell on his preservation of sanity technique, when the references didn’t make any sense just keep quiet until they stopped. He’d need it twice as much now.
“Allie doesn’t have any. I’d rather have Wolverine claws though, retractable.” He turned to Cain again. “Did we break him?”
“Hardly. He’s ignoring the Other Side crap until we return the conversation to something more relevant.” Thunder rumbled in the distance. Cain felt a tic along his jaw line. How the hell did DG realize what he was doing? He only used it after he got tired of her never minds followed by dejected sighs instead of explanations. “We’re done. You can resume your interrogation, Tin Man.”
“Wait,” Glitch poked his head between DG and Zack. “You said you didn’t come by travel storm.”
“But that’s not right. But that’s not right. But that’s not right.” Raw hit Glitch on the back. “Thanks. Travel storms are the only way to travel into the O.Z. That’s how all the Slippers get here.”
“You don’t have stories about silver-eyed magical people here?” Zack asked.
Glitch shook his head. “No, never heard of any.”
DG turned to Cain. “Heard of silver shoes,” he said, “never silver eyeballs. Who are they?”
“They are magic. They’re called Gensiarians in Hyrule, but also Travelers and Guardians on other worlds. Anyways, I once saw Lissa bring her past self to the present to save her son. If she says she can’t come here to find him, I’m assuming it’s because it would be the end of all things if she tried.”
“That’s just not possible.” Glitch stopped walking, slack-jawed. Raw grabbed his arm to force him to keep up.
Zack grinned. “You have a zipper in your head and what I just said is the not possible part? I’m going to love this place.”
“How exactly are you going to find him?” Cain glanced at the boy before focusing on a gap in the trees ahead. Searching for missing people in Central City had been a nightmare for an entire squadron of Tin Men, and this kid could be any where in the O.Z.
“Haven’t the foggiest. Next time this happens, I’m going to say I need something from home so I can quiz for details. I never get any details.”
“At least it’s not a set-up scavenger hunt,” DG groused.
“There’s some issues there.”
“You have no idea.” She brightened, “But we can help you. What does he look like?”
Cain felt his lips twitch. Did she want to keep them in the proven unsafe wilderness indefinitely? “DG, we already have a mission,” he said coldly.
As if that would faze her. “Cain, it’s a kid who can’t go home.”
He ignored her plea. Let the boy head off on his separate wild pixie chase, and they could concentrate on finding who was in charge of the Longcoats. The gap he had noticed earlier was a path to a homestead. “This way.”
Lightening cracked down, hitting a tree in the forest, and lit up the clearing. The burnt cabin missing half a roof popped out of the darkness. “Longcoats,” Glitch said mournfully.
“Come and gone,” Cain sighed.
“Bad things,” Raw whimpered.
“The barn is still standing,” Zack pointed to the right. “I have good night vision.” Cain didn’t bother to reply, but led the way. The animals were gone, but the space between the stalls was dry. The downpour let loose once they were inside.
Glitch plopped onto an unbroken hay bale, reminding Cain of their madcap trip across the O.Z. searching for the Emerald of the Eclipse. “What have we got for supper? Since the Longcoats were such rude hosts and didn’t feed us.”
“Whatever we have that doesn’t need cooking. We don’t need to light a fire and let the stragglers know where we are.”
DG dropped her pack on the hard-packed dirt floor. “I grabbed some fruit from the tent, but I don’t know which pack I put it in.” The only thing Cain didn’t recognize in his pack was a crumpled map and some papers. “Those looked important, so I grabbed them,” DG said. He grunted and dropped them back into the pack. He pulled out the dark lantern, and set it up not to shine out of the barn.
Raw found the fruit in his pack and DG found some biscuits and jerky in hers. “Tutor’s not teaching me anything useful,” she sighed. “I should be able to magic up food.”
“Maybe he’s using starvation as a motivator,” Glitch suggested.
“Guess I better see what I have to contribute.” Zack pushed his arms into his black pack sitting in front of him. Cain’s eyes widened. There wasn’t enough bag for the boy’s arms up to his shoulders to disappear into.
DG looked awed. “It’s magic.”
“Your hand glows and that’s not magic?” Zack blew his bangs out of his eyes.
“All I have is making things spin and a light show, nothing like that.” She dropped next to him. “How does it work? Where did you get it?”
“You know what a bag of holding is?” He pulled out a loaf of bread wrapped in something transparent but shinny. DG shook her head. “What about Mary Poppins’ carpetbag?”
Her blue eyes opened wide. "You got a bedroom set in there?"
"No," Zack laughed. "It was a gift, so I don't know how to make it. Whatever I put in has to fit through the opening and can't be alive. Haven't hit a weight limit on stuffing it yet." He pulled out a glass jar filled with something purple.
"Now that's useful magic."
"I think she's going to rewrite Tutor's curriculum when we get back." Glitch propped his chin in his hands.
"If we get back," Cain added.
"Ah ha!" Zack pulled out holding a jar of something brown in one hand and a spoon in the other.
"Peanut butter!" DG squealed. "Honest to God Jiffy peanut butter!" She grabbed the purple jar. "And Welch's grape jelly! The Zone has jelly, but I can't find peanut butter!"
Cain's breath caught in his throat. The last time he had seen DG this excited was finding her nurture units in Milltown. Even getting to leave the palace for this trip hadn't inspired this much joy. Did she miss the Other Side that much?
Zack shook his head. "Fairy tales don't prepare you for the princesses you really meet. Zoe got ecstatic when you gave her weapons. You get excited over peanut butter."
Glitch and Raw's jaws dropped as Cain moved his back off the barn wall. "DG! Do you even know what traveling incognito means?"
She flinched as she looked up. But Zack answered and his voice matched Cain's icy tone. "The Longcoat said 'the people's princess.' I looked around for Princess Di, but DG was the only girl in the tent. I don't know what you expect out of Slippers, but I'm not stupid." He tugged a yellow cloak out of the black bag and zipped it closed. "I'm going to see if they burnt the outhouse too." The yellow material swirled around him and he disappeared into the night rain.
"What the hell is the problem, Cain? He saved me, helped rescue you guys, answered all your questions, and now has food." DG's dejected face stared at him over the lantern.
"Cain," Raw rumbled.
"I can explain myself." The Viewer and Glitch exchanged looks that declared 'yeah right.' Cain focused on DG. "He appears out of no where with a crazy story, and you're falling for it."
"Raw said he wasn't lying!"
"And you said there's no magic on the Other Side! He has magic stuff. He was sent here by magic users Glitch and I have never heard of. The O.Z. is on the brink of a civil war." And you could have been killed tonight and there was nothing I could do to stop it. He didn't say the last. She already looked like he shot her puppy. Cain clenched his fist, and looked out at the rain.
"Glitch? What do you think?" she asked.
"I don't like being cited as an authority on magic since my talents are better suited for the sciences. Raw vouched for him, so I don't think he's out to cause us harm. But I don't think he's told us everything about his background."
Raw shook his head. "You two see boy. He was warrior before tonight."
DG hugged her knees to her chest and focused on the floor. Cain's jaw twitched before he spoke. "I'm sorry for accusing you of being lax with your safety."
"Wyatt Cain, if you even suggest going back to the palace, I will kick your ass." Her blue eyes blazed.
"I wasn't going to say that." If full warfare broke out, she wasn't safe there either. "It's just we know how easy it is for a spy to be planted."
"He's a Slipper."
"Who is handling being in the O.Z. better than you." Glitch's eyes bugged out of his head. Cain turned to the doorway.
Zack had come in silently. He hung up the wet cloak on the harness rack. "The outhouse is fine, but the yard is flooding." He snorted. "I'm not going back out there to give you more private time." He stalked back to his seat and opened the bag containing the bread. "Don't let me stop you. My feelings aren't hurt by a little suspicion."
Cain narrowed his eyes as the boy assembled a sandwich with the contents of the jars. "You've been to the O.Z. before."
"Nope," he replied cheerfully. "I've been to the Kingdom of Hyrule twice, which is where Lyle who I'm supposed to find is from, Dragonsworld, and an alternate New York. First time here."
DG took the bag of sliced bread and jars next. "And the magic items?"
"Other worlds. Magic has a hard time back home, but it's still there. When I'm not being bounced around different universes, I'm training and trying to graduate high school. The only blood family I got left is my older sister, the scary one I already mentioned." He took a bite of the sandwich.
"Other worlds." Glitch sounded enraptured. "All the theory just deals with the Other Side. Why don't the travel storms go to these other worlds?"
"Do we know they can't?"
"We don't have any records from Slippers from any where besides the Other Side. What is Tutor teaching you, DG?"
"Nothing useful, I thought we covered that." DG passed out the sandwiches, first to Raw and Glitch sitting on the hay bales, then one to Cain before sitting next to him. He couldn't resist sniffing the sandwich first. DG shook her head. "I'd love to introduce you to pizza and see your reaction to that." She looked at Zack. "You got pizza in there?"
"Sorry, pizza doesn't travel well."
Cain swallowed his first bite. What was DG so excited about? It was sweet and salty, but stuck to the roof of your mouth. "What are you training for?"
Zack's expression aged instantly. "The fight of my life, destiny, all that garbage. At least, I have time to train while waiting for the magic birthday to roll around so I can possibly die legally as an adult." He stuffed the food back into his bag and pulled out a blanket. His expression grew sheepish. "Sorry, don't often let the big, bad bitter out. Won't happen again."
"We asked for it," DG winced. "And personally, I think destiny should die and rot in hell. Preferably the circle where people's heads are getting chewed on."
Raw whimpered while Cain stared at her. "Is that another happy image?" Glitch asked.
"Don't worry about me, Glitch. I'm fine."
"But drifting closer to Aerosmith's definition. Who's pulling your strings?" Zack asked.
"I'm not neurotic." DG sighed, "The whole kingdom and mother knows best."
"Everybody who caused my problems is dead and that still didn't solve anything." Zack wrapped the blanket around his shoulders. "If we're through with my life story, what's the situation in the O.Z.? All I know is the Longcoats don't meet the G.I. Joe ideal."
"G.I. Joe?" Raw turned to DG.
"Fictional good guy army on the Other Side." DG looked at Cain. He nodded. If the boy was going to spend any time in the O.Z. he needed to know. "An evil witch possessed my older sister when we were kids. My memories were wiped and I was raised by robots in Kansas. The witch took over the O.Z. with the Longcoats and had a ten-year reign of fear. Five months ago, I returned, we defeated the witch, saved my sister, and restored my mother to the throne."
"Now we have dissent among the nobles if the House of Gale should even remain in power." Glitch continued as he stretched his long legs out. "And those leading the dissent are keeping the populace agitated, though restrained to just grumblings. The Longcoats are rumored to be massing here in the Northern Guild territories, which means they've probably found a new leader. We were sent on a reconnaissance mission to find out what's going on, and if the Guild lords are still loyal."
"And we get here, and the people want me to slay a dragon," DG added.
"But dragons are extinct, so it must be a Longcoat trick."
Cain stared at the dark barn ceiling with a sigh. Raw shook his head.
"As if the Longcoats are smart enough to pull off a Scooby-Doo monster of the week."
"None of the nobles you need to meet with are named Hammonds, are they?" Zack interjected.
He sang a verse of a song Cain had never heard of. "Jurassic Park is frightening in the dark. All the dinosaurs are running wild."
DG giggled. "They don't have cloning in the O.Z. And not a bad singing voice."
The boy shrugged as Cain struggled not to scowl. "Me and the radio get along. How likely is civil war?"
"If we're lucky, it's just civil war," Cain answered. But he could scowl with this topic. "Most nobles are looking for any excuse to call their piece of the O.Z. their own kingdom."
"Jumping right over rebellion to total anarchy. Not a situation that builds a lot of trust." Zack uncurled his body and set the strange trident daggers beside him. "I can fight, if you want me. Hand-to-hand, swords. Don't like guns but my sister made sure I could hit what I targeted. And I can ride a horse. If you don't want me, I understand, but tell me in the morning." He lay down with this back to the lantern.
The others claimed spots on the floor. Cain stepped away from his bedroll once it was rolled out. "I'll take first watch, then Raw."
Raw rumbled a confirmation. "And I get to watch the suns come up," Glitch yawned.
Cain put out the lantern, and settled next to the barn door. The torrential downpour had eased. The clouds scurried across the last setting moon. DG sat beside him, passing him his razor. "Thanks. You should get some sleep." He tucked it back into the vest pocket, but she shook her head. "Dawn will be here before you know it."
"I can't sleep yet and I don't want to upset Raw and Glitch."
"They're already snoring. What's on your mind, Princess?"
She stared down at the hand resting on his thigh. "Your wedding ring is gone."
She was stalling. There was no way she was kept awake by the state of his jewelry. "I gave it to Jeb. He had Adora's. I told him to use them for his own wedding or save them for his kids. Now what's really wrong, DG?"
Her voice stayed silent for so long he thought she had fallen asleep sitting there. "Zack killed the Longcoat that took me from the van."
"I figured that much. It's a hard thing to see."
She shook her head, interrupting him. "He didn't have to. That Longcoat had me on the cot ready to rape me." She stifled a sob. Cain pulled her onto his lap. She pressed against him, trembling. "I tried to fight him but I couldn't knock him off me. He just laughed at me."
And I couldn't save you. He squeezed her body. "It's over now. You're safe."
"Because Zack killed him instead of running." She sniffled, waiting for him to answer.
He petted her long black hair. The boy had done the right thing without even knowing who DG was. "Alright, he can stay with us. We'll help him find the missing kid. Just keep us included in the conversation."
"I'll try, but it's nice not having to explain every other word."
He stroked her hair, even though she had stopped crying. If he continued, he could ignore wanting to kiss away her salty tear tracks. "How bad are things at the Palace?"
She groaned into his chest and he hugged her tighter. "I'm a Princess and I have a family. Happily ever after. Everything's fine."
"It's not a good idea to lie to a Tin Man."
"Az explains stuff, making sure I don't get labeled the social cretin princess. Ahamo and I finally agreed on something."
"This ought to be good." The tension between father and daughter had filled the Central City Palace on his second-to-last stay.
"I made my first Princess declaration. I'm marrying for love, not because some other kingdom or an advisor wants to blackmail me down the aisle for the good of the O.Z. Ahamo told the Queen not to throw a fit because they did the same."
"First sensible thing the kidnapper has said. Sorry I missed it." She still felt more comfortable referring to them by names and titles, that couldn't be good. "What about the Queen?"
"She doesn't trust me, Cain. The people send their requests to me; ask me for favors or to do something governmentally because I melted the witch. And if I ever find the journalist that started calling me the people's princess, I'm gonna hurt him."
"You're just popular, Sweetheart. Your mother can't hold that against you."
"The nobles say with her magic gone she's too weak to rule. Others say I should be Queen now and argue with the ones who say I'm unsuitable because I'm practically a Slipper. After I suggested we should set up a parliament system and give the people a say, she banned me from the meetings until I learn what treason means."
Cain sat her up to look at her face. "You made a suggestion and she called it treason? Why didn't you tell me?"
She looked miserable. "What could you do? Besides, you've been telling us what's going on in the O.Z."
"I only go to…."
"Keep me safe," DG said with him. "I know that. And you were trapped for eight years, annuals. I won't trap you in the Palace because my mother is paranoid." She smiled ruefully. "But that's why I was bouncing off the walls to go on this adventure."
"That was hard to miss."
"I'm not even getting real magic lessons from Tutor. I ask Az for pointers, but I have to make sure I don't ask about something the witch liked to do because it'll give her a nervous breakdown." She glanced away. "And I understand. I have the stronger magic, I'm popular, and I could take the throne. Without being possessed by an evil witch."
He tucked her under his chin. "You're loyal."
"It's getting so hard to stay loyal, being treated like this. All I want to do is curl up on the couch and have Mom and Popsicle hug me while I cry just like I did in school when I got picked on. And thanks to me and the witch, I don't even have them."
He hugged her tighter. The witch had the tiktok nurture units torn apart, and everyone thought DG took the news so well. They knew better; Raw had led them to where she had curled up to mourn. "You have to stop blaming yourself for everything the witch did. Get out of that damn cave."
"Hell!" She pushed out of his embrace. "Why do you always tell me that?"
"Because it's keeping you from being happy." Okay, where the hell did that come from? He looked up at her, hoping that some Tin Man instinct had said the right thing.
It hadn't. "Since when has the O.Z. given a shit about my happiness?" Her bitter voice threw that at him before she crawled into her bedroll. Cain turned his full attention to the outside night, feeling lost on how to help DG now.