The terrain was getting hillier, and the forest was predominately pine and fir trees. DG was struck with gratefulness for the stairs at the Palace for the first time. Had she had to go through terrain like this on her quest to stop the witch, Cain would have ended up having to carry her.
They still were lower than the Northern Palace, so the air was still warm. The land each of the three Guild Lords of the Northern Territories controlled was southeast of it, she remembered from a rushed geography lesson. Snow covered the tops of the White Mountains that towered over the group beyond the trees, but they shouldn't have to march through a blizzard.
The incline leveled off suddenly and the trees pulled back, revealing that they now stood on a hunk of granite, jutting out of the hills like a balcony. DG blinked her eyes against the glare from the sun and stared at the southern view of the O.Z.
Zack stopped beside her. "Wow, outstanding view."
"We are rather fond of it ourselves," an unfamiliar voice answered him.
The group whirled around to meet the speaker, and Cain had his gun out. A couple stood just barely outside of the tree break. Their skin was colored brown as dirt and their hair glittered silver, gold, and copper. Their green clothes looked just right for one of the balls, not traveling in the forest.
"Peace, Consort." The man addressed Cain as he knelt and laid two halves of a broken sword between him and the woman and their group. DG stepped to get closer to Cain's side. That was his title now, but how had this stranger known that? He stood back up and white eyes stared at her. "We come in peace, meeting the terms of the truce between our peoples."
DG glanced at Glitch who had come up beside her left side. "Yes, you have." The advisor gestured for Cain to put his gun away, which he did reluctantly. "Forgive our caution."
"Your caution is understandable. It has been many of your generations since the Queen traveled through these woods." His white eyes bored into DG's. "My name is Oran. I come to speak for the Fae who honor the current allegiance." He dropped into a kneeling bow, but didn't lower his face to hide his eyes.
The shock Oran's first words had caused now settled into full-blown panic in DG's stomach. Had to clear up any misunderstandings right now! "I'm just the Crown Princess. My mother is the Queen."
"Then the stories are true!" said the female behind Oran. "A usurper holds the human throne, breaking Ozma's pact!"
DG shook her head. "No, the witch that possessed my sister is dead, and my mother regained her throne, Queen Galinda."
"What will happen to the land with the pact broken?" The woman's eyes gleamed orange. "And a dragon returned?"
"Adsaluta, anger solves nothing." Oran stood, but did not take his eyes of DG. She steeled her spine and resolved not to cower before his weird eyes.
"And what will your response be when your brother's blood is sacrificed!"
"Enough!" Oran barked at her, finally taking his eyes off DG for a second. She took a breath and tried to calm her rapidly beating heart. His white, iris-less eyes met hers again. "Much has been hidden from you. This does not bode well for the oncoming storm."
Oran almost sounded sympathetic when he said that. Too bad he had to say storm, and invoke every negative association she had since jumping into a travel storm. She put her hands on her hips. "Well, please, break the trend and actually tell me something."
"Your mother's reign ended when she gave up her powers, your Majesty."
Okay, she hadn't expected that sucker's punch. Her right hand flailed until it caught hold of Cain's. His grip was reassuringly solid.
"All is not lost. The land recognizes you as Queen. If you surpass this storm, the humans must recognize it as well."
Something icy stabbed her in the gut and knocked almost all the air out of her lungs. "I can't be the Queen. I'm the one drawn to darkness. I let the witch of the darkness out."
Oran looked puzzled. "What is she talking about?"
Adsaluta answered him, quoting that horrible nursery rhyme. "The majestic Queen of the O.Z., had two lovely daughter she. One to darkness she be drawn, one to the light she be shown. Double eclipse it is foreseen, light meets dark in the stillness between. But only one and one alone, shall hold the emerald and take the throne. That is horrendously vague even by our standards."
Oran turned back to DG. "The Emerald of the Eclipse has chosen you twice, how much more proof do you need?"
Her jaw unhinged with his knowing things he shouldn't again. The emerald hadn't chosen her. The Gray Gale gave it to her, and the Az stuffed it in the pocket of her motorcycle jacket when they left the balcony. It hadn't chosen her.
Adsaluta stepped forward. Her ball gown made no noise as she moved. Cain tried to pull DG back but she couldn't move. "How soon the humans forget that duality is present in all. Are you afraid of the dark?" DG shook her head. "Then embrace your power, harness it, become the Queen the O.Z. needs!" The woman threw out her hands to encircle the entire world if she could. She drew back down and orange iris-less eyes bored into DG's. "You should go speak to the Gray Gale about these things. She's a witch-killer too, not a goddess of light that the humans have turned her memory into. Though she killed two."
"What? You want some more evil witches to wreck the O.Z. so I can break her record?"
Adsaluta chuckled and she stepped back. Good thing because Cain looked like he was ready to hit her. "Take care of the dragon and there will be no regrets over your reputation, your Majesty."
DG took a deep breath. "Again with slaying the dragon? Do I look like Dennis Quaid?"
"You said you speak for the Fae who honor the current allegiance," Glitch said quickly, before anyone could ask about her Other Side comparison. "Are there Fae who are not?"
Oran sighed. "Before the allegiance with the humans, our allegiance was to the dragons. A dragon has returned and the human realm in turmoil still, many have flocked back to the dragon."
"And if I kill the dragon, they'll flock back to the status quo?" DG would prove she wasn't distracted when she blurted out a Slipperism.
"If you kill the dragon, there is no reason for them to be butchered," Adsaluta answered.
"You are too blunt with these things." Oran's white eyes glanced over their group.
"And how many more will die before you reach the point?"
DG held up her free hand. "Time out. Someone is killing your people because they want to follow the dragon's orders?"
Oran and Adsaluta both looked at each other. "This dragon has no orders," Oran said. "It is controlled by a human." DG heard Zack mutter something under his breath and Oran focused on him. "The Slipper knows. You have seen what humans can do with the power of a dragon."
"It's also not easy," Zack's voice was serious. "The Dragon King was a shape shifter. That was his way into the dragon power structure. And they were pissed when they found out they had been fooled by a lying, power-hungry dictator."
"Would it be that simple." Adsaluta shook her head. "The human controls the dragon with," she swallowed and her voice dropped, "blood magic."
"What is that?" DG found herself getting irritated at their suddenly furtive exchanges. "I've heard of light magic and dark magic, but I don't know anything about blood magic. How are we supposed to stop something if we don't know what it is?"
"It is forbidden," Oran finally said. "The most ancient taboos broken for power. Even the Sorceress did not dare use blood magic."
"The witch killed people." DG wished she could take the image of the Sorceress pulling the wispy soul from the Mystic Man's mouth and the old man dropping dead out of her nightmares. Even locking her in the sarcophagus paled in comparison to that evil.
"But she didn't use their deaths to fuel her magic," Adsaluta said.
"So when you said sacrificed, you weren't speaking metaphorically?" Glitch gulped when they both nodded. Raw whimpered behind Cain.
DG's grip on his hand tightened as she debated how royal was it to just hurl right here and now. Cain squeezed back and she spared a glance at her Tin Man. He was trying to hide it, but he was outraged. She could feel it radiating off of him. She looked back at Oran and Adsaluta. Oh God, they had the same look that everyone who had to ask a boon of the princess did.
"We share a common goal in this, your Majesty," Oran began humbly. "The dragon is contained in the Northern Territories for now, but eventually it will be targeted at the whole O.Z."
"And eventually he's going to run out of willing victims and start hunting your people." Oran and Adsaluta both bowed their heads lowering their eyes for the first time. DG guessed that was her prize for having correctly analyzed the situation.
"Who is it?" Cain's voice was as rigid as his stance. Oran and Adsaluta's gazes both turned to him, startled. "Who is controlling the dragon?"
Oran heaved a sigh. "We know not the identity, Consort. Because of the blood magic, to our senses he feels like one of the Fae."
"Then how do you know a human is responsible?" Cain didn't take a step forward, but he seemed to loom over the two Fae. DG vowed to let him handle all interrogations if she ever needed any done.
Adsaluta answered, pain twisting her features. "My brother went willingly with Longcoats to follow the dragon. I felt his soul scream when release was denied." Her body shuddered. "Longcoats would never follow a Fae. They only see us as tools to be used and broken." Cain nodded, accepting that analysis.
"Is there anything else?" DG hoped not. She felt numb, but doubted she could handle another blow.
"Only our apologies for having to lay this burden on your shoulders, your Majesty." Oran bowed and Adsaluta dropped into a curtsey.
She decided she could like the Fae despite how they startled coming out of no where and knowing stuff they shouldn't and giving her more bad news. Hell, not even her mother had apologized for the shit she had to go through to save Az and stop the witch. "It's alright. It's a threat against the whole O.Z."
They stood, picking up the broken sword. "Your party will be safe in the forests. Our influence wanes closer to the human settlements, but we can keep Longcoats away while you are in the trees." Oran faded away last as he finished speaking. It was like they had never stood there.
DG didn't say anything. She let go of Cain's hand and turned back to the view down into the rest of the O.Z. That no longer believed her mother was Queen. She was a traitor the second she woke up in the O.Z., with the debris from the travel storm around her. She knew she was the heir apparent, even if her mother didn't want to make the formal announcement until after she was safely engaged or married. Most of the population tended to accept Az's possession, but none of them would accept her as Queen again. She understood, and really couldn't blame the people either. But she thought she had a few more years to get ready, to learn about the O.Z. again. She didn't even have her magic under control yet!
The land rolled green under her gaze. Maybe if she stared hard enough she could see Central City. Cain's large hands grasped her shoulders and his thumbs rubbed against her muscles. "You wanted a test. Does that count?"
He turned her to face him without answering. His arms wrapped around her, and she sagged against his chest. She closed her eyes, soaking up his strength.