DG felt numb. She didn't have any tears left, and she clung to Cain's duster still around her. Glitch, the first person she had met in the O.Z. who had wanted to help her (the lawn gnomes certainly hadn't) and had stuck by her side and held her hand even when it wasn't in his best interest to do so. Her mother didn't realize what a valuable advisor she had tossed aside or how many times he had talked DG into staying in the O.Z. She was fairly certain that at least three of Cain's visits were thanks to Glitch contacting him and telling him to come back because she was going to bolt.
And Cain, her chest ached. Cold, angry Cain, who helped her when it brought him nothing but trouble and ran counter to what he wanted, and eventually thawed the longer he stayed with her. She didn't think anything could hurt her worse than when Zero came down the stairs of the Northern Palace and told the Sorceress he had killed Cain and she had to hide the wail in her heart from all of them. Her hand rubbed over the raised stone on her wedding band. This was worse. She loved him and he loved her, and she let go again. She ran to save her own hide.
And Az loved Glitch, and he was probably the only one in the Zone who loved her back. DG had been approached by enough suitors who were closer in age to Az to realize they were not going after her equally eligible sister. God, she couldn't screw up their future happiness, not on top of everything else that had happened to Az because of her. She never let anyone take the fall for her mistakes, not since the cave. She wasn't going to let Cain and Glitch be the first. But the how to accomplish that was eluding her brain.
Chelsea finally broke the silence. "Where are we going? What are we going to do?"
Zack sighed. "We could hole up in the first town downstream and figure that out."
"They'll think of that."
"I know, but what else can we do? We'll run out of fuel if we just keep on the river."
Raw touched her shoulder. "DG trust Raw?"
"Of course, Raw." Her voice was hoarse. "You don't even need to ask that."
He nodded with a small smile. "Stop the boat there." He pointed to a grassy portion of the bank flanked by two trees almost looking like a gate. Zack pulled the boat alongside the spot and killed the motor as Raw jumped out with a coil of rope. He tied the boat so they wouldn't drift and disappeared into the shadows. DG found a canteen with the pile of packs and drank. Hopefully that would help her voice.
Zack moored the other end of the boat and they sat in silence. The wait seemed longer than it probably was, and they all looked up anxiously when they heard the sounds of two people approaching.
Raw led another Viewer into the moonlight close by the river. He was much older than Raw, stooping over a staff. Raw waved his hand to DG. She thrust her arms into the sleeves of the duster and climbed out of the boat. "DG, this is Yowl, the elder of the village here."
Yowl tried to bow, but DG held out her hands to stop him. "Please don't. It's not necessary under the circumstances." He grasped her hand.
"I doubted Raw. Trust is too valuable for us to give after the dark days. But shelter from the Longcoats we can offer you, my Queen. No more than that." Yowl sighed. "We lost too many males in their prime. Nothing but of a village of the ancient and children. We could not fight for even you."
DG's eyes opened wide. She wanted to fight back somehow, and the Viewer must have felt that. She squeezed his hand. "After everything that has been done to your people, I would never ask for that. Sheltering us is more than enough."
"The cub," Raw said softly.
DG nodded. "There are two with us. Could you get them safely to Lord Gayelette's fortress, if something happens to us?"
Yowl nodded. "We can arrange for that. There are still some humans trustworthy in this area. Now come."
Zack and Raw helped Chelsea holding the sleeping Hal out of the boat. DG took charge of Cain's hat and carried two packs despite Raw and Zack protesting because of her exhaustion. But she didn't feel nearly as exhausted with something to do. Yowl led them into the trees and an incredibly hilly area. It took a moment to process, especially in the shaded moonlight, but the hills were actually the Viewers' homes dug into the ground like hobbit holes.
"We've ended up in the Shire," Zack whispered.
Yowl led them to one of the doors and ushered them inside. A nearly smokeless fire was already burning in the small fireplace. The floor was dug out so Raw could stand up with ease under the roof. Zack took over Cain's check everything out first role, and DG felt her throat close tight. He came out of the second door. "That's the bedroom. Chelsea, go ahead and get Hal comfortable." He pointed to the first door he had checked out. "That's the half bath."
Chelsea whipped her head between the bedroom door and DG. "It's not our place. The Princess should have the bedroom."
DG sat down cross-legged next to the fireplace. "I'm not pulling rank on a baby. Go get some sleep, now." Chelsea went carrying Hal, clearly looking unhappy about it. Raw trailed after her.
Zack sat on one of the steps leading down from the front door. "Do you need anything to eat?"
"I need Cain." The amount of raw pain in her voice surprised her. She clutched the edges of the duster and pulled it tighter around her. She brought her knees up to her chest and dropped her head. Between the too-big duster and fedora on her head, no one could see her pain and her guilt.
She heard someone sit on the other side of the hearth. "DG did what Cain said to. Not the same as the cave," Raw pitched his voice to be soothing, but she didn't want to be soothed.
"I left them! In the hands of stalker creepy, for what?" Her head shot up with the challenge.
The firelight made Raw's face even more sympathetic. "The Queen must be safe."
"For what?" DG repeated. "How many people have suffered because I have to be safe?" It was her mother's response to hide. She supposed if this had happened to Galinda, she wouldn't have stopped until she reached Finaqua. It rankled. "And now you want to add Wyatt and Glitch to the list?"
"Not want. But it's what we'll do. For DG. For the Queen."
"You would die so I could run away?" This pain was even sharper. She knew Cain had that crazy take-a-bullet-for-her philosophy that she did her best to ignore, but Raw and Glitch shared it? "Do you honestly expect me to sit pretty on the throne with a crown on my head and wave at people if you guys died so I could?" She shook her head trying to block out the image. "I'm not worth that. And no position is worth that."
"DG is worth it. The Zone needs you."
"And I need the three of you! Alive and well and at my side. Otherwise, I'm going to give Az a run for the title of crazy princess." Her hands shook and she clutched her legs to stop the shaking. Cain's smell surrounded her but it was a poor substitute for his arms. She could only hope that he was alive to regret that they were good before supper.
"Cain and Glitch still alive," Raw answered.
"But for how long? Ichiro's first ultimatum will be marry him or he'll kill them."
"Can't argue with that," Zack answered.
"And if I tell him no," she paused to let the nausea of that thought pass, "he'll start an invasion with the Longcoats and the dragon."
"Next logical step," Zack conceded.
"And I'll be responsible for the destruction of the O.Z. again." She dropped her face against her knees again.
"I know Glitch already asked you this once," Zack spoke slowly as if making sure she couldn't mistake his words for anything else, "but what do you think a Queen does for her people?"
"Runs away so she'll be around to lead the next parade, I guess. Death and destruction of the Outer Zone is my particular talent." She wouldn't cry again. She couldn't cry again.
A hand gripped her shoulder, too small to be Raw's. She looked up to see Zack kneeling beside her. "I don't know what kind of example your mother is setting, but I'll venture a wild guess that it's the exact opposite of how you'd approach life."
DG nodded mutely. That was a nice way to sum up their complicated relationship.
"I've had the opportunity to see a few queens in action when I've traveled. It's not really about the pomp and circumstance or leading parades or being a status symbol for nationalism like on Earth. A queen fights for her people when they can't. DG, fighting you can do. You have got passion, fire, and grit. You are a force of nature!"
"A force of nature?" Her voice was so timid, so disbelieving.
Zack grinned, "Why do you think Cain loves you?"
Cain's arm had circled around her shoulders. "You're the strongest damn force in the whole Zone." She could hear the pride and love in his voice. She blinked and the memory receded. She took a deep breath. "I don't exactly feel like Xena."
"The outfit would probably give Cain a heart attack. Just be yourself." He let go of her shoulder.
"What do we do now?" Raw asked.
DG rubbed her face and then turned to Zack. "What do you recommend?" He looked surprised. "Without Cain or Glitch, you're the closest thing to a military advisor I got."
Zack sat cross-legged on the floor. "Getting back into the castle won't be that hard. I remember a trick the Turtles said they used in ancient Japan. But our assets list is shabby. You're emotionally shot and not a trained fighter, and being in there hurts Raw."
Raw drew his shoulders back. "I would suffer for Cain and Glitch."
"Not saying you won't, but it's not right to subject you to it if it can be prevented."
DG sighed, "You were probably picking up on the dragon. He was bleeding. And how are we going to break that spell?"
Zack shrugged. "I don't know; you're the magic user."
"The pathetically trained magic user who is completely drained without doing much of anything. How far are we from Lord Gayelette's?"
Raw purred as he shut his eyes. "Four days by how fast we go. Army move slower."
DG shook her head. "No way, we don't have that long to wait. Jeb's group is probably closer."
"Do you know how to find him?" Zack asked.
"No, that would be Wyatt who can figure that out." She smiled, "I'm too used to prairies. The trees mess me up."
Zack stared into the fire. "We're going to need to rest at some point before we make a decision." Before she could protest that she was too wired to sleep, he continued. "Why don't you clean up and get comfortable, and then I'll share what magic theory I know? It might help you understand your powers."
She looked down, not wanting to give up the duster, and realized she was still in the pink pajamas. "Good idea. I wouldn't mind some of the tea I know Glitch packed." She pulled her pack from the pile and went to the half-bath.
It was small with only a toilet, sink, and mirror, but not as tiny as the handicap stall in the ladies room at Hilltop Café and she had always managed to change her clothes in there just fine. She pulled out her trusty jeans and a dark green blouse. With a sigh, she realized a laundry spell would be so very useful for their adventures, much more than spinning a silly doll in the air.
The keychain fob Zack had given her was still in the pocket of the jeans. She stared at it with a sense she was forgetting something important. Az's light was always stronger, then why were they stronger together rather than apart?
She stuffed the yin-yang symbol back into her pocket, and splashed water onto her face before she pulled on the green blouse. She blinked at her reflection in the mirror, letting the water drip off her face. It felt like tears but colder.
A caress touched her bare back, fingers too small and smooth to be Wyatt's. She felt a wave of power wash over her and smelled death--spilled blood and rotting flesh. "It's only a waking dream, DG." His arms circled around her waist, and Ichiro propped his chin on her right shoulder. "You cleverly eluded my men, but you can't escape me."
"You have some serious boundary issues, Ichiro! Get the hell out of my head!"
His arms squeezed tighter and she gagged with the smell. "Stop defying me! I'm the only one in the O.Z. worthy for your hand. Together we will build an empire, the empire of the rising suns!"
DG tried to slam her body back to knock him off her, but he didn't let go. "News flash for you, the Japanese lost World War II. I don't want to drop a nuclear bomb on your head, but I will if that's what it takes!"
"And kill your friends?" He drew his finger around her navel.
"You're going to kill them any way. At least, my way would be quick." She swallowed the revulsion threatening to spew from her mouth.
"I'm not an unreasonable man. I want the throne and I want a son who has our powers combined. Give me these things and you can keep your toys. Actually, it might be amusing to see you and Akio vie over the Tin Man."
At the mention of Zero's name, something icy shot through DG tingling almost like her light did, but it felt more like cold rolling water. The rapids they had jumped into to get away from the Papay were under her skin and rolling down her left arm. She balled up her left fist, yanked it back, and shot it forward curled around her body. The icy energy shot out through her ring as her fist connected with Ichiro's face. "Just ask Jimmy Gulch how much I like being toyed with!"
Darkness swept away the bathroom until she opened her eyes. Her face was still wet, but she panted like she had just run for her life. But she didn't feel drained like she usually did when she used her light without Az around. She dried her face and yanked on the blouse. After pulling on the duster, she snatched up the pink pajamas and her pack and tried not to stomp out of the bathroom. "I think our timetable has just accelerated."
Zack looked up from pouring the water into the campfire kettle. "Why?"
"Ichiro just paid me a telepathic visit and gave me the first ultimatum. I managed to punch him out of my head, but," she sat down next to the fire and twisted the pink silk in her hands. "But he threatened to turn Wyatt over to Zero."
He hung the kettle from a hook embedded in the fireplace. "What's the history there?"
She tossed the pink pants into the fire and shoved them into the embers with the poker. "Sorry about the smell. Zero locked Wyatt in the iron suit after torturing his family, and filmed the whole thing so he had to watch it over and over again. He didn't kill Wyatt's first wife until about six months before the Eclipse when he found out she and Jeb were still working for the resistance against the Sorceress." The silk turned into a powdery ash after the fire flared around it.
"Cain thought his family dead for years," Raw added. "DG made him better."
"Yeah, well," she shrugged it off. That was private. "Jeb captured Zero, after he had captured Wyatt, Glitch, and Raw while I was off getting reacquainted with my father. He locked Zero in an iron suit to keep Jeb from killing him out of revenge. We got him out of it for prison about a month later." She repeated the fire treatment on the jacket. "He wants Wyatt dead is accurate, but woefully inadequate for the passion Zero feels about it."
Zack sighed as he put a tea bag into a metal cup and poured the hot water over it. "Allie has something she usually likes to say when hearing about stuff like that. 'I see why he's not on your Christmas card list.'"
DG snorted instead of giggling. "Your sister has a way of cutting to the essentials, doesn't she?"
"Yeah, but that one I think she picked up from Mike. He's still helping her learn to play nicely with others." He passed the cup to her. "Are you sure Ichiro's out of your head?"
"I think so." She sipped the tea, letting the warmth seeping into her.
"DG shielded herself," Raw said from his bedroll. "Won't be able to use that trick again."
"That's reassuring. Thanks, Raw." She looked at Zack. "What do you know?"
"Lissa said once that magic works the same everywhere, it's just easier on some worlds than others. Earth is one of the hard ones for some reason. So here's what I've picked up on three different worlds," he said with a grimace. "Energy is energy, whether created by magic or scientific means. Magic is will made manifest. Matter created from chi by the user just making it so."
Zack sighed, "It's an Eastern term for life force. It has three levels, personal chi, what your body runs off of." He placed a hand on his chest. "Environmental chi, the energy of the planet," his hand moved to touch the floor. "And last universal chi, the divine," he spread his hands above his head to span the unseen sky. "As a magic user, you can channel your personal chi and make what you want to happen. Cass said incantations, even something as simple as a spoken word, was just a technique to make your brain focus on what you want to happen. The bigger the effect, the more chi you use. You can deplete your personal levels and then no more magic until after you eat and rest."
"I've felt that happen to me before," DG drained the last of the tea. Deciding against fixing more, she took the kettle off the fire.
"Cass would pull energy from the environmental chi, so she could keep working magic during a battle. I never met anyone who was able to channel universal chi to work magic. From what some Wiccan friends told me once, many cultures declared insane people 'touched by the gods.' Personally, that's a big don't try it for me."
"How did she pull energy from the environment?" She pulled her knees up and rested her chin on them.
"Now you're asking about mechanics, which I don't know anything about. She said she could sense the chi moving around the planet in lay lines, but how to do that?" He shrugged for an answer. "Though she was able to use Apollo's lyre as a conduit to channel enough energy to put out an S.O.S. that a version of Lyle answered."
"Okay, that's a lot to cover. A version of Lyle?"
Zack sighed. "I didn't have a way home. I was stuck on a world that was so close to mine with just the tiniest details off, and I was so homesick it was killing me. Lyle answered the S.O.S., but he was all grown up, said he owed me, and got me home."
"Apollo's lyre? As in the Greek god of the sun?"
"Oh, yeah, on that alternate New York, it turned out that a lot of the gods in mythology were actually members of the Third Race, the Fae. Since Cass had been trained as a priestess for Apollo, the lyre attached to her and gave her a boost of magical energy."
"That's what a conduit does?"
"A magical artifact to ease magic casting or forge a connection to environmental chi, yeap."
She suddenly got a case of the goose bumps and she rubbed her arms through the sleeves of the duster. The Emerald of the Eclipse could be a conduit, but she wanted to test that theory before committing to it. "Okay, what else?"
"It's generally easier not to break all the laws of physics. Working with them prevents a backlash of energy, thanks to one of Newton's laws."
"Wait, I know that one." She stared at the ceiling for a minute. "Every action has an opposite but equal reaction?"
"Yeah. And from what I've seen, magic is neutral. If something evil happens, it's because of what the user wanted not something bad about the magic itself."
DG sighed, "I want to believe that. But nobody else trusts me, why should I?"
"That's not true. We trust you. Cain married you; do you think suspicious cop that he is would if he didn't trust you?" Zack uncrossed his legs and sat on his knees. "Allie never trusted her rage, her ability to be criminally sneaky. She was so busy not trusting herself that she never saw that she only used them to help those she loves. DG, your magic is part of you. If you fall to the dark side of the Force, it's because you went evil not because your magic warped you. And a little rage isn't necessarily a bad thing."
"That's not what Yoda said. Anger leads to the Dark Side."
"Actually it's 'Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.' Don't try to top me on Star Wars quotes. And it can, if you hold it in, letting it eat away at who you are, lashing out to try to make it go away. Turned inward, it is the unconquerable enemy. But being angry over something evil done to someone else? That's the path of justice. And sometimes, the only justice is death."
"Damn, that's cold."
"It's also the last resort. Always leave open the chance for redemption. But sometimes, you have to let karma take over." Zack stared into the fire. "Adsaluta was right, you do fear your power and that's crippling your ability to use it fully." He looked into her eyes with a sigh. "I can't pep talk you into accepting yourself, only you can do that. All I can ask is that you please do it quickly, because we're going to need you to fight at full strength if you want to save Cain and Glitch and stop this before it becomes a full war. Get some sleep." He found his blankets and curled up in them.
DG stared at the flames, her mind whirling into blankness. She didn't even have a coherent thought to follow. She huffed and gave up, finding her bedroll lay out close to the fire. Stay strong, Wyatt. She kissed her wedding band. I'm coming.