“Could this day get any worse?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Other than this disaster, it’s been pretty amazing for me,” Hank muttered. “I killed some orcs. Can’t beat that.”
“But now there are more. Does that mean your day’s getting better or worse?”
“Guess I’ll wait and see.”
A quick glance over my shoulder showed me that the tornado was angling toward us as though it intended to cut us off. The pegasus noticed too and tried to adjust his flight path away from the orcs as well as the tornado. In the meantime, the front edge of the sandstorm was really breathing down our necks.
Hank gasped. “It’s monstrous.”
Hank cut me off. “Yep, she did. She did say that. About me. I’ve never seen a sandstorm. Intimidating.”
“They’re a nuisance more than anything else.” The front edge billowed out like the tumbling explosion of a rocket launch. It was dirty orange color from the red sands of southwestern Utah. I didn’t look forward to getting swept up in it, but our options were narrowing.
The rumbling thunder tumbled against our backs as soon as lightning flashed. And with the appearance of the orc gang, we were hemmed in from almost every angle.
Which disaster did we want to take on? Running away from all of them was no longer an option.
“The sandstorm,” I said.
“What?” Hank asked, leaning closer to me. “Did you say what I think you said?”
“It’s the only way. If we stop and try to fight the orcs, the storms and tornado will catch up to us, and we’d probably lose to the orcs. We have to ditch them by diving into the sandstorm.”
“That’s crazy talk, Dred. We should have done what I said and gone down into the canyon.”
He was clearly from the city where flash floods in slot canyons were a blip on the radar, if that. I shook my head. “Too risky.”
“And how is a sandstorm not risky?”
“It is. But less risky than the lightning and orcs and the tornado.”
“I think it’s nuts,” Hank scoffed. “But you’re the boss, princess.”
I grinned. “So you’ll go with me?”
He squeezed my waist like he was thinking about me flying off on my own. “Yeah, what else would I do? Fight the orcs by myself? You have our escape vehicle.”
The pegasus twitched as though it heard Hank.
“Hm. Seems that Fluffy doesn’t like being called a vehicle. We should watch what we say.”
“Fluffy?” My partner asked.
“I named him Fluffy.”
“Dred, you can’t name him Fluffy.”
“Oh really. Why not?” I patted the pegasus’s neck.
“It’s too… er, fluffy. And weak.”
“If he doesn’t like it, he’ll tell me.”
“It’s like Death’s horse’s name—Binky. You can’t name a powerful, noble beast that was created by the gods something as innocuous as Fluffy, Dred.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about Binky. But our steed’s name is Fluffy. I guess if you want to choose the name of a pegasus, Hank, get one. The next pegasus, it’s yours, I promise.”
Fluffy seemed to agree with me about our course, and was heading straight toward the orange wall of sand that approached like a cloud of 150 grit sandpaper. It was dense and fine-looking and I anticipated that it would strip the skin from our faces, leaving only bone.
Somehow the orcs were gaining on us. Thunderbirds were massive as far as birds went and I suspected that unlike the pegasus, they had hollow bones. Meanwhile, the three of us were as heavy as a lead blimp—deadweight in the sky, barely held aloft by Fluffy’s powerful wings and maybe a smack of magic. Yes, the pegasus was a gift of the gods, but he was also as heavy as a horse and not aerodynamic in the least.
“The orcs are getting closer,” Hank shouted right in my ear.
“I noticed,” I shouted back.
“That sandstorm is going to shred us. I’ve never been in one. Not looking forward to this.”
“You have anything in that magical satchel to protect our faces?” I was visualizing bandanas and goggles, maybe a helmet—the sort of things a prepared guy like Hank would stuff into his Merlin style bag.
“I do, sure. But… can’t you cast a spell?”
A spell? A spell! Of course I could cast a spell. I hadn’t even thought of that. I blinked. For a moment, I was tempted to respond with some kind of cocky swagger in order to conceal that I’d forgotten that I could totally just cast a spell to save us from the gusting sand. You know, as though I’d just been testing Hank and hadn’t completely spaced in the stress of the moment that I was a powerful sorcerer in a long line of sorceresses as well as a daughter to a god.
I cleared my throat. “I can, yes. Definitely. Cast a spell. That’s my jam. Spell-casting.”
Hank was quiet for a moment. Then he asked softly in my ear, “Did you forget that you can cast spells?”
“I did, yes.”
He moved his hands to my shoulders and gave them a squeeze. “Understandable.”
“I just. You know.”
“I do. I do know. But Dred,” he began, then paused.
“What is it?” I asked, leaning back to hear him. Around us, the world roared. Lightning flashed. Thunder pounded our eardrums and winds rocked our bodies. The tornado wasn’t letting up and I could feel the lasso-like wind pulling on us as it got closer.
“Well, I didn’t want to alarm you, but it’s only fair that I tell you the orcs are now really close and they’re starting to throw spears.”
A pop behind us made me turn my head.
“And they’re also shooting, apparently!” Hank hollered. “Shit they’re shooting! Dirty bastards.”
He was right. Several of the orcs had guns. Guns!
Fluffy dropped then beat his wings hard, which lifted us up, up, and up. The pegasus was dodging the bullets, or at least trying to make us a hard target to hit.
I patted him on the neck, “Good boy, Fluffy!”
Whatever had happened to Hank and me when we’d done that Flameheart’s ceremony had caused some kind of conduit to open between us—a metaphysical type connection. That was what I felt as he began to summon something with his mage stylus. A tickle at the edge of my perception that felt like a voice, like Hank’s voice, speaking into the void.
“What are you getting?” I asked.
“My gun,” he said. “Just in case.”
“Good call.” I lifted my hand and a pinkish bubble of protection surrounded us. Hank relaxed against me. The bubble was some kind of semi-permeable membrane that allowed air molecules through, but not bullets and magic. I wasn’t a scientist at all, so I didn’t care enough to test it. Did it work? Yes. That was what mattered to me.
“Thank Thor,” he muttered. “And have I ever told you that I love that your bubble is pink?”
“I have no control over that,” I said with a short laugh.
“I know. That’s why it’s so great. To me it says something about you, Dred. Think of it—my badass partner conjures a frilly pink shield bubble. So girly.”
“That’s enough. Don’t make me rough you up to show you that I’m not in the least girly.”
“What other ultra-feminine secrets does the tough Dred Dixon hide?”
I changed the subject. There were only so many threats I could make before I began to sound insecure as hell.
“So Hank, you got your gun in case…” I began
“In case of what?” he prodded when I trailed off.
“We get separated and the orcs come after you?”
“Yep. That won’t happen, but better safe than sorry.”
We’d been completely overtaken by the orcs who came up around us on all sides like a pack of Hell’s Angels. The curtain of the sandstorm was less than fifteen yards away and the tornado had also gained ground, virtually kissing our tails as Fluffy pressed on into the sandstorm.
“Where’s Bifcak?” One of the orcs shouted at us. He held aloft what I could only assume was some kind of Uzi and shook it up and down as he shouted obscenities at us in a gravely voice that sounded like boulders tumbling down a mountain.
The thunderbird he rode upon reared its head back and let out a screeching cry. Feathers like horns curved off its head. Its beak was large and came to a vicious, terrible down-curved point that would tear a human in two in one swipe. Its wings, which easily spanned ten feet on either side, were brilliant red and orange while its body was white with blue tipped feathers.
“Did he say ‘beefcake’?” I asked in puzzlement, then shouted, “Beefcake’s dead! Or at least he’s gone to the Netherworld, where a scourge like Beefcake belongs!”
The orc—their leader, I assumed—let out a teeth-rattling roar, shook his gun, and aimed it at us.
“Still think this was all brought on by the thunderbirds, partner?” Hank yelled. “Seems too weird. I’m sticking with my theory that it’s a god.”
The orc leader opened fire. Bullets rained down on the pink sphere of protection that surrounded us.
“Which god gives a crap about us?” I asked. His theory challenged my current sense of a just world. So far the gods had been fair-to-middling allies.
“Why would Tho—“ I clamped my mouth shut.
And pause. This would be the moment in the opening sequence of my life as a movie where everything froze and an endearing voice-over suddenly played as I recalled some very pertinent information from the previous chapter of my life.
The chapter where I slept with the god Thoth.
And during that voice-over I’d be forced to witness and accept the naiveté in myself that had allowed me to believe that the Egyptian god of everything couldn’t be so petty and small as to be upset with me.
Yes, even though shortly after sleeping with him, I went and slept with Hank.
Sleeping with Thoth had been heavenly. I was a mess inside about it, because Hank felt like the other half of my soul, like that silly new-fangled idea I’d picked up on buzzing around the proverbial water-cooler. The one about twin flames—that idea, that a person’s twin flame was a part of your soul. Your own soul, cut in half and alive in another body.
Hank challenged me. He made me want to be the best version of myself. He made me sigh and feel stupid and yet also clever and funny and, somehow, eternal.
Thoth was beauty. He was polished and suave and powerful, yet kind and down-to-earth and he seemed not given to jealousy and pettiness and fear.
“Dred?” Hank prodded, cutting into my voice-over recollection. “You were saying?”
The pause effect didn’t work in real life, and I’d not finished answering Hank.
“Uh, yeah, why would Thoth be upset with us?” It was a good thing the midday sun was blotted out by a sandstorm and clouds from a thunderstorm so that Hank couldn’t see the red flush that was currently heating my cheeks up in embarrassment. I was caught. Hank didn’t know I’d buried my desire for him in the arms of Thoth when I still believed that I would never really let my guard down and get there with Hank.
“I don’t know, Dred. You tell me.”
I cringed. He knows.
“I figure you know him better than I do. He seemed to have an interest in things, though. Remember how he pulled us through space-and-time into some old European townsquare with cobblestone streets just for a chat?”
Maybe he didn’t know.
This wasn’t the time to tell him. Never would be a good time to tell him.
I was saved by nature from ever having to respond to why Thoth would be upset with us.
“Hold onto your britches!” I shouted as a cascade of bullets, spears, and sand pelted our bubble of protection.
Visibility was reduced to almost zero. Anything not within Fluffy’s wingspan became a murky shadow as the red sands of the southwestern desert enveloped us.
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