Chapter 8: The Mission

I ran at a comfortable four-minute mile pace and didn’t even break a sweat. I was hyper-alert as I made my way through the savannah, and I listened for Dorothy, toads, hyenas, men, and everything else. I heard Dorothy before I saw her; she was at most a hundred yards away, but dips in the terrain hid her from view.

There was another toad a few yards ahead. It was the same tan with bright green splotches as the one I’d just flattened, but it seemed a little smaller than the other one. Regardless, it was probably wise to try to apologize. I stopped, slid off my backpack, and got my oosik ready. “Look, B, umm…” I got up from my fighting crouch and set the butt end of the oosik on the ground. “About what just happened…” I shrugged. “I didn’t think it’d actually work.”

“Croak.”

I was apologizing to a five-inch long amphibian. I let out the breath I’d been holding. I started to sling my backpack on, then changed my mind and set it back down. I wasn’t all that hungry yet but I might as well fuel up. I pulled out my water skin, drank my fill, and then stuffed a handful jerky into my mouth.

I heard B again. “Seriously, that’s it? ‘Duh, I didn’t think it’d actually work.’ That’s all the apology I get?” His voice dripped contempt. “Two things, Einstein. First, I’ll admit you surprised me, but if you try that shit again I will ass-fuck you into the next dimension! Second, you had best do some fancy, sincere, heartfelt groveling RIGHT NOW!”

I turned back toward the toad. Its previously dull black eyes now glistened like polished onyx. The son of a bitch wanted me to grovel. I took a half lunge forward and then caught myself. There was no point stomping on him again. It’d make me feel better for a little bit, but it wouldn’t be permanent. And whatever payback he was planning would only get worse. Then I heard the faint sounds of a pack of hyenas about a quarter mile away.

Jehovah’s compulsions kicked in instantly. I dropped the skin and jerky, grabbed my oosik, and sprinted for Dorothy, leaving B and my pack behind.

“What the fuck? Oh…yeah.” B called out after me, “Vic, this ain’t finished! We’re NOT done!”

When Joey’s got His hand up your ass, the worst thing you can do is resist. I’ve learned from hard experience that there’s no percentage in fighting God’s will. So, if He wants the kid saved, I’ll go save the kid.

When I caught up to Dorothy, my choices would be fight or run. It could just be a pack of ordinary hyenas, but there’s no way I’d ever be that lucky. It was daylight, so werehyenas would be vulnerable, but there’d still be too many of them for me to keep off the kid. She probably didn’t have conscious, direct control of her magic yet, so she’d be unlikely to know the self-healing spells or any useful zap-the-bad-guys stuff. At this point, ‘run’ would be the best choice.

I didn’t know how fast werehyenas could run but I could make an educated guess. Most large predators are sprinters, and pretty much everything can outrun a human over a short distance. Humans have the advantage over the long haul; there’s nothing that does endurance running as well as we do.

Since Fornik’s upgrade, my top running speed has gone from a four-minute mile to three—say twenty miles per hour instead of fifteen. I’d be slower carrying the kid, but since she probably weighed less than fifty pounds, I wouldn’t be all that much slower. If I could get us out far enough ahead of the pack to keep them off us, I could probably outlast them.

I’d already run three miles and the little bit of jerky I’d just eaten hadn’t been enough top off my energy stores. I had no idea how long I could maintain top speed before I burned all my glycogen and fat and I started to catabolize muscle tissue. I could only hope it’d be long enough to get away from the hyenas.

In a couple of seconds, I caught sight of Dorothy. I didn’t bother to waste my breath greeting her. She had just enough time to turn her head, and her eyes widened as she recognized me when I scooped her up. She didn’t scream in surprise or make a sound. She was light enough for me to tuck under my right arm and carry like a football, but she threw my balance off

“What? What are you doing?”

“There’s…a pack…of…hyenas…coming…after us…Climb…on…my…back.” The kid was brighter than she looked. She didn’t argue or ask more questions. She twisted and slung her arms around my neck, pulled herself around and got on my back, and wrapped her legs tight around my waist. I listened for the werehyenas. They were getting closer. Shit!

I headed back toward the river. There was a chance I could get to the water before the pack caught up. It’d be harder for the werehyenas to swarm us in the water.

“Kid…can…you…swim?”

“Yes.”

I ran for my life. I bent forward and willed myself to go faster. A mile later, the werehyena pack was a hundred yards behind us. Dorothy mumbled, “God, please help us. God, please help us. Please. Please help us.” I don’t know if her prayers worked or if we were just lucky but the pack began to slow down and stopped gaining on us.

My muscles began to burn. I was pushing my body so hard that even my enhanced recuperative powers couldn’t keep up. The burn wasn’t slowing me down much but it was only going to get worse. I’d walked about four miles due west from the river before I’d started running south. If the river was another three miles away from us now, Dorothy and I were fucked.

Excellent! The river was less than a mile away. It must have curved toward the west as it went south. Even better, there was a village. If I had the breath, I would’ve shouted with joy.

Knowing that we had a chance helped me run just a little bit faster, but it didn’t last. The hyenas started to close the distance between us.

The village was about the same size as the one Dorothy had been hiding in. As we got closer, the villagers pointed at us and shouted in alarm. Villagers started screaming and yelling and running around. Women and children ran into the huts. Men armed with spears and all manner of makeshift weapons gathered in front of the village.

“Hold stranger! Stop!”

Yeah, right. I weaved between the men without slowing. The hyenas were almost on top of us, and must have looked a whole lot more dangerous than some guy running with a kid on his back because the villagers didn’t try to stop us. As snarls and shouting erupted behind us, I ran up to a small reed boat that was beached on the bank. It was just large enough to hold two people, and the paddles were stowed in it. I tossed my oosik in next to the paddles, grabbed the bow with one hand, and pulled it toward the river as fast as I could.

I didn’t have to say anything; Dorothy swung off my back, ran to the rear of the boat and started pushing. It was a lot easier to pull with her off me. As soon as we got the boat floating free, she climbed in. I pulled as hard and as fast as I could until the water got chest deep, pushed the bow past me, grabbed the stern, and started kicking to propel us forward.

I caught motion in my peripheral vision; a hyena sailed over my head. It must have leapt from the bank which was now about twenty feet away. Dorothy screamed, “Bad dog!” and swung a paddle into two hundred plus pounds of flying hyena. The hyena crashed into her and knocked her on her back.

The boat tipped almost sixty degrees to the right and the hyena went over the side. The kid grabbed on with one hand and stayed onboard. I pulled the left side down with all of my weight and barely kept her from capsizing.

I pulled down on the left side of the boat again as the hyena struggled to get into the boat to get at Dorothy. She rose to her knees, wielded her paddle like an axe, and repeatedly smashed the hyena in the face.

“Bad dog! Bad dog! BAAAAAD DOG!”

The flying hyena’s momentum had kicked us further out into the river. All the other leaping hyenas splashed down behind us.

Dorothy kept chopping at the hyena, punctuating each strike with a grunted “Wait. What? You’re. Not. A. Dog. You’re. A. Priest. Baaaad. Priest! With a final ‘thunk’, the priest she’d been bashing quit moving and let go.

I kept kicking to get us into deeper water where the current was faster, and we pulled away from the pack and the bald guy floating face down and motionless in our wake. It’d be good if she’d actually killed him, but I was pretty sure she hadn’t. And sure enough, he twitched and sputtered back into life, sucked in a lungful of water, and was coughing and choking and gasping for breath.

I got a look at his face, and it was Baldy the Were-Eunuch. The rest of the werehyenas were still dogpaddling after us but they were rapidly falling behind. They’d be faster in the water in their human forms but none of them changed. They were probably less fragile as hyenas.

Dorothy stood up and did a victory dance with her paddle held up to the sky. “You’re ugly! U-L-G-Y. You have no alibi! You’re stupid. S-T-U-P-I-D. You better not mess with me!”

I don’t know what was funnier—the fact that the kid was trash talking the pack or that she spelled ugly wrong.

“You’re an ass. You’re an A-S-S-S.” She definitely couldn’t spell. “Come again and I’ll kick your butt!” She danced too hard to the left and almost fell into the water. This finally caused her to kneel down and stop talking. I kept kicking. After a couple of minutes of staring at the werehyenas and giving them the finger with both hands, she turned around and started to paddle.

A couple of minutes after that I climbed onboard. I was starving. “Kid, I need your pack.”

She turned around. “Akhenaten, did you see how I nailed that werewolf in the head? I was awesome!”

The werehyenas had quit swimming after us; they were on back on the bank pacing us at an easy trot as we floated north. I picked up the other paddle from the bottom of the boat and put it into the water with one hand to steer us into the center of the river. “Yeah, you did good.” I held my other hand out to her and she got the hint. She shrugged off her pack and handed it over.

I shoveled the jerky in as fast as I could chew and swallow. Dorothy stared at me wide-eyed as I ate half the meat in her pack. I raised the water skin to my mouth and then put it back into her pack. I could drink river water without getting dysentery; the kid didn’t have an enhanced immune system. There wasn’t much point in saving her from werehyenas just so she could die from drinking bad water. And I wasn’t all that thirsty.

“I’ve never seen somebody eat so fast before. Do you eat like this all the time?”

I put the wicker backpack on; there was too much river water in bottom of the boat to set it down. I started paddling us north.

The kid shouted, “Hey! I asked you a question!”

“Yes.”

Now she sounded exasperated, “Yes, what?”

“Yes, I eat like this all the time.” The kid must not have liked my tone or my answer because she turned her back on me again. She made a point of not paddling.

After we passed Dorothy’s original village, I started paddling east. As soon as it became clear that I was paddling toward the other bank, the werehyenas took off running back south. I waited until they were out of sight and then turned the boat back around to the west. I paddled twice as hard as I had before.

“What are you doing?”

“The werehyenas are heading back to the village to get boats of their own to chase us across the river. And that’s why we’re not crossing the river.”

“They’re hyenas? I thought they were really ugly werewolves.” Dorothy was silent for a couple seconds. She then giggled and started paddling.

When we got to the west bank, I used one of my knives to cut the cords that held the reed boat together and let the pieces float north. Then we walked due west.

“Yo, Akhenaten! Dude! So you got to the hero in time.” It was B again. This toad was at least an inch larger than the last one.”

“Oh, how COOL! A talking frog!” Dorothy picked B up. “If I kiss you, will you turn into a prince?”

The toad twisted its face into a disgusting leer, “Only one way to find out, princess.”

Before I could say anything, Dorothy kissed B and then set him down. Nothing happened. B shrugged his toad shoulders and gave her an innocent grin. “It looks like it’s not going to happen. Honey, can you do me a favor and pick me up again?” He shot me a glance. “What with being so small, I worry that someone might accidentally step on me.”

“Sure!”

“Dorothy, we’ve got to keep moving.” I started walking west.

She put her hand on the ground and B hopped onto her palm. She hurried after me. “What’s your name? I’m Dorothy.”

“I’m B. Pleased to meet ya, Sweetheart.”

“Vee?”

He shook his head. “No B, like in bumblebee. Just the letter B.”

“That’s a weird name.”

“It’s a long story, sugar—too long to talk about now. I’m glad Victor —that’s Akhenaten’s real name—got to you in time. Dorothy, remember that little prayer that Iset taught you? The one that she wanted you to say every couple of hours—you have to say it right now.”

Dorothy stopped walking. “H…how do you know Iset?”

B oozed kindness and sympathy, “All of us —Iset, Victor, and me —work for the same team; we’re all on your side. Darling, this is really important. You’ve got to say that prayer right now.”

Dorothy’s voice quavered a bit, “Iset only taught me how to write it, not how to say it.”

“That’s right; Egyptians like to write their prayers. Go ahead and write it, Baby.”

She knelt on the ground, set B down, and used her finger to draw in the dirt.

B sighed with relief as she put out her palm for him to hop on. “Good girl! You guys are probably safe from being found by anyone for the next hour.” He hopped onto Dorothy’s hand and turned to me as she stood up, “Vic, we need to find something permanent for Dorothy to mark those symbols on. That way she won’t have to do this every hour on the hour.”

I nodded my head, caught Dorothy’s eye, and cocked my head to the northwest. We started walking again.

She asked, “B, when you say Victor, Iset, and you are on my side, what does that mean?”

“We all serve Aten. Aten’s just another name for Jehovah.”

The kid sounded puzzled, “We all serve God?”

“That’s right, Sweetie.”

“Back home, Nana and I went to church every Sunday, but I don’t understand. Everyone serves God. What’s that have to do with anything?”

“There’s more than one god, kiddo. The god we serve is the one that matters. You know we’re not in Kansas anymore, right?”

Dorothy rolled her eyes and gave B a ‘duh’ look.

“And you know how the villagers believe in all these different gods?” She nodded. “Well here they’re really real, and they actually eat people’s living souls for food. They don’t want people to find that out, but that’s what they really do. Our god, Jehovah, doesn’t treat His people like that. Once people find out that there’s a god who doesn’t want to eat them and who tries to make things better for them, they all want to worship Him instead of their old gods. That’s what’s going on here.”

She still sounded confused. “I still don’t understand what it has to do with me, B.”

“Well honey, like you said—we all serve God, but sometimes some of us have to serve more and serve harder than others. Right now, that’s me, Vic, Iset…and you. And we’re not just not in Kansas anymore. We’re also not on Earth or even the same universe Earth’s in. All the gods in all the universes have been fighting each other since the beginning of time, and the way they fight is to send their champions up against each other. You know how the visiting team always has it rougher than the home team?” She nodded. “Well in the game the gods play, the visiting team has it really rough. Honeybunch, you—Dorothy Wilson from Manhattan, Kansas—are on the visiting team and you are one of Jehovah’s champions in His starting lineup.”

Dorothy still looked puzzled. B grimaced and then asked, “You’ve seen Star Wars, right?”

She nodded her head.

“If this was Star Wars, you’d be Luke Skywalker.”

Dorothy and I walked in silence as she mulled over what B had said. She lifted him close to her face and gave him a small smile. “B, if I’m Luke, are you Yoda since you’re all small, green, and froggy?”

It’s amazing how offended a toad can look. B sat up and placed a webbed forefoot on his chest. “Look at me, kiddo; I’m frigging gorgeous!” He turned a graceful pirouette, squatted back down and pointed his butt at her. “Observe the perfection that is my ass. To see it is to want it. I’m Princess Leia.”

Dorothy dissolved into giggles. “So is Victor Obi-Wan or Bobba Fett or who?”

B turned back to face her and shook his head. “Honey, Sweetie, Baby, Darlin’, I know you can come up with better than that.” He pointedly looked my way. “How much fun is that dude to talk to? How much sparkling conversation does he make?”

She shrugged.

B nodded. “Yeah, so with that in mind, the only one he could possibly be is…” B and Dorothy said in unison, “CHEWBACCA.” Dorothy laughed so hard I thought she was going to drop the toad. After that, B was Dorothy’s new BFF. They spoke nonstop about the dumbest shit. I noticed that B kept the conversation away from Darth Vader and the Deathstar.

It was an hour or so before sunset when we got back to my gear. We’d eaten all the jerky and drunk all the water in her pack hours earlier. I could tell by the way the kid was slurring her words that she was exhausted and dehydrated. But she still wouldn’t shut up.

We were lucky. Ants were swarming my pack like it was the first picnic of the season, but it was otherwise untouched. I gave Dorothy the water skin. “Kid, I know you’ll want to gulp this down but if you don’t take small sips, you’ll puke it all back up. And we don’t have the water to waste.” I watched her to make sure she did as I told her.

She gave me an irritated look, picked B up, and held him in her cupped hand as she poured a little water on him. Then she started sipping at the water. While the kid slowly rehydrated, I unrolled Akil’s hide and cut off a four by twelve inch strip. Dorothy was too busy drinking to notice my claws.

“Kid, sit down.” I pointed at unrolled hide.

She sat down and gave me her right hand. “Vic, Iset said the best ink for spells is blood.” She gave me a brave smile. “Can you prick my finger with one of your knives? I don’t want to cut myself.”

“Look away.” As soon as her head was turned, I squeezed her hand and pricked the tip of her right index finger with a quick in-and-out of my claw. “We’re done.”

She turned back to me, surprise in her voice. “Really? I didn’t even…” She saw the blood dripping from her fingertip. “Oh! That stings!” She gave me a face like I’d done something sneaky. Then she used her dripping finger to draw the spell of concealment on the strip of hide. Her blood soaked into the hide and dried instantly. She flipped it over and drew more symbols.

Her blonde hair turned black and her complexion darkened. She put her finger in her mouth and sucked. When she pulled her finger out, it was no longer bleeding. Dorothy met my eyes; her blue eyes were now brown. “Iset had me draw this prayer on a roll of paper every time strangers came to the village.” She put her hand on her chest. “It’ll keep me looking like this for a couple of hours.”

B spoke up, “Sugar, what you just wrote on is a whole bunch more powerful than a piece of paper. Those prayers are now permanent. As long as you keep that parchment close to you, you’ll remain disguised and difficult to find.”

“Really? Why is this parchment so powerful?” Dorothy’s mouth opened into a huge yawn.

B answered, “It’s from an extremely powerful creature.” He paused as she yawned again. “Sweetness, you’re beat. Why don’t you lie down?”

The kid twisted her face like she was going to argue even as she got down on her side and closed her eyes. A second later her mouth opened slightly and her breathing became slow and rhythmic.

B hopped over to the pack and started snarfing ants.

I picked up the water-skin and took a small sip. “Okay, B. What are you doing here?”

B slowly turned his head to meet my eyes.

I was impressed. He was the size of one of my turds and he was still intimidating. I waited for him to make the first move.

Seconds went by. Neither of us said a word or moved a muscle. B finally guffawed, “Vic, you so remind me of me. You really do. And you really, truly SUCK at groveling too.” He shook his head and sighed. “As much as I would like to help you sincerely regret stomping on me, we’ve got more immediate shit that needs our attention. But don’t you worry, Muchacho. I’ll make time for that later.

“Right now though, I need to conduct your mission brief.”

“Why would I have a mission? I’m here completely by accident.”

B shook his head. “You’d think that, Ace, but there’s accidents, and then there’s accidents.”

“WHAT?”

B made a low croaking laugh. “Let’s just say that a certain highly placed archangel knew the grays wanted you. He figured that when the grays did finally grab you, you’d do your usual slam-bang Vic shit, hijack a saucer in mid-flight, and wind up right where you’re sitting right now.”

My voice was quiet and completely controlled. “You set me up.”

His eyes glittered with amusement, “Well no shit, Sherlock! What was your first clue? And before you get your panties all knotted up, you want to know why?”

“TELL ME WHY.”

“Your wish is my command. But before I get to all that, the one thing I do absolutely need from you is for you to convince me that you’re really not so FUCKING STUPID as to actually believe that you could run out on the Big Chalupa and that your guardian angel wouldn’t be able to follow your dumb ass to where ever you ran to. Vic, you really make me tired sometimes. C’mon, Bubbie, think. Focus your tiny little mind. Who do you really think cast that translation spell on you, and why?”

So the translation spell hadn’t come from Fornik? No, of course it hadn’t; he spoke English. I wouldn’t need a translation spell unless B knew…FUCK…unless B knew I was coming here.

I thought back. How could I have missed all this extremely obvious shit? Why wouldn’t B be able to track me—that’s his job! He’d even mentioned me going to other dimensions a couple of times before. And that’s just B. Why wouldn’t Samael’s Heavenly Gestapo keep track of my every move, too? Especially since Samael has a deep and abiding personal beef with me? Joey has countless other agents in countless other dimensions; there’s no way He’d not be able to track them. B was right. Why in hell had I thought it’d be that easy to escape? Dammit! I had to stop being this stupid.

I took a deep breath. “Okay. Fair enough. I should have known the bureaucracy would keep track of me. What’s up with you being a toad?”

B slung his tongue at a cluster of ants, pulled them into his mouth and then gave me a shrug. “If Our Fearless Leader and the gods of Kemet had a hot war going, it’d be a different story, but since they don’t I’m not allowed to be personally corporeally present or use any of my Spidey powers in this dimension. About all I can do is hang out with you and give you a little bit of advice about fashion and strategy and tactics.”

He pointed his left forepaw at his face. “I’m tele-operating this body from our dimension. It’s just an ordinary toad being operated by an extraordinary being.” He glared at me. “If something happens to it, I can get another toad.”

“You still haven’t answered my question. Why a toad and not something that might be just a tad more useful?”

B ate some more ants. “The Great Game evolves, and after thousands of years of ongoing inter-dimensional treaty negotiations, the rules of engagement keep getting more and more complex and restrictive. Once upon a time, guardian spirits could control cats, dogs, ravens and a bunch of other useful critters. Now we’re prohibited from tele-operating any animal that can physically assist our agent on the ground. So for you and Miss Dorothy, right here, right now, that pretty much rules out everything except non-venomous amphibians, slugs, and geckos.

I was really hoping for a gecko…” he made a humping motion with his hips, “for obvious reasons. It ain’t bestiality if you’re the same species.” He sat up and looked directly at me. “But, our vindictive, tight-assed spoilsport buddy Samael is pissed at me too, so here I am—off the reservation and still no dick. But enough about me, you need your mission brief.”

He looked up at me like he expected a question. I motioned to him to go on.

“Power. It’s all about power; that’s all it’s ever really about. Look Cochise—better, smarter, more powerful beings than you have tried to bail on Jumping Jack Flash, and all of us” he paused to make sure I got his point, “ALL of us failed and ALL OF US REGRET IT. There’s no percentage in trying to get out from under; it’s a loser’s game.” He leaned forward, “What you—what we—need to do is to go along to get along, work the system, and rise through the ranks. The higher you get, the more freedom, autonomy and choices you get.” He settled into a comfortable squat. “Right now, you and me, we got diddly squat for clout; we’re just peons following orders. We pull this mission off, that’ll change—we’ll be giving orders.”

My laugh was bitter and cold. “Yeah, like I give a flying crap about giving orders!”

His grin became sly. “Even if it means you can talk to Mina?”

“WHAT? What the FUCK are you talking about?”

“Heaven’s bureaucracy is the same as any other. There are privileges that come with rank and success. Shit that’s impossible for peons is entirely possible for higher ups. Get enough clout and you could see Mina again.”

I sat down in the dirt. I could see Mina again. What did that mean? Did it mean I could speak to her spirit? Wait, was she maybe still alive? We’d never recovered her body or found any trace of her. I studied B’s face. The smug bastard knew he had me.

“What makes this a ‘mission’ and not just another Mythic Hero Treasure Hunt?”

He smirked, “Ah, Grasshopper, you begin to see. These are the proper questions.

“We have a chance to pull off another India Alternative in this dimension. And if you and I can make that go down, we are fucking golden.”

Another India what? As I opened my mouth, he put a forepaw up. “Hold on there, Andretti. Let me explain and then I’ll take your questions.

“Out of seven billion people on Earth, roughly a billion of ‘em are Hindu. Ever wonder how and why that is?”

I gave him a blank stare. “What? Why would I ever think about Hindus?”

B chuckled, “Okay, you’ve been a little busy lately and had a lot of other things to think about. The Boss prefers a negotiated settlement instead of overt force of arms because it wastes fewer souls—although He throws down with the best of ‘em when He has to. Anyhoo, Since Jesus’ sacrifice, He hasn’t allowed any new gods to come to Earth, but right after the crucifixion He offered a compromise to the other pantheons on Earth: accept Him as the Supreme and Uncontested Ruler of our dimension, stop eating souls, stop showing themselves to humans, and allow freedom of religion and he’d let them stay on Earth. A lot—not all—but a lot of the Hindu gods and a lesser number of other gods from other pantheons took Him up on the offer. Now He and all the other minor gods on Earth are one big cosmic Warsaw Pact—the Big Boss is happy and the little guys just have to suck it up. But it works and it keeps the peace.”

“So if the Egyptian gods didn’t accept Jehovah’s offer back then, why would they suddenly be interested now?”

“Remember our first little tete-a-tete when I told you Earth used to be a backwater dumping ground where all the loser pantheons and minor gods retreated to?”

I nodded and drank more water.

“Different dimensions have different levels of energy. The higher the baseline energy level, the more desirable the real estate and the more powerful the gods. Jehovah makes up for the relative scarcity of energy at home with the worship energy from billions of human souls. Well, this dimension is even worse for gods than Earth; they have to consume three times as many souls to get the same jolt that one soul yields back home. They’ve never had the self control to not eat souls, but they’ve learned that it’s best to keep their food in the dark about their dining habits. Most of the people in this dimension don’t know or won’t believe that their gods actually eat them, and things were stable here as long as the Egyptian gods took no more than one out of about a thousand or so of their people a year.

“All that changed when the Lovecraftian elder gods sent reconnaissance in force into this dimension. Now the Egyptian gods are playing whack-a-mole trying to prevent those scouts from securing a beachhead. For the last few decades, they’ve had to eat one Egyptian in a hundred. Now that the conflict is heating up, the local gods are having to take entire villages at a time. Dorothy’s villagers weren’t snagged in some ‘Find Dorothy’ op; they were harvested for food.”

I shook my head. “Okay, tough shit for the Egyptian pantheon but I still don’t understand what we’re doing here.”

“Not all of the Egyptian gods are butt-stupid; some of them can read the handwriting on the wall. They’re toast unless they get help, and the only source of possible help was El Pollo Grande’s offer way back when. They know we have the force projection capability and sufficient untasked combat power to hold and defend this dimension forever, so they back-channeled Samael and asked if the India Alternative was still an option for them. Samael’s been chomping at the bit to gain another dimension for the Big Cheese for two thousand years; he popped his non-existent nut when he heard their offer. Right now, this dimension supports about twenty million living souls, but it has carrying capacity for ten times that number, easy. If we can openly proselytize here, within a generation the majority of these people will likely worship Jehovah. Stop eating the seed souls, eliminate the day-to-day interference in peoples’ lives from penny ante gods and priests, quietly introduce select technological advances along with improvements in healthcare, hygiene, and sanitation, and their population will skyrocket. This dimension could be a gold mine for Heaven.”

“But why you and me? That pissant Samael hates both of us. There’s no way he’d steer us into a sweetheart deal like this.”

B started laughing again. “You got that right. He’s not looking to do us any favors. According to the Inter-Dimensional Rules Engagement, only mythic heroes can interfere with another dimension’s politics without triggering a full blown war, and mythic heroes can only enter another dimension by random chance or accident. Samael’s known about the grays and how they’ve been specifically targeting paladins since they first started that shit. That spell they use to neutralize paladins’ magic powers? They don’t know this, but he leaked that spell to them.

“The grays have to transit this dimension to get to from ours to theirs. If any of the paladins they’d captured had been able to take over a saucer, he’d have landed here and Samael would have had his agent. The problem was that the grays kept killing all the traditionally trained paladins. Well, sooner or later Michael is going to learn that Samael is deliberately sacrificing paladins again, and the cosmic shit is going to hit the celestial fan. Samael’s desperate. After that cluster fuck with Signe Ericsdottir, he can’t afford to let another one of his black ops go tits up.

“Samael approached me about you for two reasons. First, if this got you killed, he was good with that. Second, if you succeeded, it doesn’t cost him anything to forgive and forget.” B’s grin got larger. “I know he was hoping the grays would do you in a long, drawn-out, painful, nasty manner, but I had faith in you. I knew it’d take more than those pear-headed midgets to wax my boy Vic.”

My lips twisted into something similar to a smile. “I love how much confidence you have in me, B.”

B’s little toad face got serious. “Y’know Vic, your whole bullshit attitude is wearing really, really thin. You don’t like me? You not happy with your lot in life? Well tough titty, princess. You seem to forget that I’m the best and only friend you got, and frankly, having to constantly cover your ass, hold your hand and put up with your never-ending passive-aggressive bullshit gives me phantom ball itch. You also seem to forget that it’s Not My Fault you got orphaned and the system lost you; Not My Fault you got dragooned into the paladins; and Not My Fault Signe did Andi, Ben, and Mina. Okay? Not. My. Fault.

So, if you wanna continue to assert your independence and be all pissy and disgruntled, you fucking have at it. But, the only way out for both of us is to put our noses up Jehovah’s ass and start sniffing until he pulls us up into the Promised Land. And the best, fastest, and only way to make that happen is for you to get with the program and show me a little GODDAMN COOPERATION, ya whiny little poopsqueak!”

His look invited me to respond.

He waited, and then he breathed out hard and took another deep breath in. He dialed down the volume of his voice, “Okay, so here’s where we stand. If you knew anything about this plan before the grays took you, you wouldn’t be a mythic hero. The Big Scoutmaster in the Sky never willingly breaks a treaty, so as soon as you landed, His divine will would have yanked you back home most ricky-tick.

“Let’s be serious here: you SUCK as a paladin. The only reason you killed Samson was because you surprised him. You try taking on any other paladin now and they’ll tear you a new one. Your ammo isn’t God’s Will made manifest—it’s just modestly magicked pellets and slugs, and there’s a billion and one spells out there that’ll screw with your ammo. Every other paladin has been trained since birth with edged and blunt impact weapons. Try to take out another paladin with your spear, clamshell body armor and Eurotrash boots and he’ll bitch-slap you like a red-headed step-child. But the one advantage you do have over all the other classically trained paladins is that you’re a sneaky, cheating, conniving, unpredictable son-of-a-bitch. If anyone was going to get the drop on the grays and highjack a saucer, it was going to be you. Tell me that if you knew you could get Mina back, you wouldn’t have volunteered for this mission.”

I met his glare with my own, but he was right: I would have volunteered. “If the Egyptian gods want to take up the India Alternative, why do I—Hell, why does any mythic hero need to be here?”

“Some of Egyptian gods want to hide under Jehovah’s wing; a lot of others don’t. The neat thing about mythic heroes is that the opposing gods can’t touch you without breaking the rules of engagement. Any of them try that here, Jehovah’s storm troopers can legally come swarming in like a plague of locusts. You’re not going to have to go up against anything you can’t kill.” B shook his head with wonder. “The Pharaoh is a classic limousine liberal who’s ashamed of his wealth and power. He’s a useful idiot who wants to help the down-trodden masses by reintroducing Jehovah to his people. Your mission” a mocking grin reappeared on his face, “should you choose to accept it, is to kill the High Priest of Amun. He’s the Pharaoh’s uncle and is the power controlling the throne. With him out of the way, the Pharaoh will be free to follow his natural inclinations.”

I nodded my head. “Okay. Easy enough. Tell me where he is and what he has for protection, and I’ll go take care of him.”

B grimaced. “You know those Rules of Inter-Dimensional Engagement I mentioned before? Well because of them, I can’t tell you that kind of shit. I can tell you about the India Alternative and tell you about your mission, but I can’t tell you more. You need to hook up with Iset, Dorothy’s friend. She’s a local scholar who’s studied forbidden texts and decided on her own to worship Jehovah.”

“So the raiders snatched Dorothy’s villagers for food for their gods?”

“Yeah.”

“And Iset’s been taken too, right?”

“What part of ‘I can’t tell you more’ didn’t you understand?”

I took a deep breath and silently counted to ten. “Can you tell me more about Dorothy?”

He shrugged. “Depends on the question.”

“What’s her power rating?”

“Twenty-two.” He slurped up another tongueful of ants.

Holy shit—almost paladin class! Finally, some not bad news. “Is it okay for me to teach her how to use her magic?”

B guffawed, choked, coughed, and blew ants out his nostrils. “Ow! Fuck! Seriously? You? Oh Vic, you just kill me sometimes. There’re no rules against it, but you are so horribly bad at magic that ‘suck’ doesn’t even begin to describe your ineptitude.” He paused to snag the ants he’d just snorted out. “You teaching her magic would be worse than the blind leading the blind. She’s better off just praying.”

He took a look at my face and chortled. “Don’t worry, Vic. I can explain this. Not a single sparrow that Jehovah gives a shit about can fall to the ground without Big Daddy-O knowing it’ There are certain souls that He pays close personal attention to. When Dorothy prays, God listens. He can’t use His own power in this dimension directly, but He can use hers to help her cast spells He thinks should be cast—and there ain’t no one who can sling a spell better than Him.”

“That’s…THAT’S IT? All she has to do is pray? It can’t be that easy!”

B sat up. “Who the hell said anything about easy? Everything has to line up perfectly. The person praying has to have angel genes, The Big Giant Head has to be listening, and the person praying has to be willing to accept His will unconditionally. Not one person in a million truly wants His will to be done.” B glanced at Dorothy. “That girl is special, Vic. And I’m not talking about her magic potential. More often than not, when she prays she does it right. Don’t waste time trying to teach her magic, get her to pray as often as you can. You’re lucky as hell to have her—it was pure dumb luck that she’s here.”

I wondered if Joey was personally watching me and if He was, would I be willing to pray to Him—to freely accept His will? I didn’t see that happening on either side.

“Vic, as scintillating as I find our conversation, I gotta go. This toad needs to rest; if I keep using him at this level, he’ll explode. Moisten his skin a little bit, and I’ll come back in the morning.”

I watched the intelligence blink out of the toad’s eyes. It shuddered, closed its eyes and went still; it was out like he’d flipped a switch. I looked over at the kid sprawled out on the hide. There wasn’t enough room for both of us. I drank some more water, sprinkled some on the B-less toad, and stoppered the waterskin. I brushed away the larger rocks from the dirt behind me, lay on my back, and closed my eyes. I needed to rest too. Tomorrow I had to rescue Iset.

For the second night in a row, sleep wouldn’t come. My mind kept on going back to the issue of prayer. The New Testament has story after story of apostles utilizing magic that was beyond the scope of any magic practitioner I knew. Peter and Paul both brought the dead back to life, just as Jesus had. Since the crucifixion and resurrection, Jehovah has gone out of His way not to act directly upon the world. Until B had told me different, I thought miracles could only be manifest by high level practitioners. I always wondered how those who’d only had a minimum of training and practice could be so powerfully effective.

Now I understood. Peter and Paul had freely opened themselves to Jehovah so that He could work His will through them. As with anything, raw power and native talent is always good, but skill and finesse is much better. Joey had to have all the skill and finesse there was.

I counted off all the people I’ve ever trusted: Drew, Tim, and Aidan. Tim and Aidan should have told me about prayer; I wondered why they hadn’t. Knowing me, they probably thought there’d be no way I’d ever voluntarily submit to Jehovah’s will. They should have told me anyway. There was a time I would have prayed—a time I would have groveled, debased myself—done anything to save one person. There was a time when I needed a miracle. They should have told me.

I don’t know what was worse: knowing that I could have saved Mina or that two of the only three people I trust hadn’t given me that chance.