“What is that?” yelled Becky.
“My missile warning system,” answered Bruce. “It seems the Loneos is trying to get a lock on us.”
“But Merbert wouldn’t do that,” Stubs insisted, having uncovered one ear. “He gave us Twinkies!”
“Ah, the old Twinkie ruse.” Bruce snorted and began swooping violently. “Merbert’s oldest trick. I should tell you about the time he used it to…”
The beeping turned into a solid, ear-splitting shriek.
“Whoops! He’s got a lock.” Bruce extinguished his hoof-boosters and discharged several flares. He then went into a series of jinking maneuvers, all the while trying to maintain as much altitude as he could while his thrusters were off.
There was a sudden puff from the side of the Loneos’ basket and the missile warning shriek notched up a few tones.
“Merbert just fired a missile at us!”
Stubs stood up on Bruce’s back and brandished his hammer at the pursuing hot air balloon. “Thought you could buy us with Twinkies, did you?” He reached into his beard and pulled out one of the treats he’d been saving for later. Barely maintaining his footing, he hurled the Twinkie at the Loneos. It was a poor throw and the pastry fell to the earth, where it landed just a couple of yards in front of the continuously fleeing Tony.
“Oh, shit!” the antagonist screeched, abruptly changing directions and flailing wildly. “A Twinkie!”
The missile plowed into the flare field and exploded harmlessly. The celebratory cheers from Stubs and Becky were cut short, however, as two more puffs appeared from the Loneos.
“Determined, isn’t he?” Bruce observed. “What’d you all do to piss him off?”
Becky looked at Stubs and Stubs looked back. They both shrugged. Had they merely imagined the camaraderie they had felt back in Merbert’s cave or was the ex-wizard simply a damn fine actor? Stubs reached up to muse, but was interrupted as Bruce began a stomach-wrenching Immelman maneuver.
“I’m all out of flares,” the unicorn shouted over his shoulder. “And if I don’t light my hooves soon, we’ll crash land into the forest. Our only hope is to out-maneuver the missiles. Hold on tight!”
What came next would have made a wonderful bedtime story for future generations of dwarves and fairies, but neither Becky nor Stubs will be able to pass the tale along, because neither of them kept their eyes open long enough to see many of the details. The reader will please forgive this transgression of viewpoint, however, and understand that the Writer just doesn’t give a damn.
Bruce completed the Immelman and then threw himself into a nose dive. The wind whistled by their ears as the trio streaked toward the ground, which was rushing up to meet them at a terrifying speed.
Despite the unicorn’s velocity, Merbert’s missiles were gaining on them. So close were they, that when Becky sneaked a backward glance, she could read names painted on the noses of the missiles. One was named Becky and the other Stubs.
Why does Merbert hate us, so? Becky wondered, just before squeezing her eyes shut once again.
Bruce had been monitoring the missiles’ progress on his HUD and, just as the weapons were about to make contact, he began pulling out of the dive. Once his nose was pointing slightly upward, he fired up his hoof-burners and began scrambling for altitude. The missiles were forced to break off abruptly to avoid crashing into the ground.
Stubs opened one eye. “Did they miss?”
“That time,” answered Bruce, checking his altimeter. “But they’ll be back.” The words were prophetic and, just as he finished speaking, the missile warning system, which had temporarily quieted, resumed shrieking.
The Writer fell out of his chair and began scooting around the room on his stomach, writhing in mirth and self-adulation. How did he manage to do it time after time? He wasn’t sure the world was ready for a manuscript this explosive, but he was feeling merciless. They’d just have to deal with it!
“Honey,” he said, doing a quick push-up and then hauling himself to his feet. “You married a genius!”
“I knew it was only a matter of time before you caught me,” she replied calmly. “Sure you’re not mad?”
The Writer frowned in confusion. “Why would I be mad?”
“Because I have dinner plans with him and didn’t know if you’d mind staying at home.” The Wife smiled coyly and continued tinkering with the SR-71 she’d purchased on eBay. “If I finish rewiring this thing before five, the Genius and I could have dinner in Paris.”
“You think you’re so funny.” The Writer stomped his foot petulantly. “I’m going back to my epic.”
The epic was in danger of coming to a sudden, albeit very impressive, conclusion. Both missiles had once again locked onto the fleeing Bruce and, guided by the heat from the unicorn’s hooves, were closing in.
Becky risked another glance back and saw the Loneos not far away. Merbert was standing up in the basket, waving his arms and shouting. Although she tried to make out the words, the sound of the missile warning system and the rushing wind made the task impossible.
“Probably just taunting us,” she muttered and huddled down a little farther onto Bruce’s back.
Without warning, the hoof-boosters died and there was a clanking sound as Bruce lowered his flaps. Without thrust and with the additional drag, their airspeed plummeted and the extra lift raised them just out of the path of the missiles, which flew by so close that Becky could have reached out and touched them. Confused, the missile named Stubs tried to make a diving turn, but ran out of altitude and crashed into a stand of oak trees, exploding on impact. The second missile veered upward and seemed to hang in the air for a moment, before slowly falling over backward and pointing directly at them.
Bruce was a sitting unicorn. By the time he managed to raise the flaps and attain a navigable speed, the missile would be on them. Instead, he dove for the ground and landed with a crash. Shaken, he struggled to his hooves, the missile warning system still screaming its head off. If they could just make it into the cover of the oak trees, they might just avoid a very nasty explosion.
Just before they reached the safety of the woods, however, Bruce stumbled and lurched forward, landing on his front knees. Becky and Stubs were thrown from their seats and hit the ground hard. They tumbled forward into the trees, both coming to rest against a huge, ancient oak.
A quick glance told Becky all she needed to know. Grabbing Stubs, who still had his eyes closed, she dove behind the tree just as her namesake embedded itself into Bruce’s chrome backside and promptly exploded.
“Uh-oh.” The Writer frantically gobbled some granola. He may have written himself into a corner. First Merbert starts shooting missiles at cute little fairies and now…hits one? Well, he didn’t really hit a fairy. He hit a huge unicorn. And a very solidly constructed one, at that!
“Is my little Writer getting all violent?”
The Writer jumped and the Wife backed up a step or two. “How long have you been reading over my shoulder?” he asked.
“Not long. I was just on my way out to Buy-Mart to pick up some plutonium and I noticed your wide, staring eyes.”
The Writer shook his head sadly. “You can’t trust anyone these days.”
“Are you still mad about my Genius joke?”
“No, I mean Merbert. How could he turn out to be so evil?” A tear slid down the Writer’s cheek and moistened a stray granola crumb.
The Wife patted his head. “There, there. Sometimes things aren’t as they seem.”
Encouraged by these words, the Writer ate the soggy crumb, popped his knuckles, and resumed typing.
Although shielded greatly from the explosion by the massive tree, Becky and Stubs were pounded by the concussion and had a few anxious moments as tree limbs rained down around them.
After a moment or two of silence, Becky risked a peek around the tree trunk. Bruce was now nothing more than a pile of smoking wreckage. The only part not seriously damaged was his carbon fiber horn, which had flown from his forehead and buried several inches of itself into the soft wood of a fallen log.
A few yards away, the Loneos was coming to a soft landing. Merbert stepped out of the basket and pulled his cloak close around himself. For some reason, possibly because he had just tried to kill them, Becky found this gesture very sinister, indeed.
“He’s coming to finish us off,” she whispered to Stubs. “Keep quiet and maybe he’ll pass us by.” She sniffed. “Or not.”
Stubs whimpered. “Sorry. It must be the Twinkies.”
As Becky had feared, it wasn’t long before Merbert peeked around the trunk of their hiding tree.
“Well, yuh! What you folks doin’ hidin’ behind a tree? This ain’t no time fer child’s play!”
“You’re telling us!” Becky exclaimed, her fear diminished considerably by the sudden flush of anger heating her cheeks. “I suppose you think using us as target practice is a helluva good time!”
“You thought…” Merbert looked crestfallen. “What makes ya think them missiles was meant fer you all?”
“You mean besides the fact that you painted our names on them?”
“Oh, that!” Merbert yuh-ed and began snacking on a spud he’d pulled from an inside pocket. “I suppose ya wouldn’t believe me if I said I done it fer the best.”
“Why, you folks! Why’d I want ta hurt you an’…”
“Stubs,” Stubs said, finally sitting up and opening an eye. “The name is Stubs and, frankly, I don’t feel so well.” He curled up into a little ball at the base of the tree and hugged himself.
“So we’ve noticed,” Becky said, moving a few steps away. She never took her eyes off Merbert and her suspicious expression never changed. “You did all this,” here she gestured to Bruce’s remains, “for our good? Explain yourself, wizard.”
Merbert finished his spud and shook his head sadly. “Ya really oughta have more faith in yer friends. Bruce probably told ya he worked fer the Mysteriolith Three.”
“Wait—” Becky held up one hand. “Please don’t tell me you endangered the lives of two innocent questers just to get back at the wizards.”
“O’ course not!” Merbert looked first shocked and then a little guilty. “Well…not exactly.”
Becky kept silent, but stared at Merbert expectantly, her hands clamped firmly on her hips.
The wizard shuffled his feet nervously. “I guess that was part of it,” he finally admitted. “But mostly I was just tryin’ ta save you folks from a nasty fate. See, Bruce did work fer the wizards, but he also did a few freelance jobs on the side. Fer the Fairy Syndicate.”
“You’re saying Bruce would have taken us straight to the fairies?”
Merbert snorted. “Ya didn’t think it was kinda convenient how he showed up just when ya needed ‘im? O’ course he was gonna take ya ta the fairies! Drop ya off just as pretty as ya please, right in the lap of ol’ Fartwing. And that woulda been the end o’ yer questin’ days.”
“And our names on the missiles?”
Merbert blushed and shrugged. “One was fer you and t’other was fer Farty, here. Just not in the way ya thought… they were there ta save ya!”
“Wow,” Becky said. “I never thought I’d find having my name painted on a missile so touching.” She moved closer to Merbert and put a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry I doubted you, Merbert.”
“Yuh! Think nothin’ of it, Becky. I guess I was actin’ a bit suspicious.”
“Just a bit.”
An awkward silence ensued and then Merbert yuh-ed loudly.
“Yuh! Well, ya only have a coupla days, so if yer plannin’ ta get ta the wizards in time, ya better get a move on.”
“Yes, I suppose we…hey, how about giving us a lift in the Loneos?”
Merbert shook his head. “No can do, little lady. The wizards would see us comin’ a mile away and if ya think them missiles was scary, ya oughta see what they can cook up! Nope, you folks better just keep headin’ toward the mountains. You’ll find yer way, all right.”
A little peeved at being ignored by most of the previous scene, and feeling much better by this time, Stubs scrambled out from behind the tree and watched Merbert walk quickly back to the Loneos.
As he lifted off and slowly disappeared into one of those curious air ripples, Stubs and Becky watched from below and waved until he was completely out of sight.
“We’d better get a move on,” Stubs said, nudging Becky’s arm. She shook herself as if waking from a sleep and briefly touched her forehead.
“You’re right. We don’t have much time.”
“Is your head hurting?”
“Just a little. But mainly I was thinking of what Merbert said about Bruce. How he worked occasionally for the Syndicate.”
“What of it?” Stubs was already walking briskly away, his hammer hoisted over his shoulder. “Their plan failed, so I don’t see what it matters now.”
“Of course it matters!” Becky gave a little whimper as a sharp bolt of pain shot through her head. “If the Syndicate sent Bruce, then…they know we’re coming.”