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The Fifth Stone

By Marian Mendez
Page 3 of 13

"No surprise to me," Blake said, with contempt. "You never gave a damn about anyone before, why not abandon your crew?"

Avon whirled on Blake in one feral motion, the unicorn a pale blur meeting him stride for stride. Avon stopped abruptly. "That's right, Blake! You take them, they want to be heroes, all I want is be free of the lot of you. The entire human race can blow itself to Hell for all I care." His control wavered on the final sentence and his voice rose shrill and sharp.

"Avon." Tarrant tried once more to defuse the situation. "You don't have to stay with us if you really feel that way, but it would be only sensible to remain with the group until we're out of the woods. It will be safer." He smiled at Avon, willing the other man to calm down and see reason.

"Safer? With him?" Avon laughed, a shocking, harsh bark of pain, mercifully cut short. "At his best he was well-intentioned, and you know how the road to Hell is paved. And you aren't at your best, any more, are you, Blake?"

Blake was calm. He folded his arms and stared at Avon. "It will certainly be safer for me if you do not accompany us."

Dayna looked from Avon to Blake. She lifted her head and gave Blake a sneer she'd learned from Avon. "Why are you talking as if you are our leader?" She went to Avon's side. "If anyone's going to be on his own..."

"It will be me," Avon said. "I do not need you, Dayna. I have never needed any of you. Blake, on the other hand, has always needed all the help he can get. He will welcome you into his happy little family- if you are sensible you will stay with him only long enough to arrange passage off this benighted world." He spun on his heel and began walking away from all of them, the unicorn keeping pace with him, as if trained to heel.

"Avon!" Dayna was exasperated. "Stop sulking for a minute and be reasonable. You aren't a woodsman, you don't know how to survive out here." She attempted to grab his arm.

The unicorn got between them, lowering its head and sighting along the horn in unmistakable threat. Dayna liked animals, but this one was becoming a nuisance. She drew her gun. "Avon!"

"Dayna." Avon turned back, slowly, as if suddenly exhausted. "I survived long before I met any of you. I can survive anything." He stared blindly, obviously not seeing her or any of the others present in the clearing. "I survive even when I have no particular desire to do so." He focused on Dayna's worried face. "And no, I am not feeling suicidal. If I was, I would go with Blake. He has a positive genius for blundering into disasters. I believe I acquired the habit from him. I simply refuse to continue my association with any of you. Good bye and good luck." Avon resumed walking, passing his discarded rifle without pause. Over his shoulder he said, "Oh, Vila, you may tell Blake where Orac is hidden. When I want a computer, I will build a better one of my own."

Vila ran after Avon. "Avon, wait, let me come with you. You don't really want to give away your pet rat-in-a-box, do you? Besides, I don't know where it is. So, if you do want to give it to Blake, you'll have to come with us and show us where you put it."

"You followed me, Vila. You saw where I hid it." Avon's expression softened marginally, at Vila's dismay. "Vila, go with Blake. Be careful and you may yet outlive us all. After all, it is supposed to be the meek who inherit the Earth."

Vila stopped, defeated, and watched Avon stride from the clearing with the unicorn stepping delicately at the side of the black-clad, blood-spattered man.

"Blake?" Vila asked plaintively, turning as his last hope to the only man he'd known who'd believed in justice and restoring things to their proper order.

Blake shook his head. "Don't ask me to call him back, Vila. He's always wanted to be on his own. Well, I wish him joy of it."

Soolin had stood by silently while the others argued with Avon. "I don't imagine there has been any more joy in Avon's life than in mine." She watched the receding figures of man and beast, holstering her gun once the unicorn had vanished into the underbrush.

"If you think you have so much in common with him, then why didn't you offer to go along with him?" Dayna asked. She would have gone with Avon out of loyalty, and perhaps something more, something which Avon had never acknowledged.

"Because the unicorn wouldn't have let me," Soolin replied quietly, not responding to the accusation in Dayna's words. Soolin knew that Dayna was hurt that Avon could leave them, leave her, like this, and spoke from that hurt. "You saw how it wouldn't let anyone near Avon."

"We could have taken care of it. It is only an animal," Dayna said. "We shouldn't have let Avon go."

Tarrant joined the two women. "Come on, Dayna, since when did we ever let Avon do anything?" He shook his head ruefully. "It's always been the other way around. He'll be all right. He can take care of himself, you know."

"Yes." Vila drew closer to his friends. "He does a marvelous job of it, too, doesn't he? Bloody, spoiled Alpha- do him good not to have me waiting on him hand and foot."

"When did you ever wait on anyone, Vila?" Tarrant asked, "I never got a lick of work out of you without having to resort to threat of bodily harm."

"That's the difference between you and Avon, Tarrant." Vila told the pilot, with a sly grin. "He knows how to make a person willing to do something, without threats- of course, he's kinda forgotten that lately." Vila's grin slipped. "I'm gonna miss him, although I'll be damned if I can figure out why."

"Probably just because you've gotten used to him." Tarrant sighed. "Me, too. Mind, I don't say I liked him, but..."

"Don't use the past tense, Tarrant," Dayna said. "Avon will be back. He'll change his mind, you'll see."

"Avon- change his...?" Tarrant stopped, the too-bright shine in Dayna's eyes warning him of her wavering control. "Yes. I expect you're right, Dayna," he replied diplomatically. He knew she would hate to break down in front of Blake.

They stood there in uneasy silence for several minutes, but Avon did not return. Finally, Soolin said, "We're wasting time and daylight. It will be harder to travel in the dark."

Blake was glad of Soolin's practical announcement. The others were too hostile toward him to listen if he had proposed that they forget about Avon and he was reluctant to leave them. Even without Avon they were a valuable team, one which he owed it to his Cause to recruit. "I flew over your ship, Tarrant, in rather a hurry. Do you think there is anything worth salvaging before we go?"

"It was our ship, Blake, and no, I don't imagine there's anything worth the effort of combing through the wreckage. Maybe later, if we came back with lifting gear, but there's nothing we can carry away with our bare hands."

"Wasn't even any wine left," Vila remarked. He rubbed his hands together and put on a half-hearted smile. "Do you have any good wine at your place, Blake?"

 

Avon tried to discourage the unicorn from following him, but he found it was more stubborn than his human associates. After it defended him from feral dogs and led him to water, he stopped trying to rebuff it. As he hadn't taken a weapon with him, there really wasn't much he could do but accept the situation.

"After all, you are company, of a sort," he told the animal as he sat by the edge of the glass-clear stream it had located for him. He trailed his hand lazily through the cool water, abstractly observing the ripples. "And, unlike Vila, you are unable to complain or argue." He leaned back onto the mossy bank. "I will eventually have to seek human habitations to survive. You and I will part company then." He closed his eyes. "There does not seem to be any particular urgency in the matter." He lay on the velvety moss, listening to the gentle splashing of the stream. It had been a long time since he had the opportunity to do absolutely nothing. He wondered exactly how long it had been. It seemed he had always been under pressure: pressure to conform, to live up to other people's expectations, to succeed, to be the Alpha-elite, the leader. None of which had ever done him a particle of good. It all felt very distant and unimportant now. He fell asleep, peripherally aware of the unicorn standing guard over him.

"You've got Orac and the others working for you now, Blake. You don't really need me anymore." Since arriving at Blake's secondary base, Vila had felt neglected. The big rebel never had time to talk to his old friend and he had assigned duties to the rest of Scorpio's crew that kept them too busy to commiserate with the thief. So Vila decided to commiserate with himself, with the help of a case of liquor he'd discovered in a securely locked storeroom. He hadn't gotten truly sloshed in years; hadn't dared. He'd been afraid he'd be killed, by the Federation at first, then later, by his own companions, if he befuddled his wits. The last drunk he could recall was on Freedom City when Krantor had slipped him a Mickey Finn. He smiled, remembering better days. Avon had been a perfect partner in crime; pity about losing the loot along with Liberator.

Vila swallowed another gulp, straight from the bottle. He kept a firm grip on it, so Blake couldn't snatch it from him. Someone must have noticed Vila after the second day of his bender and complained to Blake. That was the only way Blake would have taken time out from his revolution to seek Vila's company.

"Don't need a crook anymore," Vila mourned. "That's all Avon an' I ever really were. Hasn't been anything worth stealing in a while. Even Avon didn't need me." Vila peered owlishly at Blake, ignoring the scowl. "Did I ever tell you about the time..." Vila interrupted himself. "Neva' mind. You don't wanna hear about my troubles, an' you sure don't wanna hear about Avon's."

"Vila." Blake's scowl deepened. "Avon made his own problems, just as you are making yours now by sitting around feeling sorry for yourself and drinking yourself into a stupor. Pull yourself together, man, the way you've been carrying on, you'd think you'd lost your best friend."

Vila's face crumpled. "Not fair, Blake." He started to sniffle, turning maudlin. "He was, once. Once he was even your friend, before you ran out on us."


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