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The Fifth Stone

By Marian Mendez
Page 2 of 13

Avon's eyes opened slowly. He frowned up at Dayna, ignoring the girl's cheerful smile to glance around the clearing. He made no comment about the unicorn or their unexpected survival. His entire attention focused on the large, rough-dressed man lying beside him. Man, not body. Blake was alive, despite the evidence of the blood-soaked garments. Avon got to his feet, unaware of Dayna's steadying arm or the projectile rifle he left on the ground. He walked toward Blake, who was grunting and tossing his head as if caught in a nightmare. "Blake?" Avon asked, his voice as soft and vulnerable as a new-hatched chick.

Blake came up off the ground in a wide-awake, instant fury. He blinked once, then lunged at Avon, large hands spread to grasp the other man's throat. "You bastard!" he roared.

Dayna beat desperately at Blake's arms, but the big rebel shoved the slight girl aside with his shoulder and continued to strangle Avon.

"Blake! Stop it!" Dayna shouted. None of the others was close enough to help and she didn't dare shoot Blake, for fear of hitting Avon.

Avon had been dazed by the attack, but he came to life at Dayna's cry and began struggling. Blake shrugged off Avon's flailing punches and wild kicks, for the other lacked leverage and momentum to do any real damage. In his blind rage Blake felt none of the blows. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement and braced himself to snap Avon's neck before he could be parted from his prey. Something cold and hard touched Blake on the back of the neck and his muscles convulsed, involuntarily flinging Avon free of him.

Blake fell to his knees, shuddering and gasping. He'd never felt anything like that before- the closest thing that came to mind was an electric shock, but that wasn't quite it. His heart raced and he shook his head to chase away the lingering dazzlement.

"That's enough, Blake. Leave him be." The arrogant male voice was vaguely familiar. Blake lifted his head to stare at the young man in the tattered and scorched gray tunic.

"Leave him be, Tarrant? The stupid son-of-a-bitch shot me! I'd been waiting for him." Blake laughed bitterly. "I'd been looking forward to our reunion. I'd even planned to give the revolution a day off to celebrate." He turned to Avon, his eyes hard and cold. "Why? Why did you do it?"

Avon coughed. He rubbed his throat and glared back at Blake. "Why not? You betrayed me; I killed you. That's simple enough."

"I never betrayed you. I trusted you, you ..." Blake trailed off, at a loss for a sufficiently vicious epithet.

"Yes," Avon's voice was strained. He coughed again. "We have all seen how you trusted me."

Blake made an abortive move toward Avon, but before he could reach the other man a large animal's body was interposed between them.

Soolin warned, "Stay back, Blake."

"Or what? You'll shoot me again?" he said angrily, not caring that he was unarmed, while the others retained their weapons- except Avon. Avon had not had a gun- this time.

"I didn't do anything," Soolin said. She shook her head, annoyed at Blake's insistence on antagonizing everyone in sight- definitely not a survival characteristic. "It was the unicorn. I think it doesn't want you near Avon. It might be wise not to test its patience."

"Er, um, Blake? Avon?" Vila didn't think much of Tarrant's or Soolin's attempts at peace-keeping. He really didn't feel up to another war, just yet, so it was his job to soothe the Alphas. As always. His initial effort went unnoticed by both the combatants, who continued to glare at each other past the unicorn's gracefully arched neck.

Vila tried again. "You know, somebody must be looking for us."

"My people will," Blake said confidently.

"I doubt that," Avon muttered. "In case it has slipped your attention, we are nowhere near your oh-so-secret base where the Federation comes and goes at will."

"And plants agents," Vila added. When Blake momentarily bestowed his glare on Vila, the thief yelped, "That woman with you said she was a Federation agent."

"Arlen?" Blake frowned. He was definitely losing his ability to judge people. He'd thought she was a rebel at heart. He'd also thought Avon was his friend. "Are you sure?"

"Well, when she shot Dayna, I kinda believed her then," Vila said. He was relieved that he had gotten Blake thinking.

"Dayna was shot, too?" Blake said. He looked down at himself, abruptly realizing that he was no longer wounded. He probed the blood-sticky holes in his shirt gingerly, finding unmarked skin beneath the ripped cloth.

"We all were," Avon remarked. He was still pale from Blake's assault, but stood defiantly erect. "I was the last, so I am quite certain of that. In fact ..." He paused, looking less confident for a moment. "In fact, I am certain that we were all dead."

Dayna moved closer to Avon, trying to read his face. He had to be joking, but it was hard to tell with Avon. "That's impossible, Avon. I remember being shot, but I must have just been wounded, that's all."

"And healed and deposited with us in the woods?"Avon granted her a flicker of his attention, letting her see his disagreement with her statement. "That is nearly as improbable. We were dead. We were in Blake's defunct 'secret base' and the Federation had our bodies. Now we are alive and undamaged and in the wilderness of Gauda Prime. Something happened in the interval between those two mutually exclusive realities. Something which is outside our experience, but not necessarily outside logical reasoning."

"That happened." Soolin indicated the unicorn which had edged so close to Avon that the man could, if he wished, reach out his hand to touch the glossy gray coat.

Avon studied the animal. It appeared peaceable at the moment, which was fortunate. His proximity to that wickedly sharp horn would allow the unicorn to stab Avon to the heart long before any of the others could shoot it- provided anyone cared enough about him to try. He turned back to Soolin. "Gauda Prime was your native planet. I presume you know something concerning this animal which could bridge my logical gap?"

"I wouldn't go so far as to call it logical, Avon, but there are stories that say the unicorns can bring people back to life."

Avon lifted an eyebrow. "Interesting. The inhabitants of this planet are missing an economic opportunity by farming and mining when they ought to be raising these animals. The profit margin should be quite good."

Soolin flushed. She had felt enough of a fool, repeating old nursery tales, without Avon's snide witticisms. "I said they were stories, Avon. You don't have to believe them, or me. Unicorns have always been on G.P., but most people never see one. They're totally wild, untamable when caught and generally caused so much damage the few times people trapped one that no one tries anymore."

Avon looked at the unicorn again. He ignored warning cries from his companions to reach his hand out to the warm, clean hide. The animal gave a small grunt when he touched the silk-smooth hair and turned its head slightly to gaze directly into Avon's face with liquid black eyes. For a wild animal, it was remarkably tame, showing neither fear nor animosity.

"The stories appear to be slightly exaggerated."

"Show-off," Vila muttered. He was jumpy enough, without Avon adding to it. The unicorn unnerved Vila. Something about the animal's polite, well-bred manners and dark, emotionless eyes reminded him of Avon at the computer tech's worst.

Blake moved away from Avon, aware of the way Avon's crew tensed at his motion, while Avon was a trifle too careful not to react. "Does it matter how we got here? Standing around in the forest isn't doing any of us any good. Once we get back to civilization..."

"Civilization? Hah!" Vila said, loudly. He cringed when Blake looked at him in annoyance.

"...I will be able to contact my people. You are welcome to come along." Pointedly, Blake looked away from Avon when he made the offer.

Tarrant said, "What people? The Federation overran your base, Blake. They are efficient once they get started; I doubt they've left two bricks standing."

"That wasn't my only base. Back on Liberator I learned not to put all my eggs in one basket. You see, I trusted someone to come for me."

Avon went even paler, but said nothing.

Tarrant defended Avon. Drawing himself up to his full height, he moved between Avon and Blake's black, glowering stare. "Really, Blake, you have no idea how hard Avon looked for you, how many times he risked his neck looking..."

"Oh, I'm sure he made it seem that way to you all," Blake interrupted, barely suppressed rage thickening his voice. "Avon always was a master at making his selfish motives seem as if they hide a heart of gold. I know better, though, don't I, Avon? I'm a slow learner, I suppose- it took two years and three slugs before I got the message."

"Yes," Avon said tightly, his eyes gone as deep and black as the unicorn's. And equally unreadable. "Yes, you are a slow learner, Blake. Now that you have finally reasoned it out, take your new-found knowledge and put it to wise use. Don't trust anyone, Blake. Everyone betrays you, in the end."

"Avon?" Vila's voice was anguished. Blake's and Avon's anger and bitter desire to hurt as much as they had been hurt filled the atmosphere with a potentially explosive stench. "I'm tired, Avon, and hungry. Why don't we go with Blake? At least long enough to find a town, get some food, and some rest. Once we aren't so tired, we'll be able to think about this whole mess and get it all straightened out."

Avon smiled at the thief. It was a cold grimace, inversely matching the intensity of Blake's heated glare. "Good, you go with Blake. In fact, you can all go with Blake. You can all go straight to blazes with Blake." He spoke flatly, without emotion, but his eyes glittered. "I don't intend to allow any of you to interfere with me ever again."

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Marian Mendez

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