Avril came back to himself slowly.
He stretched, then winced when something pinched his left side. He turned away from the sensation, assuming he’d slept in a strange position. The pain subsided, and he drifted back down into the comforting darkness of sleep.
This is how to wake up, he thought, remembering the high-pitched tone of the distress beacon that had yanked him from sleep earlier that day.
Still with his eyes closed, he rolled his shoulders and tried to settle back down to prolong his nap, but something that shouldn’t have been there prevented him from rolling over, and he realized, the soft leather of his seat shifted beneath him in a way that wasn’t possible.
“What…” Avril opened his eyes and struggled against a hard pocked surface that was in his way as he tried to understand what had happened to his seat.
It was dark, and he was in the desert, but rather than the cool of the desert at night, it was hot, and he was sweating.
The object in front of him loomed over him like a small cliff-face, and he realized it was the grith skull.
“I fell asleep up here?” he wondered out loud, and the grogginess of his voice surprised him. “And why is it so hot?”
He sat for long minutes, looking down at his legs until the fog in his mind cleared.
The memory of Beads jabbing something into his side to knock him out the first time and opening a glass vial the second time unfolded in his mind, and he scrambled to his feet. The sand shifted beneath him, and he almost stumbled.
His wrists ached where Beads bound them, and he rubbed them, relieved he was no longer restrained.
The desert was quiet.
He looked for the road-shield, expecting to see the faint blue light it gave off, but it wasn’t there.
“What’s happening?” Avril said aloud, his mind still foggy with whatever chemicals Beads had used on him.
The grith skull was bright with reflected starlight, and Avril stepped back from it. His imagination conjured what the grith must have looked like when it was alive. He scanned the desert left and right as a paranoid fantasy whispered in his ear, telling him the grith’s spirit clung to its physical remains and had pulled Avril into an afterlife of its own fashioning.
“Ridiculous,” Avril muttered to dislodge the idea, but sorcerers raided other realms to capture spirits and acquire their powers, and Avril’s groggy mind found no reason the same couldn’t work in reverse.
Grith heaven. He shuddered at the idea and stepped back, his hands fumbling for weapons he hadn’t brought with him. His heel caught on something, and he fell backward onto the sandy desert floor and scrambled back to his feet.
The skull sat on a slight rise next to the road, and as Avril continued to back away, he saw a faint blue glow to either side of the rise.
He let out a long breath as he realized he’d been asleep on the other side of the skull. Fury replaced his sudden relief.
“Where is he?” Avril strode toward the skull. His rising anger competed with a sense of dread that Beads had taken his car, leaving him stranded in the desert.
He rushed forward, and as he approached the skull, a sickly sweet smell threatened to make him gag, and he covered his mouth and nose with one hand.
The road-shield came into view first. Next, he saw the roof of his assault vehicle, the laser-cannons flat against the roof. The doors were closed, and all the lights were off. The red sports car was still parked in front of the assault vehicle.
He’s still here, Avril thought.
A dozen possibilities flashed across his mind, and he dropped into a crouch as he ran to his car. The AI recognized him and opened the door. Avril climbed up to the driver’s cab, half expecting the odd round man to be inside, but it was just as Avril left it.
Zin was still curled up sleeping in the passenger seat.
Avril slammed the door closed behind him and instructed the AI, “Fortify.”
Half a dozen systems activated at once. The laser-cannons on the roof clunked and whirred into position, the doors into the car double-locked, blast-shields dropped into place, reinforcing the outer shell, protecting the wheels, undercarriage, and windows. Displays popped to life on the dashboard in the living space behind the car’s cab and showed the road and surrounding desert in infrared on the screens.
Ignoring everything else for the moment, Avril said, “Zin, wake up.”
She didn’t stir. Looking at her, a sense of long familiarity struck Avril, and he reminded himself he’d only spent minutes conscious in her presence, but that didn’t lessen the sense of impending loss he felt as a chill passed over him, and he thought, Did Beads get to her?
Avril reached out to shake her and feel for the movement of her breath, but before he made contact, she shifted in the seat.
Avril breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Zin.”
He glanced at the dashboard and saw the time. “Come on. You’ve been asleep all day.”
Zin’s eyes opened and fixed on Avril with full alertness that was startling. She stared at him for an instant, then said, “Don’t make me go to Mawtar.”
“I won’t. We need to…” Avril didn’t finish.
Zin’s eyes closed again, and he knew he was wasting his time, but he sat back in his seat and let out a long exhalation. Beads wasn’t here, and Zin was okay.
Well, as okay as ever, he thought, looking at the strange young woman.
After a moment, he turned to the monitors and thought, Where is Beads?