De Winter reappeared in the doorway. "Seoc, are you frightening my guest?"
Seoc pulled a face that Fern could see but the detective couldn't. "O' course no'," he answered innocently. "Why would I ever do that?"
"Hm," the merman grunted skeptically. "I'll be back in an hour. If I'm not, don't you dare come looking for me, I will be fine. You," he pointed to Fern, "are coming with me."
They left Seoc at the hut and took to the road. "Did you really break him out of an asylum?"
"He isn't crazy, if that's what you're asking. He's emotionally unstable."
"Oh. What is he doing here, though?"
"He's my assistant. And he can cook. I don't know how I'd survive without him."
They walked in silence for a while. Gradually, the mud huts became fewer and more sparse, until finally they petered out entirely, and they were in the desert, the sun on their faces and Alyaport behind them. The hot, orange dust swirled in eddies at their feet as the merman led the way off of the road and into the dunes. Fern wasn't sure why she trusted him, but still she followed.
After they had been about fifteen minutes of trudging along the sides of the immense waves of sand, the wind began to pick up, pulling layers off the tops of the formations. It sounded almost like many voices whispering. Despite the heat, Fern shivered. The noise was eerie.
De Winter stopped abruptly and Fern nearly walked into him. "We should go back now."
"But we haven't found anything, have we?"
"Yes and no. But I'm on a time limit, as you recall. I don't want Seoc to worry. He's liable to do something rash, like setting out to look for me...and, well, something could happen to him." He bit his lip and shrugged his shoulders. "So come."
He led her back the way they had come. As they went, the wind became softer and less talkative, and there was less tension in the air. Nevertheless, she still had the horrible sensation that they were not alone. "Did you notice that too?" she asked. "How the wind sounded like voices?"
"Yes. What did it sound like they were saying to you?"
She thought about it. "I don't know. Shar ah or something like it."
"Did you also get the feeling that something was watching us?"
"Yes. I still do."
"Want to move faster?"
He laughed nervously. "I wouldn't be opposed to that, now that you mention it."
They ran all the way to the road, determinedly not looking back. Once in shouting distance of Alyaport, however, they relaxed their pace, and trudged, panting and soaked in sweat, the rest of the way to the mud hut wherein they had left Seoc and Cedric.