— by Ted R. Blasingame
All was black, but multicolored sparks soon appeared before his eyes. The wolf sat up swiftly, but the motion made his head spin and he fell over onto his side. He groaned and held his head in his hands until the sudden nausea passed. It was only then he noticed his other aches and pains. He rolled gently onto his back again and slowly opened his eyes. There was a pale light directly above and it took him a moment to realize it was the soft glow of a moon just out of view. All thoughts escaped him for an indeterminate time as he lay there staring at the light, but eventually he began to wonder where he was.
A circular shadow framed the moonlight several meters above him and he finally realized that he lay at the bottom of a hole or pit. He surmised that either he had fallen or someone had pushed him into it, and he wondered why he hadn't broken his neck from the drop; his snout certainly felt like he'd either been beaten or he'd landed on it from the fall. Fitted stones were barely visible in the wall beside him, and as his eyes traveled downward, they fell upon a nearby dark mass. He held his breath and tried to identify it, but he couldn't see much detail in the pale light.
He sat up slowly and then scooted backward so that he could lean up against the wall. His forehead ached and he put a hand on the lump that decorated his brow just above his right eye. There was dried blood matted in the fur there and he decided that it accounted for his dim eyesight. He brushed at it gingerly and managed to get enough of the caked blood free that he could open his eye a little more. His throat felt sore, and it was a little difficult to swallow, but it was manageable. A spot at the base of his skull was tender and it was painful to rest his head on the wall behind him.
His head throbbed and his body ached. He felt dirty, thirsty… and suddenly hungry. He put a hand on the ground beside him to gather leverage to attempt to get up, but his fingers fell upon something odd. He picked it up and discovered in the moonlight that he held the leg bone of a skeleton that lay scattered within the tatters of rotted clothing. He found himself studying a canine skull whose empty sockets stared lifelessly back at him in the shadows, and after a moment, he quietly set the leg bone back on the ground.
The wolf cleared his throat quietly. “Were you someone I knew, my friend?” he asked the skull in a low voice. “I don't remember…”
He tilted his head as he tried to identify this place in his memory. He remembered neither the pit nor what had happened to him prior to waking up. He thought hard, which only served to strengthen the throbbing in his head. After several long moments, he realized that not only did he not know where he was, nor know how he had gotten there, neither could he remember his name. His memories prior to awakening were out of reach. He had no clue as to who he was.
Looking up again and considering calling out for help, something in the back of his mind cautioned him to remain silent. No sounds from above indicated anyone else was near, but he decided he didn't want to take the chance of attracting the attention of someone who might want to finish him off. He was cognizant enough to realize that his predicament was likely no accident.
Despite his aches and pains, he leaned over and got up onto his knees. Gravel and bone fragments dug into his kneecaps and he winced from their sudden bite. He reached out to the wall to steady himself and slowly eased himself upright. He stood up a little shakily, but his legs seemed strong enough to hold him up. He leaned against the wall and then looked down at himself.
The loose tan breeches he wore were in sad shape; the torn material on one leg hung from the knee down and there was a rip along his thigh on the other leg. A pair of travel-worn, soft-sided black boots covered his feet, and a shirt that might have been white at one time covered part of his upper body. The front of the shirt had ripped from the collar to his navel and his chest fur was filthy with dust. Over it all, he wore a long grey cloak that had seen better days. The dusty, lightweight material had tears in several places and the hood was hanging on only by mere threads.
“Whoever I am,” he muttered to himself, “it certainly looks like I have enemies.” His muscles complained when he wriggled out of the cloak and turned it over in his hands for a better look. A full moon had moved directly over the pit and provided him with better light. Unfortunately, the garment gave no indication of his identity. There were only a few small coins in his pants pocket and a folded bit of paper.
Unfolding the paper showed it to be a sales receipt for one item labeled only as a 'scarlet scarf.' He scratched an ear absently and then refolded the paper. The words meant nothing to him, but he decided to keep it in case it might later provide some sort of clue. There was no other identification of any kind on his person.
He looked up at the moon and knew that the walls of the pit were too steep for him to climb. The sides were made of closely fitted stones filled in with some kind of mortar, and he knew he'd find no purchase there.
He glanced back across his enclosure, which probably measured no more than three meters across, and his eyes fell once again upon the dark mass near the opposite wall. The brighter moonlight illuminated the object a little clearer and it appeared to be a dark grey tarpaulin covering something lumpy. He stepped away from the wall, tentatively checking his balance, but he remained upright without further support as he stepped across the bones.
When he laid his hands on the material, it felt tightly woven, but even standing next to it, the color of the dirty fabric was hard to see in the darkness. There was something solid beneath, so he pulled the covering away and let it drop to the floor beside his feet. Underneath were two small crates and a metallic suitcase.
He knelt down on the discarded tarp to protect his knees from the stone floor and then reached for the suitcase. The latches sprung open with an echoed snap in the pit and he slowly raised the lid. As expected, there were several articles of clothing inside. The suitcase seal had worked well enough that the garments were neither dusty nor smelled stale. He picked up a neatly folded tan shirt and held it up in the moonlight. The short-sleeved garment appeared to be his size, and there were large pockets across the chest with epaulets across the shoulders. For the first time since he woke up in this place, the wolf smiled.
Even after generations of genetic manipulation for interstellar colonization, the various species of anthro-humans still wore articles of clothing, now more often as a means of individual expression than for the need of protection. The fabrics, by necessity, were light and airy to allow natural fur to breathe properly without making them feel stuffy or confined.
Considering the condition of the clothing he wore, the shirt was a welcome gift. He shrugged out of his tattered cloak and shirt, and then slid the new shirt around his broad shoulders. The buttons came together in a size that suited him with only a little looseness to the fit. Encouraged by this, he peered into the suitcase again. What looked like a pair of tan riding breeches was next, and as before, the garment fit him well. There was just enough play in the material that he couldn't be sure if the tailoring was for him or someone just a little larger, but at least the tail flap was at the right height for his anatomy.
A floor-length trench coat of dark grey filled the bottom of the suitcase, and the garment draped over him with room to spare. It also had a convenient split in the back to allow his tail out into open air. It had no hood like the ratty garment he had worn, but was lightweight enough to wear for protection against the sun during the day or warmth during a cool night. There were two large pockets on the outside of the new cloak and four more of considerable capacity on the inside. It was while he explored the inner pockets that he found another small slip of paper: a receipt itemizing the purchase of the garments he had just donned. The sale was to a name he could barely read in the receding moonlight.
“Is that my name,” he asked with a glance back at his skeletal companion, “or yours?”
The empty eye sockets betrayed no reply, although in his current frame of mind the wolf wouldn't have been surprised if the skull had answered him. He stared at it a moment longer and then shrugged. “As I can't seem to remember my own name,” he said quietly, “Aramis Thorne sounds as good as anything else I might have come up with. Do you mind if I use it?” Again, no reply. The wolf smiled to himself in the darkness and nodded. “Well then, since you have no complaints, I thank you.”
Turning back toward the crates and tossing his torn and worn clothing into the silver suitcase, he repeated the name several times to get used to its feel. He closed the suitcase, set it aside, and then reached for the first plastic crate. A small padlock locked the top of the left box so he turned to the remaining crate. Its lid came up easily and his face brightened at the sight of food packets. They looked like standard survival rations, but he didn't care. His stomach had been growling ever since he had regained consciousness. There were also two jugs of what appeared to be fresh water and several plastic containers of other oddments.
He tore one of the food packs open with a claw and found several pieces of dried jerky. He popped one of them into his mouth and began chewing on it as he looked over the other articles. He found waterproof matches, a small sewing kit, an empty canteen, something that looked like small bricks of compressed dust and a thin canvas backpack.
Despite the sealed packages, the jerky was disappointingly bland and almost tasteless, not spicy as he preferred. Opening one of the jugs of water, he took a long swallow before remembering that he should drink sparingly of the equally stale liquid. He still had no idea where he was or how long he might be there, so he recapped the jug and put it back inside the crate. However, his stomach told him that he was still hungry, so he continued to gnaw on the jerky from the package he had already opened. The grey tarpaulin made a passable seat, so he relaxed on it and stared up at the opening above him as he chewed. By this time, the moon had all but disappeared from sight and the gloom within the pit deepened.
He thought long and hard about his condition, but all it did was intensify his headache. There were no memories prior to his awakening. For the life of him, he couldn't remember who he was or what had brought him to be sitting at the bottom of a bone-strewn pit next to a suitcase and a box of provisions.
Glancing over at the old and dusty traveling cloak he had tossed aside, he swallowed the last of his jerky. He had neglected to put the cloak into the suitcase with the rest of his clothes. Picking it up, he started looking through the pockets again. Nothing of any importance had shown up the first time he looked, but he thought it worth another try.
Within an inner pocket, he felt a small seam that he hadn't remembered noticing before, and there appeared to be something hard underneath; it would have been easy to miss. He worked at it with a claw tip and the material parted slightly. Inside was a small brass key. He pulled it out and examined it closely.
Thorne got up on his knees and faced the plastic cases. He tried the key in the padlock of the sealed crate and the mechanism tripped with a small click. Curious as to what might need to be locked up, he raised the lid and peered inside.
The first things to meet his gaze were the barrel of a modern automatic handgun and a sheathed knife. The pistol seemed well oiled and in good condition, and there were several boxes of ammunition lying beside it. He looked it over and was impressed with the ridged alabaster handgrip that fit comfortably into his hand. He set the gun back down and picked up the knife. He pulled the wide, curved blade from a simple leather sheath and knew it would be sharp without having to test its edge. Even in the gloom of the pit, the razor edge glinted from the overhead starlight.
He held up the knife and examined his reflection in the dim light. Weary amber eyes peered back at him with uncertainty over a black nose at the end of a lupine snout. The fur of his face was a mixture of grey and white with the darker guard hairs predominant. Oval patches of lighter grey fur surrounded his eyes, giving him the appearance of wearing a mask. Pure white fur adorned the lower half of his face, as well as the fluffy area covering his throat. This went well with the darker grey patterns that carried over to his arms, the fur lighter on the underside of his arms, chest and belly. Aside from dried blood, grass and dirt in his fur, the wolf thought with pride that he might be a nice specimen for his anthro-human race when cleaned up.
It had been generations since mankind spread out into space, planting itself on other worlds capable of sustaining their fragile lives. Over time, genetic manipulation gave the colonists the strengths and attributes of other species from mother Earth to assist in their survival, creating various sub-species that were mostly human, but often resembled animals in human form. The geneticists were choosy at first, preferring only certain predatory species, but over time they created others solely because it was possible. As a result, colonies seeded by mankind throughout the stars were now veritable zoos. Pure humans still existed on Earth herself, but the anthro-humans, or furs, as the term they preferred, populated most of the colonies now. It had been thus for many decades, and with standard LightDrive engines bridging the interstellar distances, the species blended and mixed with one another throughout the worlds of the Planetary Alignment.
He looked into the reflection of his eyes a moment more before he lowered the blade. He had hoped looking at himself would trigger his memory, but that was an expectation unfulfilled. Aramis Thorne was still just as much a mystery to himself as the name was. He heaved a heavy sigh and then looked down at the open crate.
The weapons lay on top of rotting burlap bags and all it took was a light pass of the blade over the material to reveal the contents within. The wolf picked up a large golden coin that looked to have been hand-stamped with the image of an indistinct face on one side, and a planet with two moons on the other. Both sides bore tiny markings similar to hieroglyphs that he couldn't read. The crate contained several bags, all of them full of identical coins.
Although his memories eluded him, he realized that a small fortune lay before him. He looked back at the canine skull that shared his imprisonment and shook his head. “It looks like we hit it big, my friend,” he said in a quiet voice as he sheathed the blade, “but I don't think it will be of any use to us in here.”
The wolf got to his feet and looked up at the overhead stars. “You have not caused me any trouble, but I would prefer not to remain here.” He had no belief that the skeleton could hear a thing he said, but the silence was overwhelming and it felt good to use his voice. He looked down again and picked up the rough-woven cloth at his feet.
“The suitcase and crates were not tossed down here; someone covered them over so they couldn't be seen from above. I have no way of knowing if it was me or you, my friend, or someone else altogether. Either way, I don't want to be here if someone comes looking for it.”
Thorne looked around the bottom of the pit again, even though he had examined it several times already. There were no ropes, no ladders and no handy vines hanging down inside for him to climb. He studied the bricks that made up the vertical walls of his circular prison. The mortar was cracked and broken in some areas, but nothing provided enough of a handhold for him to use.
It only took twenty minutes before he gave up and sat down on the tarp in frustration. His night sight was keen, but the gloom of the pit had been too dark to see much detail. He remembered the matches in the crate and quickly retrieved them. He looked around in the darkness and picked up the skeleton's fibula. He felt self-conscious disturbing the bones of the dead, but his sense of self-preservation was stronger. He wrapped one end of the bone with strips of its owner's clothing remnants and tied the end tightly. He struck a match on the stone wall and it flared instantly, momentarily blinding him. He recovered quickly and set it against the makeshift torch. The old fabric caught fire instantly.
He glanced upward with the realization that if there were any enemies about, they might see the light from the pit, but it was a chance he would have to take. He held up the torch and then studied the walls around him. A crack in the mortar in front of him caught his eye after a moment. It was no different from other cracks he saw, except this one was too linear to be a random weakness in the mortar. The imperfection was vertical and he could trace it from the floor upwards of two meters. At that height, it took a sharp turn to the left. Less than a meter across, it turned back down toward the floor and he knew without following it further that it would intersect with another horizontal line at ground level. He looked over the rectangular area he had traced out and then he noticed something he hadn't seen before. Halfway up the crack's length was a very faint, practically indistinct handprint on the wall.
Thorne smiled and looked up again. He saw no one hovering at the top of the pit and surmised it would be safe to test his theory. He put his hand up to the print and then applied pressure to the wall. As he expected, a section of the wall pivoted inward. The sound of stone scraping against stone sounded loud in the confines of the pit, but he no longer cared about silence. He thrust the torch into the opening and the light revealed a series of steps leading upward, carved out of the stone floor. The steps were wide and the incline was a shallow grade.
He began to ascend the stairs, but halted. If the passage led him out as he hoped, he would need a few things. He turned back toward the crates and set the burning torch upright against the wall. He pulled out the thin canvas backpack and filled the bottom of it with two handfuls of the gold coins, and then he put in several food packets and the other oddments he had found. He filled the canteen with water and shoved it into one of the cloak's inner pockets. He had no way to carry more water, so he opened the remaining jug and swallowed as much of the lukewarm liquid as he felt he could drink. It might be a while before he found another source to fill the canteen. He removed the cloak and then donned the backpack. Once in place, he put the cloak back on. There was no holster for the pistol, so he shoved it into his waistband and then stored extra ammunition into a pocket after filling the gun's clip. He took another handful of coins and split them up with half going into each pants pocket.
He slipped the sheathed knife beneath his belt at the small of his back and then locked the crate of gold. He covered the suitcase and two boxes with the dark grey tarpaulin and tried to arrange it all in the same manner as he had originally found them. He picked up his torch and then took a last look around his circular prison. He nodded quietly to the grinning skull and then turned his back on the pit. He stepped inside the stair chamber and then gently pushed the door closed behind him. Thankfully, there was a handhold carved into the backside of the door so that if he needed to return to the pit, he would be able to reopen the door from the inside.
He took a deep breath of the musty air inside the small chamber and then looked up the stairs that curved around a bend above him. He took a step and then stopped once more. Deep carvings covered a good portion of the walls from floor to ceiling. They were hieroglyphs of a sort, and seemed familiar, but nothing substantial came to mind. Was he in a museum? Thorne thought quietly to himself, or was he in some archaeological dig? He felt drawn to the carvings in a sense of fascination, but he had no time to study them in length. He didn't yet feel safe.
He shook himself from his musing and then started upward. He followed the shallow steps around a softly curved passage, idly looking at the carvings and then stopped after a moment. He pulled one of the golden coins from a pocket and held it up to the left-hand wall. He held his torch close and nodded to himself when two of the markings corresponded with larger duplicates chiseled into the wall.
Putting the coin back into his pocket with a grunt, he began climbing again. Before the passage had a chance to wind back up over itself, he found himself facing a blank wall. A slight depression revealed that another carved handhold had once adorned the stone door as it did on the panel he had departed, but there was not much of anything to grab onto now. It had broken off at some point in the past, and fragments of the stone crunched beneath his boots.
He tried to pull at the stone with the fingertips of both hands, but there just was not enough of a purchase to make it move. He thought for a moment as the light from the makeshift torch began to flicker. The old cloth was dry and he knew it wouldn't take long to burn up, so he had to think quickly. He pulled out his knife and then set the torch aside so he could use the blade with both hands. He stuck the tip into the visible crack in the stone near the worn handhold and then twisted it slowly.
It took an effort to pull at the knife without sliding it out of the crevasse, but the blade tip had just enough purchase that the stone doorway began to move. The knife slipped off the stone when it had moved only a half-inch, but Thorne was encouraged. He slipped the blade back into its sheath and then grabbed the now-exposed edge of the stone door with the fingertips of both hands. He braced one foot against the wall beside it and felt one of the carved hieroglyphs crumble beneath his heel as he put his weight against it.
The door swung inward reluctantly, but soon he had it open enough that he was able to squeeze through. He picked up the dying torch and then held it up cautiously into the new opening. He found himself in another small antechamber and his eyes widened at the sight he beheld. The walls were devoid of hieroglyphs, but they were stacked with more bags of the same gold coins he carried in his backpack. He estimated that each bag would have contained around five hundred coins, and there had to be well over two hundred bags stacked against opposite walls.
The wolf swallowed in spite of himself, but his waning light crackled and brought him out of his reverie. There was another door panel on the other side of the chamber, but it was only a meter high and low to the floor. Like the others, there was a carved handhold in the stone, and this one was still in good shape. Thorne sat on the ground and then tugged at the rock, hoping he wouldn't have to go much further. It was getting harder to see in the diminishing light.
The small panel swung toward him easily, but there was something just inside that barred further progress. He pushed his torch toward the opening and saw the passage make an abrupt turn to the left. He got onto his hands and knees and crawled around the corner. He stopped briefly to pull the small door panel closed behind him, and then grunted in the close quarters. The passage was a meter square on all sides, but stretched forward into darkness. He thought he could see an end to the chamber ahead, but was unsure in the dim light. The backpack full of gold and oddments was hard to balance on top of his horizontal back, but he managed to keep it in place.
The stone floor was hard on his knees as he scuffled forward and suddenly his torch burned itself out. He cursed mildly in the darkness, although he could do nothing about it. He considered lighting a match, but knew it would only give him illumination for a moment or two and he wanted to conserve them as long as possible. The dry cloth of the bone-torch had spent and there was nothing more to wrap around the fibula to fashion another torch.
“The exit is just ahead,” he reminded himself. The air inside the passage was stale and dusty and he coughed several times before he began crawling in the pitch-blackness, the leg bone forgotten behind him. He crawled for several minutes before he butted his head hard on a stone wall in front of him. He put a hand flat on the rock and pushed. As he had hoped, the stone moved forward a few inches, but then stopped. He shoved harder, but the rock wouldn't budge. It felt like it wanted to slide sideways, however, so he grasped the right-hand edge and pulled it to the left. The stone slid out of the way and foul air suddenly assaulted his nose.
He was still in complete darkness, but he sniffed the fetid air and detected several different odors. He could smell stale cigarette smoke and burned wood beneath the remnant scent of rotted flesh. He hesitated as he sorted out the implications, but he decided to see where his passage would lead him. It was possible that his enemies were nearby, so he would need to move as stealthily as possible, but he could hear no movement other than his own breathing.
He extended a hand through the opening and his fingers encountered cloth. Beneath the fabric was a cold leg, and his disturbance renewed the odor of rotting flesh. He curled up his lips in sudden fright and forced himself not to cry out. Have I escaped my prison in the pit only to crawl into another one? he thought to himself. From the smell in the air, the unfortunate he had just found hadn't been dead for centuries. This was a recent death.
Thorne swallowed and decided to do the unthinkable. He eased out of his passageway and crawled over the top of the corpse, straddling it as best he could in the cramped quarters. If he could just get past it, he thought he could go on. However, when he bumped his head against another wall, he suddenly found that his crawling was over. He searched quickly for another sliding panel, but there was nowhere else to go. He had ended up inside a stone burial vault.
The wolf laid his ears back at the thought, but refused to relax against the deceased individual beneath him. Instead, he braced himself against the bottom and pressed his back up against the top. He grunted and his arms quivered from the effort, but the stone lid moved a bit. The rotting flesh nauseated him, but he was not about to let that stop him.
He exerted his strength and pressed upward with all his might. With a sense of relief, he felt the lid slide sideways an inch. New air poured into the vault and the aromas within and without fought his olfactory senses in a fierce battle. He had to rest, but he wouldn't let himself be soiled by his late companion. He pressed upward again and the lid moved aside some more.
For Thorne, it was enough. He moved to the right so that both his knees were on one side of the corpse, and then he reached up with both hands to grasp the open edge of the lid. He put his back against the wall and then heaved at the lid. The sound of stone grinding upon stone echoed in the chamber beyond as the top moved slowly. He grunted, panted and struggled, but his strength was about to give out.
He felt of the opening and decided that he had moved it far enough that he might be able to squeeze through. Desperation provided him with will power; he gathered himself beneath the aperture and slowly eased himself into it. His backpack caught the edge and he had to squirm about to mobilize his frame through the opening, but in doing so the lid pushed open a little further.
In getting out of the vault, Thorne stepped on the body within, but he no longer cared about disturbing the dead; he was determined to get out. It took him several minutes to wriggle his way out, but he eventually found himself sitting on top of the vault lid.
He was unwilling to rest just yet, even though his body screamed for a moment of peace. He eased himself down off the vault onto the floor beside it and was relieved to be able to stand up fully. His legs were cramping from being too long in the crawlway.
The chamber he had entered was as dark as the vault, but he would chance a match to see where he was. His aching muscles complained when he struggled out of the backpack. Going on touch alone, he located the matches and then struck one on the side of the vault.
He had had the foresight to close his eyes before lighting the match, so he slowly opened them to see if he could make out his surroundings. The first thing he saw made him smile. A torch holder embedded in the wall beside the vault contained what looked to be an oil-saturated cloth bound tightly around a bundle of small sticks.
He leaned forward and touched the match to the oily rags to the reward of a satisfying blaze. He dropped the match to the floor in a shower of sparks and then pulled the new torch from the wall iron. He examined the holder briefly and momentarily hesitated when he saw its lupine design, a wolf's head with bared fangs. The figure triggered a wisp of memory, but nothing concrete.
Thorne held up the torch and looked around the room. The chamber appeared to be a cube, with the walls, floor, and ceiling each approximately four meters across. More hieroglyphs covered the walls, and even the sides of the burial vault. Low tables sat empty against the walls, recently plundered. There were numerous footprints in the dust of the floor as if the chamber had been busily trafficked. The only other artifact left in the room was a polished hardwood pole an inch in diameter and four feet long, that lay across the floor near a closed stone door panel. A carved wolf's head similar to the torch holder adorned one end of the staff.
He leaned over the coffin and peered down at the body he had discovered. Despite the decomposition, he could tell that it had been a female canine, but which breed he couldn't determine. She was dressed in a full-length red dress with short sleeves, a white bodice and a crimson scarf about her neck. There were footprints across her chest – his footprints – and he immediately felt regret for having been so disrespectful. At her feet was the opening he had crawled through, apparently a secret entrance to the treasure room he had seen earlier.
Knowing the wealth contained in the hard-to-reach antechamber, Thorne set the torch back in the wall holder and then retrieved the wooden pole. He extended it inside the vault toward the female's feet and then worked the trick door panel back into place. He set the pole against the wall near the torch and then walked to the edge of the vault. He didn't have much strength left to him, but with better leverage, he managed to reposition the stone lid back over the coffin.
He doubted the body was the original occupant of the tomb, but it was likely to be her final resting place; there was a bloodstained gunshot hole in the fabric of her garment over her heart. If he ever had the opportunity to return, Thorne decided he would arrange a rope or ladder back down into the pit to retrieve the gold, rather than disturb her further.
The torch issued a sharp pop, but after a quick examination, he didn't think it was in any danger of going out soon. The wolf decided to give himself a few moments to rest from his exertion. He chanced a swig of water from his canteen, but resisted the urge to drain it dry.
He leaned back against the wall with the backpack beside him and then closed his eyes. He was tired and he ached all over. Given the opportunity to examine himself in better conditions, Thorne knew that he had bruises beneath his fur in many places. It still surprised him that the fall into the pit hadn't broken anything. He pulled the trench cloak over him with a heavy sigh and then grew still.
Aramis Thorne awoke several hours later, unaware than he had even drifted off into a dreamless sleep, but when he opened his eyes, he saw a faint glow in front of him. The torch had burned itself out, but he could see a diffused shaft of light on the wall before him.
Rolling over, he got up onto his knees and picked up the backpack. He moved quietly as he gathered his things and then grabbed the hardwood pole after shrugging into his trench cloak. He walked toward the door of the chamber where the light seeped between the cracks and put his eye up to the slit. He could see little beyond the door, but a beam of sunlight poured in from an opening in the ceiling of the next chamber.
He pushed on the door, but discovered it wouldn't move. The opening the light came through was a little wider than an inch so he put the end of his staff into it and worked the door open. A moment later, the wolf stepped out into the fresh air of a great hall.
The chamber was large enough to have housed a fair-sized crowd and there was a raised dais at one end. More of the hieroglyphs decorated the walls as carvings, and the four grand columns that held up the ceiling had more of them hand-painted around their curved surfaces. Previous looters had stripped the room of anything of value, like the small chamber he had just departed. Boot tracks were everywhere in the dust, accompanied by a number of cigarette butts.
Thorne frowned at the scene and then looked up at an old, ragged hole in the ceiling where sunlight streamed in from the outside. He could hear the faint sounds of insects in the air and a few chirping birds, but nothing else. A pair of large double doors were partially open in the wall across from him, so he took his new walking stick and made his way to them. The doors were open enough that he could get through without having to touch them, and he found a corridor that led out toward the glow of sunshine.
When he emerged from the structure a moment later, his lips parted in wonder. He was on the top elevation of what looked to be an oval amphitheatre of stone built into the side of a hill. Surrounding it was a small city of elaborate buildings made of large, hand-cut stone blocks fitted with precision. From the condition of weathering, everything looked as if it had been abandoned for centuries. Scrubby brush grew at random and the haphazard areas where grass had made its purchase had gone unchecked for ages.
The city was nestled up against the bend of a mountain range that stretched as far as the eye could see in two directions. Huge storm clouds were building on the far horizon, but over the city itself, the morning sky contained only a few lazy clouds. Stretched out away from the mountains was a flat, open plain dotted with nothing more than dry grasses and scrub brush.
Thorne stood very still and took in his surroundings. His eyes watched for movement and his ears strained for sounds other than the buzzing of insects and the singing of birds. To the best of what his senses could tell him, he was alone in the ancient city. It appeared that whoever had been there, leaving behind footprints, cigarette butts and a body, had gone.
He was in awe of what he saw around him, but the impression that the city was familiar was strong in his mind. He thought about it for a moment and then his eyes lit up.
“Hee-nicks…” he said aloud as his memory yielded a tiny scrap of information. “The name of this city is Hoenix.”
This revelation surprised him. Why could he remember the name of an ancient city, but not his own name? It was puzzling and it bothered him. He walked to the first tier below him in the stone seats of the amphitheatre and sat down. Who was he? He didn't feel like an “Aramis Thorne,” but then again he didn't know whom he felt like at all.
He mused over the events of his awakening and knew he must have enemies. That much was certain, but who was it? He didn't know that any more than he knew his own name. I must be careful, he thought to himself. Anyone he might meet could prove to be a foe, and until he could resolve his memory, he decided that he would be on his guard at all times.
The wolf looked up at a new sound, but before he could identify it, he darted back to the building he had emerged from and hid himself in the shadows. His ears swiveled back and forth as he listened to the sound that echoed faintly off the stone walls of the amphitheatre, and then he looked up into the sky.
There, far overhead, was the vapor trail of an aircraft that had come over the top of the mountain ridge far to his left and was gaining altitude as he watched. He narrowed his eyes, but the vessel was too far out of his range of vision to identify its make. He recognized the faraway sound as the whine of atmospheric engines, and he watched it until it had disappeared. He determined that from its angle of ascent, the craft was heading for orbit above the planet.
He nodded to himself quietly, and with his eyes followed the diminishing vapor trail back to its beginning over the ridge of mountains. It was possible that it had only passed his area, but if there were any settlements in the region, that was the probably the best direction he should take to find them. As awe-inspiring as Hoenix appeared, he didn't intend to remain there in exile. He didn't have a compass or a map, but if he followed the line of mountains until he could find a pass through them, he would at least have something of a guide.
The sun was getting warmer in this dry climate and Thorne knew he would fare better if he limited his travel time to the cool darkness of night. Having just rested, however, he was in no frame of mind to retire back into the shadows to sleep, so he decided to explore the city. Whoever had been there might have left something behind that could be useful on his journey.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
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