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HOENIX

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 3
 

Aramis Thorne set his walking staff against a granite boulder and took a sip from his canteen. He had been traveling for two nights along the base of the mountain ridge, but had seen no one. The occasional vapor trail in the sky kept him on his chosen course, but he knew he would have to find water soon. His canteen was nearing empty, even though he had only taken occasional sips from it.

The gold weighed down his pack and pockets, and his feet were sore from crossing over rock fragments on the grassy plain beneath the mountains. By day, he had curled up in the shadows of large boulders with his trench cloak pulled over him, but the heat of the sun had made it hard to rest. He figured he had about another day's worth of small sips of water, but he still had plenty of food rations. However, the trouble with the rations was that they were dry and made him thirsty. He had decided that he could do without the food longer than he could without liquid, so had taken to ignoring the rations in favor of conserving water.

As he looked out across the plains, a faint noise to his right caught his attention. His ears swiveled to home in on the sound of tiny feet scrabbling over rock. His movements were imperceptible as he turned just enough so that he could locate the small wild rabbit that had made the mistake of coming near a hungry predator.

Beneath his trench coat, Thorne's hand reached the knife in his belt and then eased it forward in perfect silence. The non-sentient rabbit peered out into the darkness, aware that danger was nearby, but the dark grey cloak made the wolf nearly invisible with the shadows of the night.

In a fluid motion, Thorne threw the blade with precision from his left hand and impaled the small animal through the neck. He moved forward quietly and then knelt down to retrieve his prize. He was elated to have fresh meat, but his mood quickly dampened when he realized that he didn't have enough water for a stew; his caution wouldn't allow him to make a fire anyway, even with the fire-brick in his pack. He had two choices. He could wait until daybreak to build a small fire, or he could eat the rabbit raw. Unlike his feral ancestors, he preferred his meat slightly cooked to sterilize it against certain diseases, but the urgent rumbling of his stomach made the choice for him.

The wolf sat down with his back to a large boulder and began to skin the animal. 

*** 

Thorne looked up into the sky and noted pale wisps of morning sunlight begin to color hazy overhead clouds. He would soon have to find a crevice between the strewn boulders for his daytime rest period.

A half hour later, the wolf had finished his meal. Despite being raw, he had enjoyed the taste and his stomach no longer rumbled. He felt as if he could eat another two or three rabbits, but with the approaching sun, he wouldn't have time to hunt for more. He cleaned up as best he could, but wouldn't allow himself to use up precious drinking water to wash the blood from his hands and muzzle. It was his tongue or nothing.

He sheathed his knife and returned it to its place in his belt at the small of his back. He distanced himself from the carcass remains with a ten-minute walk. He didn't feel like having his sleep interrupted by whatever scavenger might appear to lay claim to the remains.

Three large boulders had fallen from a high wall of the mountainside at some time in the past and had come to rest against one another at the edge of the plain. Between the three of them was a small area that would be in perpetual shadow throughout the day. Thorne left his staff on the ground beside an opening and then crawled inside to find room enough for him if he curled up. With the cloak as his blanket and the pack as a pillow, the wolf was soon asleep.

He awoke hours later to the sound of voices. His eyes snapped open and his ears twitched. As quiet as he could, Thorne slipped the pack across his shoulders and then shrugged into his cloak. His fingers immediately fell upon his handgun, but he decided not to show that card yet. If the newcomers were enemies, five of them from their voices, he wanted the element of surprise. If not, he didn't want to frighten them away from giving him possible aid.

Easing out from beneath his shelter, he blinked several times from the bright morning sunlight to adjust his eyes. He picked up his walking staff and then crept around the curve of the boulders. He peered out, but saw no one in his line of sight. Someone laughed and he realized that the rock wall behind him had reflected the voices. He took a furtive glance back to make sure he hadn't crawled out in full view, but there was no one there.

His ears swiveled for a moment at further discussion, but he couldn't yet distinguish anything said. However, he believed he had a fix on the location and then moved silently toward the end of the rock wall.

“You have far too many kits as it is, Janden,” he heard someone say clearly as he neared a weathered boulder that had split in half. More laughter followed the words and then he could see them.

There were four desert foxes – fennecs, from the look of their oversized ears – gathered beneath a flimsy awning erected beside a pool of water. The grasses near the pool were greener than those further out in the plains, and several short trees with wide leaves grew near the water source. The wolf licked his lips at the sight of the clear pool. The sun was already warming the top of his head.

All of the tan foxes were dressed in traveling cloaks with hoods, each one a different muted color fabric, but they wore little more than shorts beneath them. Six non-sentient ponies were tethered to the trees near the water so they could drink, and dusty travel packs were at their feet.

Thorne didn't see any weapons, but he didn't dare assume they were unarmed. One of the foxes, a fellow in an orange cloak, plucked several blades of grass and tossed them at a companion in green.

“My mate doesn't mind,” the one named Janden replied with a grin. “She likes making them as much as I do!” More laughter from the group. Thorne remained perfectly still and continued to watch them. If he could make himself known without startling the travelers, they might let him refill his canteen and point him the way to civilization.

He didn't have long to wait. Someone jerked the walking staff from his hand, and then it was used to knock his legs out from beneath him. He looked up in alarm at the fifth fox that had come up behind him and he silently cursed himself for not detecting his approach.

“Rothlen!” the red-cloaked fox called without taking his eyes from the wolf. Thorne heard the other four scramble toward them and a moment later, they had surrounded him. Aramis remained where he had been knocked down, but sat up to face the group.

“What's this?” asked a fox wearing blue. He looked angry, but in a frightened way. No doubt, the smaller foxes viewed the larger wolf as a threat.

Thorne raised his hands slowly to show his submission. “I'm just a traveler seeking water,” he said truthfully. “I heard your voices…”

“And you thought to rob us?” asked Janden, the one in orange.

“That was not my intent,” he replied in a quiet voice.

“Look at the blood on his hands and nose!” said another in alarm. “He's already killed someone else!”

“I ate a small, wild rabbit last night,” Aramis explained quickly. “I didn't have extra water to clean up.”

“Rothlen, take a look at this!” said the one who had discovered him. He tilted Thorne's walking stick toward a fox wearing a tan cloak that matched the color of his own fur. Rothlen examined the carved wolf's head at the end of the staff and his eyes grew wide in apparent recognition.

“Where did you get this?” he asked the wolf.

Thorne tried to appear innocent. “I found it among the rocks two days ago,” he lied. Other than his staff, he hadn't seen any other weapons among the group, so he stood up slowly, his hands still partially upraised. The foxes eyed him suspiciously, but made no sudden movements.

“It looks old, but not weathered,” one of the foxes commented.

“I don't know how long it was there before I found it.”

Rothlen exchanged a few quiet words with his companions and then took the staff in his hands. “I wouldn't take a lone traveler's walking stick,” he said with a slight bow to his head, “but I will keep it until you have had water and rest.”

“Thank you, sir.” Thorne duplicated the short bow in appreciation, but when he lowered his head, Rothlen struck him hard across the neck with the staff. The wolf stumbled, but he had been alert for something like this. He lurched forward and tackled Rothlen to the ground. The others jumped him immediately, but he kicked the one in green aside with a well-placed foot and drove his elbow into the stomach of the other wearing red.

He wrestled with Rothlen over the staff, and when one of the others got too close, Thorne wrenched one end hard to catch him across the face or stomach. Rothlen was wiry and tried to turn Thorne around to get over him, but the wolf would have none of that. He snarled fiercely and twisted the staff to snap his opponent's left wrist. The fox cried out in pain and let go of the stick. As he cradled his arm, the fox in blue jumped on Thorne's back.

Aramis lurched backward and pinned the fennec hard against the large weathered boulder, and then he felt the backpack beneath his cloak give away. The fox slumped to the ground, golden coins raining down on him, but he was too dazed to realize it. Thorne whirled around to see the fox in green lunging for him and he slugged him under the jaw as he put his other hand in the fellow's gut.

Janden's eyes grew wide at the sight of the gold and he leaped for the coins, but Aramis had seen him. He whipped out his knife and threw it into the fennec's leg. Janden yelped and dropped to his knees, holding onto his calf in agony. He pulled the blade from his flesh, but the pain was too intense for him to use it as a return dart.

Thorne leaned down and jerked the blade from his hand, nearly severing one of the fox's fingers in the process. The fox in green had recovered enough that he approached Aramis with the wooden staff, but he dropped it suddenly when the wolf produced a pistol from his waistband and aimed it between the fellow's eyes. The fox turned and ran, followed closely by the one in red. The guy in blue stirred, realizing that gold coins covered him, but he lost all interest in the money with the barrel of the gun in his face. He got up slowly, letting the gold fall to the ground, and then backed away.

When Thorne didn't shoot him, he felt he would take his chances and then ran the opposite direction his other companions had taken. Left behind were the injured, Rothlen and Janden. Thorne stood over the vulpine leader and glared down at him.

“I had no intention of robbing you,” he said with a growl. “All I needed was water and directions to the nearest settlement.” Rothlen tried to scramble away, but Thorne kicked the fox's foot and sent him sprawling into another rock.

The wolf returned to his gold. He kept an eye on Janden as he scooped the coins back into his bag, thankful that only the snaps had come loose. He refastened the pack and then attached it to his belt beneath his cloak. He picked up his wooden staff and then turned to Janden.

“Who are you?” the fox asked him between clenched teeth. “What band are you with?”

“The name is Thorne, I'll give you that much, but my band is my business,” the wolf said.

“Thorne!” the orange-clad fox exclaimed. His eyes grew wide and he swallowed at the lump that had formed in his throat. “Captain Thorne!”

The wolf tried not to let sudden surprise show on his face. Instead, he scowled and leveled the pistol at the fox. The fennec had been wrapping the belt of his cloak around his leg wound, but he froze as he stared up the barrel of the firearm.

One of the others tried to sneak up on him from behind, but Thorne whirled around and fired off a round. The bullet struck the rock beside the fox in blue, spraying his face with shards, and he leaped back with a cry of surprise. The echo of the shot bounced around the mountainside and then Aramis turned back to face Janden.

“Get up,” he said in a gruff voice loud enough to carry to the other foxes still in hiding. “Gather your friends, get on your ponies, and then take off across the plains. If you look back, you might meet up with a bullet. If you try to come back, I will be wearing your pelts!”

Janden swallowed and nodded. “Nobody crosses Captain Thorne,” he said, sounding as if it was a well-known quote. “We will do as you say, sir…”

Aramis gave him a dark look and then stepped back several paces to allow the others to collect their wounded companions. Rothlen looked at him with a sick expression as the ones in blue and green picked him up from the ground. “Heard you were dead…” he said in a voice barely above a whisper.  “It's all over Castelrosso…”

“Get on your ponies and ride,” Thorne told him. “Leave the food and water.”

“The water, too?” asked one. “It's getting hot!”

 ”Do you want me to give you the same thing you gave me when I asked for water?” He kept his pistol aimed at them with one hand and then raised the staff with the other. The foxes cowered together against the split boulder.

“No,” Rothlen said quickly. “We will leave, as ordered.”

Thorne lowered his weapon, but kept an eye on them. Their companions helped those injured back to the pool. Within moments, the five of them mounted their ponies and stared back at him with mutual frowns.

“Leave the other one,” Thorne said of the sixth pony that they had previously used as a pack animal. No one argued with him as they drew their reins around and kicked their mounts into a trot out across the plains, away from the mountains. It was not yet noon, but the sun was climbing higher overhead. They knew of a wellspring several hours' ride out across the grass and made for that as quickly as their ponies would take them.

Thorne sat down in a folding canvas chair under the awning and kept his eyes on them until they had blended with the horizon. Convinced that they had stayed their course and hadn't tried to double back, Aramis finally allowed himself to collapse against the chair. He dipped a thin metal cup he found on the ground into the cool pool of water and took a long drink. It had a sweet taste and he had to force himself not to chug down too much as he dipped the cup into the water for a second and third time.

He got back up and went to one of the packs left behind. He rummaged through it and found a veritable feast inside. He grabbed several items greedily as hunger took over and then he stood up. He took his edible treasure back to his chair and sat down with a smile across his face.

When he had finally satisfied his hunger, he washed his face and hands in the pool and then dried off with a discarded towel. Only then did he allow himself to relax in the chair and stare out across the plains in the direction the foxes had disappeared. He sat for a long while, quietly musing over many thoughts.

Since awakening in a dark pit in the ancient city of Hoenix, the wolf had experienced a number of revelations, though he still had no memory of who he was. Was he the Captain Aramis Thorne that had caused fear in the foxes when they heard his name? They'd apparently never met Thorne, as they had neither recognized him nor discounted him when he spoke the name. Thorne was rumored to be dead. The wolf had obviously been left for dead in the pit, but then so had the canine skeleton that he found down there with him. He had no memory of Aramis Thorne; for all he knew, he could have been Thorne's lackey, rather than the captain himself.

However, he had exhibited several surprising talents he had been previously unaware of having. He could throw knives with accurate precision with either hand, and he knew how to fight well, even when the odds were against him. He had been unafraid facing the foxes, so there was some amount of courage within him, and even when confronted with news that Captain Thorne was well known and believed dead, he had reacted as if it were only a slight inconvenience.

He had been arrogant with the foxes, but attributed that to being attacked and getting back at him, but his gut feeling was that he was normally more tolerant than that. He closed his eyes and shook his head with a heavy sigh. If Captain Thorne was well known and someone discovered that he wasn't this individual that nobody crossed, he could be in serious trouble.

He wondered if he should continue to play the part of Thorne or if he should adopt a different persona until he knew for certain whom he really was. He narrowed his eyes and smiled to himself. He had rather enjoyed having others respectful and somewhat afraid of him by name. He decided that no matter what he could or couldn't remember, he wouldn't be afraid of the opportunity facing him. If Thorne were really dead, he had knowledge of a golden treasure hidden in a secret room in Hoenix. He could go back for it later and set himself up nicely somewhere. However, if he discovered he really was Aramis Thorne, the wolf vowed that he would hunt down whoever it was who had tried to kill him. If he was as well known as the foxes made him out to be, he apparently had been a person of some power. Nobody crossed Captain Thorne….

Captain… A captain of what? He wondered. Did he have a ship or was Thorne a part of the local military with a bad reputation?

The wolf yawned and began to realize just how tired he was. He looked around at the day camp and then back out across the plains. There was a warm breeze blowing along the mountain ridges and he could hear the lazy buzzing of insects in the air. Despite the harsh greeting he'd gotten from the fox clan, Thorne was tired of being alone. Although he was missing his personal history, he was still a wolf - and a wolf needed a pack. Lone wolves never fared well and he knew that one way or another, he needed to be around other people. The only way he could manage that would be to find his way back to civilization.

From the direction and frequency of the vapor trails he had been watching in the sky, a port or launch facility had to be nearby, though on the opposite side of the mountain range. He had to find a pass or trail between the peaks soon. He would bypass it altogether if he continued along the plains as he had been doing. He had no doubt that the foxes knew the way to… what was the name of that place? Castelrosso, Rothlen had called it, but he had neglected to get any information from them about it before he had sent them away.

Castelrosso. The name sounded somehow familiar, but like so many almost-memories, he couldn't quite make a connection. Nevertheless, Castelrosso was now his objective, no matter who he was. Despite unknown hidden talents popping up to surprise him in times of need, he wouldn't survive long wandering the mountains and plains without a way to renew his supplies. He couldn't rely on meeting other groups to steal from, so he had no choice but to attempt to reach Castelrosso. At least his goal now had a name.

He looked over at the tan and white pony that had watched him impassively and gave her a warm smile. She hadn't seemed frightened by the presence of the predator and he took that as a good sign. They would likely be traveling companions for a day or two.

Aramis walked out into the sun to the animal and felt the sudden heat of the day as he rubbed her nose lightly. The pony leaned into his hand and he chuckled at how friendly she seemed. He untied the pony's tether from a scrubby tree and led her to a spot underneath the shady awning the foxes had erected. He refastened the reins to one of its poles and made sure she would be able to drink from the pool if she got thirsty. He found a grain bag inside one of the other packs and set it open on the ground at her feet. She looked at him with soft brown eyes when he ran his hands along her neck and snorted softly in appreciation.

The wolf had no way to detect whether or not the foxes might return to finish him off, but he knew he had to rest. He had traveled all night and a full stomach in the heat of the day made him drowsy. He would try to rest again before he and his new companion would set out to find the pass they needed to get to Castelrosso.

He walked to the other side of the split boulder and looked around as he listened for anyone who might be in the area. After several moments, he decided they were alone and then relieved himself against the rocks.

He returned to the awning and stretched out on the grass in the shade. It was surprisingly soft and he was grateful as his body relaxed in the warm air. Despite the bright sunshine, he was asleep in moments with only a pony to look over him.  

*** 

Aramis Thorne looked up at the narrow opening in the sheer rock surface and twitched his tail in thought. It was a little past midnight; he and the pony had traveled a night and a half along the foot of the mountains. He had been constantly alert to the sounds around them, but had detected the presence of no one beside themselves along the way. The ship vapor trails were practically over their heads now; the crevasse looked to be the only opening into the mountain that could possibly pass through to the other side.

A waning moon floated high above them and illuminated the entrance in a soft glow. It was wide enough that two ponies could have ridden side by side through it, but the inward curving stone wall overhead would barely allow a rider on top without leaning. The signs were hopeful; horse tracks and other footprints decorated the soft sand that covered its floor, and he could hear the sound of trickling water.

The wolf slid down off the saddle blanket and patted the pony's nose affectionately before leading her into the opening by the reins. As a precaution, he kept one hand on the butt of his pistol and searched the shadows with night eyes. He neither saw nor heard anyone else as they moved along the trail. Moments later, they emerged into a wider area. The ceiling disappeared completely and the moon was visible again.

Aramis led his pony into a teardrop-shaped box canyon, its sheer granite walls streaked and worn from erosion. They had entered the canyon at the narrow end of the teardrop and the wolf stopped for a moment to look around. He saw signs of prior encampment in various spots within the ravine. There looked to be a small, natural spring to the left that pooled into a small natural basin, then overflowed and disappeared into another crack in the stone wall.

Thorne frowned. He had hoped the passageway would have been a way through the mountain, but instead it was a secluded spot for travelers to stop, rest and refill their water supply.

He sighed in frustration and started to turn back to the passage, but the pony tugged on the reins he held in one hand. Aramis pulled back on the leather straps, but once again, she resisted. Out of disgust, the wolf dropped the reins and started to walk out on his own, but the horse snorted to get his attention. When Aramis looked back to the pony, his equine companion began walking toward the far wall.

“If you want water, it's over there,” he said in a whispered voice that echoed quietly around the canyon. He pointed to the spring, but the pony ignored him and continued on. Thorne growled lowly and then followed with the intent to retrieve the reins. Every time he drew near, however, the pony trotted forward a few steps to stay out of his reach.

It was only when she had arrived at the far end of the canyon did she stop. Aramis grabbed her reins irritably and tugged to lead her back to the passage, but as before, she resisted and bobbed her head up and down.

“I don't have time for this,” Thorne growled. He made a grab for the pony's mane, but she trotted a few steps to the side, causing him to stumble. He caught himself and looked up at her disdainfully, but when she twitched her ears at him, the wolf finally saw it.

There, almost hidden by the weathered streaks in the muted night colors of the rock wall was an opening. It was not quite large enough for the pony to get inside comfortably, but the wolf would have plenty of room for passage. As with the trail before, he could see footprints in the sand leading up to the opening, showing clear signs of use. He looked up at the pony with a nod.

“You have been here before, haven't you?” he asked in a whisper. “Thank you.”

He took a tentative step inside the gap and saw a weathered wooden box on the floor of a passage that stretched on into the darkness. The box contained a number of small oil lamps with strikers, as well as several bottles of fuel oil. This was further proof the entrance had been frequently traveled.

Thorne stood very still and listened intently, but after a few moments, the only sound he could hear within the new passage was the occasional drip of water somewhere inside. He turned back to the pony and nodded appreciatively to her.

“I'm afraid you won't be able to go any farther with me,” he said quietly, “but if you have been here before, you already knew that.” He took her reins, led her toward the spring, and this time she followed willingly. At the water's edge, he dipped a hand into the cool liquid and took a drink of water just as sweet to the taste as the pool had been at the foxes' camp. He pulled his canteen from his pack and refilled it after drinking to satisfaction.

After he put his things back in order, Aramis reached up, pulled the pack, his walking staff, and blanket from the pony's back, and then set them down in the sand. He removed the reins and bit from her mouth, and patted her gently on the side of her broad neck.

“I have appreciated your company,” he said, “but now we must part.” He looked around the box canyon and nodded to himself. “I am sure your previous companions will find you again soon. This place looks well-visited, so you shouldn't have long by yourself.” He then opened the pony's grain sack and set it on the ground next to the well.

The pony rubbed her nose against the side of his head and he got the impression that she would be all right without him. Aramis gave her another pat and then took off his cloak. He strapped the pack to his back and then put the garment over it again. He took another glance around the canyon when he bent down to retrieve his staff and then walked back to the new passageway. This time, the pony didn't follow him, but watched him enter the tunnel with large brown eyes.

The lantern Aramis picked up was full of fuel oil. He spread his palm across the striker wheel and gave it a grinding whirl. A spark ignited the saturated wick after his third try and it bathed the stone passageway in cool amber light. He lifted it and studied his surroundings. The floor was sandy and level, but littered with broken rock. The walls were close enough together that he could have touched both sides at the same time, but the ceiling above him was higher than he could tell in the dim light. There was a faint, constant breeze blowing through the tunnel, a good sign there was another exit somewhere ahead.

He fitted the handle ring of the lantern into the jaws of the wolf at the top of his staff and then held it out in front of him as he started up the passageway. The way was straight for a hundred paces and then it began to twist and turn. At times, the passage became narrower at head-level so that he had to duck his head down and walk a few steps hunched over. He noticed a steady incline to the walkway, and despite the meandering of the tunnel, it maintained a relatively straight direction into the heart of the mountain. He could hear an occasional squeaking overhead, but no bats dropped into his path to bother him.

He walked for a little over two hours before the floor became level again, but he saw no sign of the opposite end. He checked the fuel oil and was pleased to find that very little of it had burned away. The liquid was a slow-burning fuel for which he was grateful. Footprints were plentiful in the sand, and he maintained vigilance throughout his hike, but he detected no other travelers along the way. Twice he crossed over underground streams filled with pale white fish, but his walk had been pleasant in the cool passage and he maintained a full canteen without the need to sip from it.

As he neared the completion of his fourth hour, Aramis saw the soft glow of yellow light up ahead. He slowed his pace and strained all his senses to detect the presence of anyone who might lie in wait for him at the tunnel's exit, but for all he could tell he was still alone. The scent of salt water touched his nose and the curl of a smile crept onto the edges of his lips. The Herdantian Sea!

Aramis stopped and swished his tail in puzzlement. How had he known that? He had no memory of a Herdantian Sea, but the name had leapt forward in his memory, just as the name of Hoenix had come to him in the city where he had awakened. He concentrated hard for several moments, but there were no more surfacing memories. Apparently, they would come to him in trickles. He frowned and started forward again, but within a few steps, the beginnings of a smile crossed his face once again.

There was a bend in the passage and he could feel warmer air across his nose. He lowered the lantern to the floor, extinguished its flame, and then moved forward with the staff ready in front of him. There was no one there to accost him, but he slipped a hand onto the pistol in his waistband beneath his cloak as he stepped out into the first rays of light. The morning sun had peaked above a range of mountains to his right and he smiled widely at the sight that lay below him.

He had exited out onto a trail halfway up a mountain that overlooked a small valley on the edge of the sea. A sprawling city occupied a crescent shaped valley, with a seaport on the northwest end of the bay and a launch facility paralleling it on the northeast end. As he watched, a cigar-shaped vessel with old-style rocket fins launched from the spaceport and angled off across the mountains, a vapor trail following in its wake.

His eyes followed the ship until it disappeared behind a large stone cliff to his right; it looked like a natural rock formation of rose granite and red sandstone, but its shape reminded him of a castle that towered over the city below. Another name floated up out of his memory as he peered at it: Castelrosso, otherwise known as the Red Castle in the language of the Terrans that had first settled there.

Castelrosso!  The foxes had mentioned that place name. He squinted and focused on the top of the parapet formations, but saw no movement as he would have with an actual fortress. Weatherworn caves dotted the cliffs of the mountains that bordered the sea, and hills covered mostly with grasses and shrubs, but very few actual trees surrounded the city. He could see that plant life was plentiful in the valley and he could hear various birdsongs in the temperate air. The position of the morning sun told him the bay faced due north.

Aramis glanced down at the trail at his feet and saw that it meandered down the mountainside directly toward the city, intersecting with other trails across the terrain. With a lighter heart, he repositioned the pack on his back beneath his cloak and began walking down the trail.

Sounds from the city reached his ears as he descended the mountainside. The town was waking up with the morning. Another ship took off from the spaceport and he could see a huge tanker moored out in the bay as a small watercraft made its way toward it from a distant pier. Automobiles moved along the streets and he could see people beginning their day.

He stiffened when he noted a pair of canines walking up a side trail toward him. The teenage boy and girl were dressed in shorts and tee shirts, and armed with nothing more than a canteen each. They both gave him a polite smile as they passed him and then resumed their idle chatter. Aramis watched them out of the corner of his eye, but neither seemed further interested in him. He eased his finger from the trigger of his pistol and released the breath he had been holding.

As he neared the closest of the buildings to his trail, he noted there were many different species among the increasing activity along the streets. He was comfortable with this knowledge, although many of those he saw appeared a little rough around the edges. He had the distinct feeling that he had arrived in a seedy part of town. Due to the growing number of people in the area, he removed his hand from the pistol in his waistband beneath his cloak and instead held onto his staff with a firm grip.

The trail emptied out onto a sidewalk between two buildings made of large tan bricks and grey mortar. Weathered shutters folded back beside barred windows covered by torn awnings suggested occasional strong storms, understandable for a city beside a bay. He moved out to the main street and several people stared suspiciously at his desert garments and walking staff, though they kept moving. He glanced up and down the thoroughfare. Now that he had finally reached civilization, he had no idea what he should do next.

A rumbling in his stomach answered that question for him. He needed food and then a place to stay until he could form a course of action. He appeared to be in a residential section in serious need of urban renewal, but the smell of morning cooking was becoming stronger in his nostrils. He crossed the street toward another side road and decided to follow his nose.

He walked for two blocks and then came out on a major avenue where the breakfast aromas were strongest. He looked to the right and saw a combination restaurant and hotel several doors away. It looked to be as good as any other he might find, so he made his way past opening storefronts toward it.

He walked into the lobby of The Crusty Barnacle Hotel and Restaurant and decided he needed to clean up before he had breakfast. The scuffed, wooden floor echoed his booted footsteps in the otherwise quiet room as he made his way around furniture that had seen better days. Several canines, a coyote, and a pair of rabbits watched him as he walked through the room, but he paid them no more than a glance to mark their positions.

A black cat with one white ear and a rotund middle behind the counter took a drink from a beer can, belched, and wiped his sleeve across his mouth before he got up from his chair. He looked up at the taller wolf and grunted.  “What kin I getcha?” he asked. “Food or a room?”

“Both.” Aramis said in a low voice as he leaned his staff against the counter. “First the room so I can clean up.”

“Right-o,” said the feline. “The room is ten credits a night, first night in advance.”

Thorne fished a coin from his pocket and set it on the counter. “I don't have any credits on me,” he said quietly. “Will this do?”

The cat's green eyes widened when he saw the gold coin. He leaned forward for a closer look, but didn't touch it. He looked up at the stranger with sudden fear and he swallowed hard. Thorne frowned at him and rested both hands on the counter.

“Well?” he asked.

The cat swallowed again and then slid a pen and an open register book toward him. “Sign in, p-please.” Aramis wrote his borrowed name on the first empty line and then set the pen down.

When the cat read the name, his eyes grew even wider and his twitching tail began to fuzz. He reached for a box mounted to the wall behind him and plucked a key with a plastic tag on a string from a hook. He set it on the counter next to the coin. “R-room number n-nine,” he said shakily. “Up the stairs and t-to the right.” Thorne picked up the key with a nod of his head, but was curious why the clerk hadn't taken the coin. He left it on the counter where he had put it and then turned back toward the lobby with his staff.

The coyote watched him with steady eyes, but the others pretended to be interested in other things. Thorne scowled at him and then moved to the stairs. The steps creaked as he ascended to the second floor. Room number nine was the first door he saw to his right. An antique bench decorated the hallway beside his door, its long cushion upholstered in a faded flower print.  He unlocked the door and then switched on the interior lights.

The small room contained only two pieces of furniture, a bed that looked too short for his length and a lamp table beside it that was missing its lamp. The bedding on the bunk appeared to be clean, at least. He stepped inside and locked the door behind him so he could look around. The closet was empty save for a single hanger, and the floorboards beneath it looked loose. The room did have its own toilet, shower and sink, but it would be close quarters in the closet-sized area. Two threadbare towels sat folded on the edge of the sink.

He walked to a barred window and opened the shutters to the outside. There was no glass in its frame and the view only faced the wall of the next building across a dark alley. He closed the shutters and latched them tight.

Thorne moved back to the closet and set the staff in a corner. He removed his dusty cloak, hung it on the single hanger, and then knelt down on to the floor. The wolf pulled out his knife and set its point at the edge of a floorboard that minutely stuck up above the others. He worked at it for a moment and then the board lifted up with a small creak of small nails.

He hooked his fingers beneath the edge of the wooden plank and pulled it free of the flooring. As he expected, there was a space of six inches between his floor and the ceiling of the room below. He removed his small pack of provisions and eased it into the opening. It filled up the space completely and then he put the floorboard back into place. He still had some of the gold coins in his pants pocket. From the reaction of the clerk downstairs, he felt sure he could trade a few of them for standard currency at a local bank or coin shop, but he knew it wouldn't be wise to carry his entire stash with him.

When he stood up again, none of the floorboards looked out of place and he sheathed his knife. His stomach growled again, but he first wanted a shower to clean the dust from his fur before eating. He yawned widely and stretched his arms. He had been traveling all night and was in need of rest. Once he was clean, fed and had some sleep, Thorne would decide what to do next.

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.