— by Ted R. Blasingame
Jason stormed down the dimly lit corridor, his mood as black as his rough fur. He growled at everyone he met, but resisted the urge to snap at them. Even had he not moved like a dark thundercloud, those he encountered were already ill at ease from their defeat by a simple freighter that hadn't even fired a shot at them. None of them yet knew the failure was due to a poor decision by their captain, but it would only be a matter of time before the crew found out.
As the first officer walked, he began to calm down. Thorne had called him by his old nickname in front of the bridge crew. Had the captain meant to reveal their association, or had it been a slip of the tongue in anger? Jason, or Duster as the crew of the Silverthorne had known him, had served Aramis Thorne for three years. Their small band had enjoyed successes under Thorne's command, but the grey wolf hadn't been acting quite like himself since taking over the Finsternis. He hadn't shown even the slightest hint of recognition when they'd met in the sea cavern, something that had really surprised him.
The last time they'd seen one another was on the bridge of the Silverthorne just moments before an explosion in the engine compartment ripped apart their vessel. Due to the resulting news coverage, Jason had known Thorne had survived the destruction, but didn't think the captain had been aware that he and Chance had lived through it as he had, though Chance was still having trouble breathing without assistance. Since Thorne had shown no surprise at seeing the black wolf again, he could only surmise that the captain had already known.
Still, it didn't add up. If Aramis had been aware that he still lived, why didn't he try to contact him afterward? Granted, they'd had their share of arguments, but he never thought it would have amounted to leaving him on the sidelines when Thorne had teamed up with Randon.
Jason shook his head and shoved his hands into his pockets. Thorne must really have a complicated plan in motion, since nothing else made sense. Whatever it was, he hoped he would find out soon enough. If not, it was unlikely the Hoenix would survive very long under Thorne's command.
He looked up when Dallas bumped into him coming out of the infirmary. She looked up with moist eyes and then swallowed hard.
“Uh oh,” the wolf murmured in sudden dread. The nurse shook her head without a word and stepped aside to let him by. Jason's eyes went to a gurney covered with a sheet, and he approached it in hesitation. He lifted up the edge and peered into the lifeless face of a golden retriever. Tirana's eyes were closed, but her face looked anything but peaceful, as if her final moment of life had been full of pain. Moisture leaked into the wolf's cheek fur and he bowed his head quietly. When he looked back at her a moment later, he reached out and stroked the soft fur behind her right ear before he dropped the sheet back into place.
He felt a presence beside him, but he didn't stir.
“Sir?” asked a voice.
Jason looked up into the black eyes of a Doberman. He wiped his cheeks and nodded. “Brian,” he acknowledged. “How are you?”
“I'll live. Just bumps and bruises,” the canine replied as he put a hand on the gurney. He swallowed lightly and then shook his head. “We lost our prey… and Tirana paid for it. Why?”
Jason set his jaw defiantly and put a hand on his friend's shoulder. “It was a bad judgment call,” he said, “A careless one.”
“Who made the call?”
“Who do you think?” the first officer replied bitterly.
Brian stared back at him and then the muscles in his throat went taut. “It was the captain,” the Doberman said tersely. Jason didn't reply, but the look in his eyes confirmed his supposition. Brian glanced back down at the sheet-covered body beside him and then whispered, “Mistakes are mistakes, but Thorne just killed one of our own. I'm going to make him—”
“Shhhhh!” they heard a voice say. “If those words leave your lips, it could be considered mutiny.” Brian and Jason looked at the diminutive nurse in unison. She walked back into the infirmary with a serious look on her face.
“Dallas, look at Tirana,” the Doberman said. “If not for him, she would still be alive.”
Despite her short stature, the Papillion gave him a menacing stare and crossed her arms. “Risks are part of the piratical life, aren't they?”
“Tirana knew there would be risks, the same as you. It's unfortunate that your prey chose to fight back instead of cowering in submission.”
Brian stared back at her darkly, but then his eyes softened after a moment. He nodded reluctantly. “You're right, of course,” he mumbled.
“You should be blaming the commander of that freighter,” Dallas added, “not Captain Thorne.”
Jason's expression didn't change, however. The smoldering fire in his eyes only strengthened. “There are risks, but there are also precautions,” he said. “The captain ignored a valid recommendation from his bridge crew and now Tirana is dead.”
“Is the captain clairvoyant?” Dallas asked him coldly.
The wolf sneered at her and spat back, “No, but he should be!” Without waiting for further practical arguments from the nurse, Jason turned on his heel and stormed back out into the corridor.
Brian stared after him for a moment and then sat down quietly on the stool next to the gurney. He looked into the nurse's brown eyes and said in a quiet voice, “I would rather have Jason as captain. At least he cares about his people.”
“I'm in no position of authority,” Dallas told him, “but remember that you signed a contract with Captain Thorne. If he made a mistake, he will learn from it, but you're obligated to follow his commands regardless.”
The Doberman glared at her and then gestured toward the still form under the sheet beside him. “Why are you defending him?” he asked curtly. “You just lost one of your patients to his carelessness!”
“I'm no less grieved by Tirana's death than you're, Brian, but read your contract. If you entertain ideas of mutiny, especially after only one incident, I'll probably have to hang a toe tag on you before long.”
Uncertainty crept into Brian's eyes and he slumped against the gurney. “You're right,” he said. “I know about Captain Thorne's reputation.”
Dallas put a hand on his shoulder. “Give it some time before you even think about doing anything,” she said. “Don't be hasty.”
The Doberman nodded quietly and then laid his head against Tirana's still form. He closed his eyes without saying anything more, and the nurse left him to tend the other patients in her care.
When Aramis Thorne turned around toward the others on the bridge, he found the four of them staring back at him in surprise. Farrell swallowed and made a quick glance toward the vacant doorway.
“Duster?” he asked in a quiet voice. “Jason… is Duster?!?”
“Yes,” the captain confirmed, “Mr. Talos is also known as Duster, my former pilot of the Silverthorne. Now, get Mr. Colfax on the horn.”
“The rest of you check your stations. Make sure you have control over your systems.”
“Aye sir,” the others said in unison.
The intercom chirped and Aramis picked up the microphone. “Bridge.”
“This is Colfax, Captain.”
“How soon until we can get underway?”
“Anytime, Captain, but we may reach Quet before our makeshift repairs from the inside are ready to enter the atmosphere.”
“Is Basil Station still in operation?”
“Hmm… I think so, but I admit I haven't been to Quet in several years.”
“If that old space station is still in orbit, we'll dock there until we can finish the external repairs.”
“There's not much we can do to the outer plates while we're in spatial warp, so that might be a viable stop.”
“Do what you can,” Thorne replied with a look around him. “There may be a change of plans before we get there anyway.”
“Aye, sir. The engines are at your disposal for departure at any time.”
“Thank you.” Thorne hung up the microphone and said to the bridge crew, “If your systems are okay, resume course.”
“Course to Quet still in the computer,” Miklos reported, double-checking the readings. “Adjustments in course to Basil Station will be recomputed thirty minutes before arrival to determine its orbital position.”
“Estimated time of arrival is two hours, ten minutes,” Mik replied.
“Reorienting to original course now,” Goro said.
Aramis watched the screen until the pale disc of Quet slid into view and then he rubbed his eyes. Now that the adrenaline rush of confrontation had diminished, he became aware of the throbbing at the base of his skull. He knew that he needed to sort out a few things before he made any more command decisions, especially now that his memories had returned and he remembered why his partnership with Randon had failed.
“Mr. Lightner,” he said wearily, “I'm going back to my cabin. Contact Mr. Colfax for anything short of an emergency.”
Thorne stepped out into the narrow passage and headed toward the cross-corridor that would take him back to his cabin. When he reached the corner, his way was blocked by a dark shape and he looked up into the yellow eyes of his first officer. Thorne began to step around him irritably, but the black-furred wolf moved quickly.
Talos brought his elbow up hard against the captain's jaw and then tried to put a fist into his stomach. Thorne was dazed from the blow to his jaw, but he instinctively snared the fist and wrenched it to the side without even thinking.
Jason let out an involuntary yelp of pain, but brought up his other fist and drove it down against the side of Thorne's face. Both of them stumbled back, but the captain recovered enough to launch himself at the other. The wolves collapsed to the deck as people began to gather in the narrow space to see what was going on.
Aramis knelt on top of Jason and pressed one knee into the middle of his chest. Jason gasped for air and tried to push him off, but Thorne slugged him hard. The grey wolf's knee slipped to the side and Aramis fell over against a metal wall, his equilibrium still off. Part of his head bandage slipped down into his eyes and he struggled with it while Talos gasped for breath.
Thorne started to get up on his knees, but Jason kicked out and caught the side of the captain's snout. Aramis fell over backward over the feet of two canines that had crowded into the corridor to witness the fight of their senior officers.
Talos rolled over to get up onto his hands and knees, but he began coughing from the ache in his chest. When he managed to get it under control, he saw Aramis standing up beside the wall, his legs unsteady beneath him. More spectators arrived and crowded around them, leaving neither of them any room to retreat.
Thorne put one hand to the wall to hold himself upright. He started toward his first officer with a deep growl. Jason readied his fists and prepared to launch himself at the captain, but the grey wolf was faster despite his injuries and pulled his pistol from its holster. He leveled the barrel of the automatic weapon just out of reach at Jason's forehead, glaring at him and breathing hard. His tail was up and his ears forward, presenting his position as alpha.
Someone shoved through the crowded corridor and stopped out in the front. Dallas' eyes grew wide at the harried condition of the two wolves and swallowed hard at the sight of the pistol. She knew enough about guns to note that the safety was off and the captain's finger was hard up against the trigger.
“Stop!” she shouted. She started forward, but Thorne swung his free hand up and pointed it at her without taking his eyes from his adversary.
“Dallas, stay where you're,” he commanded. The nurse stopped and swallowed hard as the wolf's eyes bore into the first officer. “Now, Mr. Talos,” he said in a scratchy voice, “give me a reason why I shouldn't put a bullet into your brain for mutiny.”
Jason laid his ears back and dropped his gaze to the floor. He didn't reply to the captain's words, but he did relax the muscles in his legs and let his tail lay limp on the floor beside him.
Brian pushed his way through the crowd until he stepped out beside Dallas. He saw the situation and took a tentative step forward, but the Papillion put out a hand and stopped him with a touch.
“Aramis,” Jason said in a low voice, “I served under you on the Silverthorne and we had a successful business, but those days are over.” There was a collective intake of breath from those gathered in the narrow corridor. Most of them expected an immediate gunshot report, but Thorne didn't to anything more than continue to stare at him furiously. “You have changed,” Jason added as he looked up at the captain. “You no longer know how to lead.”
“Stand up,” Thorne said tonelessly. The madness in his eyes had abated somewhat, but there was no doubt in anyone's mind who saw them that he was still quite dangerous.
As Jason slowly got to his feet, Thorne kept the barrel of his pistol trained directly between the black wolf's eyes. “Mr. Bova,” he said with a growl.
“Yes sir?” the Doberman responded.
“Escort Mr. Talos to the cargo hold and wait for me there.” Brian exchanged glances with Jason and then he nodded to the captain.
“Aye, sir,” he said.
Jason tilted his head to the side to cast a questioning look at Thorne, but when he received no response, he turned and pushed his way through the crowd with Brian behind him.
Aramis relaxed his arm, thumbed the safety on his pistol and then walked deliberately to an intercom microphone. He thumbed a white button beside the station and then keyed the mike. “All hands, all hands,” he broadcast in a ship-wide message. “Stop whatever you're doing and gather on the cargo deck. Bridge, put the systems on automatic with sensor alarms, and get down there too. I repeat, all hands are to gather on the cargo deck – this means everyone. Right now.”
He shut off the connection and immediately the circuit chirped at him. He thumbed a different button and raised the microphone back to his mouth. “What is it?” he growled.
“Errol here, Captain. What's going on? My people are in the middle of repairs and can't get away from what they're doing.”
“Mr. Colfax,” Thorne said irritably, “when I said All Hands, I meant everyone.”
There was a long pause before the Labrador answered. “Aye, Captain... Give me a few minutes to get them out of the crawl spaces.”
When Thorne hung up the microphone, he looked around and noted that the small crowd was still gathered nearby. He leveled an arm in the direction that Jason and Brian had taken and then shouted, “Move!”
Bodies scrambled quickly past him and he was finally alone. No, upon second glance, he wasn't alone. A solitary figure stared out at him from the dim corridor.
Thorne opened his mouth, but his tirade caught in his throat when he realized it was the younger grey wolf. He gestured him closer and raised an eyebrow. The supply clerk stepped forward, his gaze questioning.
“What happened?” he asked quietly.
Thorne shook his head and ignored the question to ask one of his own. “Cinjin,” he spoke in a calmer voice, “where is your mother?”
The question took the youth by surprise, as it didn't have anything to do with the current situation, but he looked up into the captain's eyes with a guarded expression. “I don't know,” he said quietly. “She didn't always tell me when she was leaving. I haven't seen her since we were in Hoenix.”
“You never did get along with her very well, did you?”
Cinjin shook his head after a brief hesitation and admitted, “Not even when I was a pup. I've always preferred to be near you instead.”
Aramis nodded absently, the wheels of thought turning in his mind. He set his jaw after a moment and then looked back at the younger wolf when the bridge crew approached in the corridor. “Time to settle affairs,” he said.
“The bridge is secure and on automatic activity,” Goro reported when he saw the wolves.
“Very good,” Thorne replied.
“What's going on?” Miklos asked as he fell in step behind the coyote. The captain didn't respond to his question, so the terrier shrugged his shoulders and continued walking. Aramis waited until everyone had passed and then he gestured to Cinjin.
“Let's go,” he said. The supply clerk followed behind Crandall, who glanced over her shoulder at the captain with a frown.
“May I speak?” she asked quietly.
Thorne raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Keep it short,” he replied.
“Is it wise to leave the bridge unattended?” she asked.
“So long as the sensor alarms are active to alert us to trouble, the bridge will be fine for what we need to do,” the wolf answered.
“What is it we need to do?” Miklos tried again as he turned the corner that would take them to the lift. A small crowd stood by, waiting their turn to descend.
“I will explain momentarily,” Thorne replied as he bypassed the lift and went to an adjacent ladder. He stepped into the shaft and climbed down to the lower levels. Mik and Goro exchanged looks and then followed their leader.
Crandall pulled Cinjin to the side and whispered, “What's going on?”
“The captain didn't tell me his plans,” the young wolf replied.
“What were you two talking about?” the gunner pressed him. “Surely he must confide in you.”
Cinjin gave her a strange look. “Why would he confide in me?” he asked. “I'm only a supply clerk.”
“Because you're both wolves,” the husky said with her hands on her hips. She looked at him as if her statement had been too obvious to mention.
“Do you think that matters to him?” Cinjin asked in a quiet whisper. “He doesn't even confide in his first officer, and they used to serve together.”
“Okay then, what were you two talking about?”
Cinjin was growing intimidated by her whispered interrogation. “He asked me about my mother,” he answered. “Nothing more.”
“Does he know your mother?” Crandall asked.
“You could say that,” the wolf replied. “He's married to her.”
Crandall looked at him in shock. “Then... that means....”
“Right,” Cinjin said with a shrug. “He's my father, but that doesn't give me any special privileges with him. Listen, everyone else has gone downstairs. If we want to know what he has planned, I suggest we go down there and see for ourselves.”
Crandall gave him a sour look, but nodded her head. “I suppose you're right.” Without another word, she stepped into the empty lift and beckoned him to join her.
When they reached the cargo hold a few moments later, all crew members of the Hoenix were standing in a circle around the captain.
Thorne noted their arrival and then looked around. “Is that everyone?” he asked. Several more bodies arrived and Aramis saw Colfax give him a nod. Thorne turned and located Jason and Brian who were quietly whispering to one another.
“Mr. Talos,” he said in a voice that carried throughout the hold. “Please join me out here in the circle.”
Jason glanced around the assembled crew and then stepped out hesitantly toward the captain. He stopped a few paces away from the grey wolf, his tail down and ears lowered.
Thorne reached for his holster and pulled out the pistol. Jason looked alarmed and voices murmured throughout the crowd. Am I about to be publicly executed? the first officer thought to himself.
“Mr. Ringo!” Thorne said.
“Here, Cap'n,” called the beagle's voice. He walked out of the crowd and nervously wiped his hands on his cooking apron. When he neared the wolf, Aramis held the firearm out to him, handle-first.
“Hold this for me,” the captain said. “Let no one else touch it.”
“Aye, sir!” Ringo took the pistol in relief and then faded back into the crowd as all eyes watched the two wolves in the center arena.
“Mr. Talos doesn't accept my authority as captain of this ship and crew,” Thorne announced in a carrying voice. “Going against his word and his contract, he has challenged me for command.” The room had fallen completely silent, and Jason continued to look around nervously.
“Mutiny… is punishable by death,” Thorne continued. “However, I am aware there are a number of you who would also prefer either Mr. Talos or Mr. Colfax in command instead of me. The difference is that rather than acting upon the risk of a death sentence for mutiny, you have remembered your places under contract.”
Thorne looked around at the faces surrounding him and could see it in their eyes. “Under naval law established centuries ago, I would be within my right to execute Mr. Talos right now, but I am sure others would begin plotting my demise once his body hit the deck.” He turned and fixed his piercing stare at the black wolf.
“Before this vessel can function properly, there must be authority and order, so I am prepared to take on Mr. Talos' challenge right here and now for command of the Hoenix.” Whispers and murmurs broke out in the gathered crowd and Jason looked up in surprise at Thorne.
“This is between Mr. Talos and me,” Thorne said. “Nobody interferes, nobody interrupts… and nobody quits until one of us surrenders or is dead.” He spat the last word with particular venom, his steely gaze locked on his opponent.
”No! I won't allow this!” Dallas shouted. The little Papillion stepped out into the circle, but the grey wolf whirled toward her furiously.
“Shut up and get back!” he bellowed. The nurse cowered at the sudden ferocity in his eyes and did as she was told. Thorne turned back to Jason and began to unbutton his shirt. “You tried to take me down in a secluded corridor,” he said. “If you had succeeded, would you have killed me before taking command?”
Jason stood up straight, but shook his head. “No, I've known you too long and too well to take a coward's way out. I would have only locked you up out of the way until we could dump you off on Quet.”
”You should have intended to kill me,” the captain said to him in an almost conversational tone. “Betrayal is the worst kind of cowardice because you don't have the courage to stab someone in the front. Need I remind you what happened to Grunhido Da Aranha?”
Jason looked surprised, but then his expression grew dark. “I remember Grunhido...” he growled.
Thorne tossed his shirt to the side and pulled the wrap from his head. He ignored the throbbing at the base of his skull and gave his former pilot his full attention. He walked casually to Talos and stood close before his shipmate. For a long time the two shared an icy, vengeful glance, neither moving nor taking his eye off the other. The others in the room could sense the tension rising between them as each waited for the other to move. Someone coughed. Talos broke his gaze and Thorne slammed a fist into his jaw.
Jason reeled around, taken by surprise. Still somewhat dazed from their earlier encounter, he stumbled over his feet, but somehow managed to stay upright. Ambling up, he faced the captain squarely and feigned a right hook, sweeping down as he kicked up and out, slamming his heel into the wolf's breast and sending him across the floor to collapse in a pile of limbs.
Thorne whirled up, launching himself at Jason, and grappled with him to the ground. The pair struggled intensely, Thorne crushing his opponent in a bear hug that threatened to crack the smaller one's ribs. Jason gasped for air… it was all he could do to keep breathing with those huge thews squeezing the life out of him. Grinding his teeth, he saw an opening and slammed the flat of his hand against Thorne's wounded and bleeding head.
Aramis' vision went white with blinding pain, and his grip slackened enough for Jason to deliver a second blow to the head. Thorne rolled away, dazed, and Talos took a quick moment to catch his breathe in deep gasps. The pair began to notice the calls and cries of those around them—mostly boos and jeers that Jason had taken such a cheap shot at the already wounded captain.
Thorne started to turn back to him, so Jason kicked out at him. The toe of his boot caught the captain in the shoulder and Aramis fell backward against the deck. Jason knew that if Thorne were to get a moment to regain his senses, the black wolf wouldn't get another chance. He got up on his knees and drove a punch into Thorne's side.
Fortunately for Aramis, there hadn't been much power behind the punch due to the angle from which Jason had thrown it. Instead of disabling the captain, it only caused him minor discomfort. Thorne rolled away from the first officer and willed himself to stand up, albeit shakily.
He allowed Jason to get to his feet in front of him, but before the black wolf could gather himself, Thorne stepped forward, feinted with one fist, and then slugged Jason's right cheek with the other. Talos spun around and fell back to his knees. Thorne kicked his left hip bone and knocked him over hard. Jason closed his eyes in pain, but didn't want to remain there on the floor.
He got up on his hands and knees and glared back at the captain wearily. Thorne grimaced from his own pains and looked as if he might fall over at any moment. Aramis motioned for him to get up again.
Jason kept one good eye trained on the grey wolf as he stood up. He raised both fists and approached the captain, his jaw set defiantly. He swung a fist at Thorne, but the commander snatched the extended wrist. Aramis turned quickly and twisted the arm hard. Jason yelled out in pain and yanked his hand back to his chest. It was the same wrist injured in their earlier scuffle.
Thorne had trouble breathing, but he had to end this quickly. Jason cradled his injured wrist against him, and that gave Aramis an opening for one last attack before he might collapse. He punched Talos once in the stomach, and when the black wolf doubled over, Thorne brought his other fist up against Jason's jaw.
The first officer dropped to his knees and rolled over onto his side, coughing fitfully with his eyes clenched shut.
Thorne stood over Jason, his chest heaving as he panted. He clenched both fists, but he knew there was no strength left in them. His head throbbed, muscles all over his body ached, and he knew that he wouldn't be able to go on much longer. The crowd around them had fallen silent, all eyes watching for the outcome of the challenge.
Jason coughed again and rubbed a hand over his face. One eye was swollen shut and blood dribbled from his nostrils. He felt disoriented, dizzy and short of breath, but when he looked around the quiet faces surrounding them, he felt he had to do something, strength to do it or not. He tried to get up, but his left wrist wouldn't support his weight. He lay back again and then looked up at the grey wolf standing over him. The captain looked as bad as he felt, but now that it had come down to the end, it was Thorne who was still standing.
Jason licked his swollen lips and swallowed. “Sir,” he said in a hoarse voice, “I submit… I am at… your mercy.”
Aramis stared at him for a moment and then relaxed the tension in his fists. “Are you going to follow my orders?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” Jason replied through thick lips.
The captain nodded again and then extended a hand to the black wolf. “I accept your submission,” he said. Jason took his hand gladly and Aramis helped him to his feet, as much as his own strength would allow. Thorne didn't smile, but there was a hint of respect for the black wolf in his expression. He stared at him for a long moment and then gave him a slight nod. “You will resume your duties as soon as you're able.”
“Aye, sir,” Jason answered in relief. He had been sure that if he'd lost the challenge, he might be either jettisoned from an airlock or dumped out on Quet to fend for himself. He hadn't expected leniency from the captain. Aramis Thorne had changed.
Thorne stepped out toward the center of the circle and looked around at his assembled crew. “Does anyone else intend to challenge me for the Hoenix?” he said in a raised voice. “I am tired and vulnerable right now… an easy target.”
Not one voice uttered a single word, and no one stepped forward. When he peered around the crowd at the faces, eyes dropped in submission. Only Colfax returned his gaze fully, but he merely gave the captain a wink and shook his head. The wolf nodded in return and then looked again at his people.
“Right, then,” he said aloud. “This matter is closed. Remember your places and go back to what you were doing.”
Almost immediately, the crowd turned and began to disperse amidst murmurs of sudden discussion. Dallas rushed forward and stopped before Aramis and Jason. She shook her head disapprovingly and then pointed toward the crowded lift.
“I want you both in my infirmary, right now,” she commanded with one hand on her hip. The two wolves looked at one another and exchanged looks of weary amusement.
“Yes, ma'am,” they said to her in unison. The short Papillion turned and led them toward the crowd. They followed as ordered.
“Sir,” Jason said quietly to the captain, “You will have no more trouble from me. I don't think anyone else will challenge you either.”
“That's good to know,” Aramis replied. “Duster, I'm just as sorry as you are for our losses, but I need you with me, not against me.”
Jason looked at him with new respect. “I am with you, sir.”
Thorne turned to see Ringo approach. The captain's pistol lay flat across the palms of both hands as he held it up to him. “Here is your firearm, sir.”
“I don't think Dallas will let me have it in her infirmary,” he said as he tried to manage a wink. The action was painful, so he nodded instead. “Please stow it in my quarters.”
“Aye, sir, I will,” the beagle responded. Ringo put the pistol in the large pocket of his cooking apron and then waited in line behind them for the lift.
A half hour later, Aramis closed the door to his cabin behind him. His head was bandaged once again and he had been treated for numerous cuts and bruises. Fortunately for him, he had broken no bones, but Jason hadn't been so lucky. His left wrist was broken in two places with minor fractures.
Thorne's head throbbed, despite the medication Dallas had given him, and he wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest. He kicked off his boots, struggled out of his shirt, and then shut off the light. He lay flat on his back and gently put his head down on his pillow with closed eyes.
An hour later, he heaved a heavy sigh. Despite his physical exhaustion, he had been unable to sleep. His mind was just too active. With a groan, he sat up and turned on a table lamp. He cast an accusing glare at the black box on the bedside table and then reached for the pistol that Tyler had set on top of it.
He picked up the gun and released the ammo clip into his palm. All the rounds were there, but he felt suspicious. He flipped the ammunition out into his hand until the clip was empty and then leaned over toward the lamp.
Upon each round was a tiny mark he had made with the tip of a knife several nights ago. The scratch extended from the brass casing onto the lead bullet and was barely noticeable. Had they been tampered with or replaced, the mark would have been mismatched or missing altogether. Satisfied they were the original rounds, Thorne reloaded the clip and shoved it back into the handle.
Setting the firearm aside, he then pulled the locked black box over to him. He made himself get up and go to his closet. He reached into a pocket of his old travel cloak and pulled out the tiny key that had fit the locks on his cases in the sacrificial pit. He took it back to the box and unlocked it.
Aramis sat down on the bed and put the box in his lap. He picked up the first thing he saw, a photograph. The scene was a green park beside a blue lake in the springtime on Dennier. Calla trees were in full bloom and their orange blossoms littered the ground. Standing beside the huge trunk of a gnarled old tree were four wolves and a cougar. Aramis and his wife, Scarlet stood with their arms around one another. Their ten-year-old son stood beside them, staring up at them despite the camera. Next to Cinjin was another lupine woman who had been Scarlet's lifelong friend. Despite the piratical life they led, Jenda followed Scarlet everywhere, hoping that one day she would find her own life mate. Finishing off the group was a broad-shouldered cougar who smiled straight at the camera. Zef Randon.
Aramis stared at Randon's face for a long time before he set it aside. Their lifelong trust and understanding had come to a test, and the resulting split caused the wolf's brow to furrow. He wished things had turned out differently, but it was unlikely that something like a sell-out could be mended between them.
There were several more photos in the box and he studied them all one by one. Despite being at the bottom of Castle Bay for the past two months, there was no sign that water had ever penetrated the seal of the container. The last photo was a group portrait of him and the crew of the Silverthorne. Despite the local reputation he had made for himself in Castelrosso, his throat constricted at the sight of his former crew. Of those who had served with him there, the only known survivors were Duster and himself. He hadn't even known Duster had lived through it until his memories had returned and he discovered that it was his own first officer of the Hoenix. His memories prior to the sacrificial pit had all finally returned, but he also remembered the events since as well.
He cleared his throat and set the photos on the mattress beside him. He reached into the box and pulled out a worn, hardcover notebook held together with an elastic band. He removed the band and opened up to the notes that had become the beginning of the end between him and Randon.
Aramis Thorne had long been fascinated with the histories of the various civilizations around the Planetary Alignment. He had never heard of Hoenix or King Chaaq when he'd first arrived in Castelrosso, but after hearing tales of its legends, he had become infatuated with finding out all he could. He never dreamed he would actually find the lost city, but he had been obsessed in his research. Over the years, the enthusiasm had died, but he always kept an eye or ear out for any morsel of information that might come his way. Handwritten notes from his studies filled the notebook.
Randon had long been aware of the wolf's fascination with the lost city, and had used this to his advantage when word of an expedition to locate its ruins spread throughout Castelrosso by men associated with a human named Victor Faltane.
Aramis grunted at the memories and dropped the notebook back into the box. There were other personal items inside, but he didn't feel like reminiscing further tonight. He put the photos in on top of the notes and then closed and locked the lid. He slid the box beneath his bunk and then shut out the light.
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