Return to the Library

HOENIX

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 13
 

             Aramis Thorne could see neither the cougar nor his ship from the obstructing garden around the sacrificial pit, but he recognized the voice that echoed off the mountainside. The top of his snout wrinkled in anger and disgust as he looked over at his first officer.

“Zef Randon,” he growled.

Jason pulled out his pistol and checked the ammo clip. “He has lousy timing,” the black wolf growled back. He took off running toward the path where Goro and Miklos had gone, keeping his head low.

“Help me move the crate,” Thorne said to Farrell and Karla. Crandall joined the captain at the handles while Farrell pushed with all this strength on the side of the box. Between the three of them, they managed to scoot the sturdy plastic container across the flagstones and into the evergreen shrubs, where no one who might venture into the garden would see it.

Farrell leaned against the heavy box and gulped for air as Karla panted in the heat. Thorne blinked several times to gather his strength and then pulled his pistol from its holster. He looked at the Siberian husky and held up his firearm. “After snubbing him in Castelrosso, I had a feeling Faltane might recall the Cliffhanger from whatever mission it was on,” he said in a quiet voice. “However, I had hoped we would have had time to get the treasure away from the city before he arrived. I wasted too much time by going to Quet.”

“What do we do now?” Farrell asked.

“You two should get out of sight,” the wolf replied, “but don't leave the crate unguarded. I'm going after Randon.”

“Aye, sir,” Crandall said quietly. She checked the ammo clip of her gun and then moved off toward the bushes on the opposite side of the garden. Farrell nervously pulled out his pistol and went to find a hiding place of his own.

Thorne didn't wait to see where the pair hid out, but turned immediately and slipped further into the thick evergreen bushes. On the other side of the greenery was a two-meter drop to a small alley behind the buildings that held the tombs of the dead. He launched himself over the embankment and landed lightly on his feet, his gun held ready in case he was spotted.

Back up on the trail, Jason crept out of the cover of the shrubs and darted across the cliff to join Goro and Miklos. The cougar below watched the movement patiently and then called again when the wolf had reached his comrades. He couldn't see his old partner, but knew he must be nearby.

“Thorne!” he shouted through cupped hands. “Faltane has agreed to ignore your betrayal if you hand over the gold!”

Miklos cursed beneath his breath and fired a wild shot down into the arena. The bullet ricocheted off a stone bench seat to the right of Randon, forcing the cougar to dive for cover. The shot echoed off the granite cliff face and Jason grabbed the terrier by the shoulder.

“Well, that's that,” grumbled the first officer. “There'll be no getting out of this without a fight now.”

Miklos glared at him, but just as he opened his mouth to retort, a short bobcat popped out of the vessel's airlock and opened up with a rapid-fire gun. A hail of bullets spattered the cliff and the trail beneath it with a bull-fiddle moan. Mik, Goro and Jason scattered frantically for cover. Dirt and broken rock pelted the trio, but they were miraculously unhurt by the barrage.

Another gunshot echoed across the arena and the bobcat dropped his gun with a cry. He clutched his right arm and dove back inside the dark blue ship. Jason peered across the amphitheatre and saw Derek Ravenwood lower his pistol to crawl back behind the cover of a stone table set up near the upper tier of the arena. He saw more movement and recognized others from the Hoenix converging on the area from the city.

An orange striped cat poked his head out of the airlock, but retreated just as quickly when someone else took a shot at him. Pockmarks appeared in the metal frame beside the hatch where the feline's nose had been a second earlier.  

*** 

Out of sight from Thorne's crew, Randon moved through the interior corridors beneath the amphitheatre. He had been there before, but hadn't spent enough time to know his way around. He knew there were steps that lead up to the buildings overlooking the arena, but he couldn't seem to find them again in the darkness without a flashlight. His keen night eyes should have had enough light filtering in from the arena to see, but dodging a bullet to jump inside hadn't left him enough time for his eyes to adjust to the darker interior.

He considered going back out into the arena to work his way up the stone bleachers to the upper tiers, but from the sound of multiple gunshots outside, he knew he'd likely be picked off before he could make it to the top.  

*** 

Aramis shielded his eyes from the sunlight and scowled at the unbroken backside of the granite buildings. Gunshots echoed off the mountain and he heard a shout of indistinctive words. His eyes were alert to movement while he searched for a back way into the buildings. He had to skirt around several small boulders that had fallen from above at some point in the past and he almost missed it.

A lone doorway was partially ajar behind one of the boulders and he had to scramble over the top of the large rock to drop down inside. When he came down on his right foot, he hit the edge of a step and almost tumbled out into the darkness. He snared the edge of the door frame with an out-flung hand and steadied himself with wide eyes.

The wolf remained motionless for a moment to let his vision adjust to the darkness. He hadn't seen a set of stairs descending into the depths, but they were now coming into focus. He hadn't intended to take steps down beneath the arena, but it would serve his purpose just as well. He listened for any sounds below him, but heard nothing.

With great caution, Aramis held his pistol ready and stepped down into the darkness. He would rely on his own night sight for as long as he could. He still had his flashlight torch, but refrained using it for the moment so as not to announce his presence to anyone who might be below. 

*** 

Cinjin Thorne eased around a street corner and looked up at the amphitheatre that towered above him. He could hear gunshots echoing around the buildings, but couldn't pinpoint where they came from. He had been inside one of the local structures and hadn't seen the dark blue vessel land in the arena, but he'd heard its thrusters kick in just as he had gone outside.

He had his pistol drawn, but doubted it would do much good if he had to use it. It was not a powerful weapon, but the small-caliber handgun had been the only thing available to him when he had left the ship. He saw no one in the street, so he chanced exposure and ran across the avenue to the nearest opening in the base of the amphitheatre. He reached it without incident and peered inside cautiously. 

*** 

A panel opened in the top of the Cliffhanger, and a pair of swivel-mounted gun turrets rose up vertically and then locked into place. The twin barrels spun around and fired off multiple shots at the trail up on the cliff. Miklos cried out when the ground exploded beside him. He clutched at his leg and saw a fresh gaping wound just below his knee. He groaned with the intense pain and felt suddenly light-headed.

Jason crawled forward with his head as low to the ground as he could get it. He reached out to help the navigator just as another volley passed overhead by mere inches and exploded on the cliff wall behind them. He covered Mik's leg with his body as dirt, rock and scrub brush rained down upon them. The gun turret then swiveled around to belch out its ordnance toward another canine sniper in the arena.

While the big guns were busy blasting away at the stone bleachers, two felines from the vessel escaped out the airlock and darted across the arena into a darkened doorway.  

*** 

Aramis chanced a brief moment with a hand-covered flashlight and confirmed what he had felt in the dark. The stone staircase had wound around until the outside light disappeared. He had felt his way further downward, only to find his way impeded by a wall after several level steps. The light of the flash that escaped through his fingers revealed a doorway much like the ones he had encountered inside the treasure antechamber, complete with a handle carved into the stone at waist level.

He extinguished the lamp and waited to let his eyes readjust to the darkness before trying the door. When he tugged on the handle, the balanced stone panel swung inward. He cautiously eased his nose through the opening and felt a sudden draft of air pour through the new opening. He saw a dim glow of light ahead and nodded silently to himself. He quietly closed the panel behind him and then crept along a long, narrow passage toward the light. He caught glimpses of other corridors in the periphery of his vision, but he continued on his way.

The sound of shouting and more gunfire increased as he neared the light, and for a brief moment, he saw two shadowy figures cross the light only a few meters in front of him. Their profiles suggested feline ancestry, so he backed into one of the side corridors out of sight.

One of the shadows stopped and sniffed the air, and then turned its head in his direction. Thorne cursed himself inwardly, suddenly conscious of the odor he must put off in this musty corridor. Both figures began to move his direction cautiously. They couldn't see him, but must have known he was there.

The wolf lifted his pistol, but then changed his mind. He didn't want to draw any more attention to himself than necessary, so he eased the gun back into the holster and withdrew both of his throwing knives instead.

He held one ready and raised the other as the pair approached his position. At that moment, Thorne's DataCom chirped and a frantic voice issued from its small speaker.

“Tanaka! A cheetah from the ship got past me and is heading in your direction! Be careful of her – she's fast!”

One of the felines jumped for his position and Thorne twisted aside just as the lion's claws missed his throat. He brought up a blade quickly, but just missed the attacker. The other assailant reached out and snared his upraised wrist, so Aramis thrust out his jaws and clamped them down hard upon the lynx's forearm.

The feline screeched in his ear and his partner uttered a string of curses at him. Thorne whipped his head around, dragging the injured lynx with him, and the two of them collided with a stone column. Aramis released the arm and drove a fist into the fellow's side.

He stepped backward quickly without realizing that a long, serrated blade sliced through the air right where his middle had been. He turned on his heel and ran for the light. If he had to fight the two of them, he wanted more light.

He took four great strides, and then a broad-shouldered cougar leaned out from behind another column and slugged him hard across the nose. Thorne spun around, but his momentum took him several steps away from the feline captain.

Thorne shook the sparks from his eyes and then looked up into the face of his adversary. He lay on his back in the middle of the floor, dazed from the blow. He could smell blood, but couldn't place whether it was his own or of the cat he had bitten.

Captain Randon stood over him, his feet planted wide apart and both fists balled up at his sides. He stared down at the wolf with narrowed eyes, almost daring him to get up and run.

“Aramis,” he said in a deep voice.

Thorne nodded and cleared his throat. “Zef,” he responded quietly. He made no move to get to his feet, so the cougar squatted down before him, his arms resting on his knees.

“It takes a lot of guts to betray your best friend,” Randon said in distain. “I wouldn't have believed it was in you, Aramis.” Thorne swallowed, but said nothing. Randon tilted his head to the side. “Have you nothing to say for yourself?”

“You sold yourself to that human,” Thorne spat finally.

“Faltane financed our expedition,” Randon corrected him quietly.

“You didn't tell me about your association with him until after we got here,” Thorne growled as he got up onto his knees and wiped blood from his nose. “You would have never found Hoenix if it hadn't been for my research.”

“I admit that's true,” the cougar said, “but that doesn't give you the right to hold out on King Chaaq's treasure. We were partners, just as we've been since childhood. You should have trusted me.”

“I did trust you!” Thorne spat. “I would have split everything with you fifty-fifty — until you told me Faltane was taking seventy-five percent of everything we found! You held out on me!”

Aramis launched himself at the cougar and hit him between the eyes. Randon had expected an attack, but had failed to notice the wolf's taut leg muscles in the shadows of the corridor. He was caught by surprise, but kicked out and caught Thorne in the side with his boot.

One of Randon's men moved forward with his serrated knife, but the captain raised a hand to stop the lion. “Stay out of this, Lowe,” he said. “See if Topete is okay.”

“Right, boss,” the other growled in disappointment.

Randon turned back to face Thorne, but the wolf wasn't looking at him. Aramis was on his hands and knees, panting and holding his side with one hand. The kick had hit him in a tender spot left over from his brawl with Jason.

With effort, Thorne got to his feet, but he didn't face the cougar. Instead, he began walking toward the sunlight from the arena. The gunshots had grown quiet. Randon snorted and followed the wolf.

“Come back here,” he said. “We haven't settled this yet.” Thorne ignored him and kept walking, so Randon closed the distance between them.

Thorne waited until his former partner drew up along side of him, then he swung around and planted a fist hard into the cougar's side. Before Randon could react, Thorne hit him again with his other fist in an uppercut that drove the feline captain backward.

“I'm not working for Faltane,” Thorne said as he jumped forward to land another punch before the cougar could collect himself, “and I am not giving him my gold!”

Randon shuffled to the side to avoid the latest punch toward his middle and spun around quickly. He planted a boot up against Thorne's hip that knocked the lupine captain into a stone pillar near the outside wall.

“I was hired to find Hoenix,” Randon growled as he started after the wolf, “and you and I were partners with the same goal!” He threw a punch at Thorne, but his companion knocked it aside with a sweep of his arm.

“If you had discussed it with me first,” Aramis said as he chopped his hand down against the side of Randon's neck, “you could have given him seventy-five percent of your half!” Randon stumbled into the full sunlight of the amphitheatre, but stayed on his feet. Thorne followed him out into the space between the arena wall and the Cliffhanger and jumped him. The pair of them fell to the ground and grappled with one another, neither of them seeming to get the upper hand.

There were shouts from both crews, but there was no more shooting. The fighting between the two leaders had drawn everyone's attention. Several figures emerged from the shadows of the stadium corridors and stood by to watch the fight.

Cinjin Thorne moved out into the sunlight and stopped beside a female cheetah that was also transfixed by the brawl. The two of them exchanged a quick look of recognition, but then returned their attention to the fight.

“Hey, Cinjin,” she said absently.

“Hi, Renee,” the young wolf responded automatically.

Aramis brought his knee up into Randon's side and then shoved him hard. The two combatants rolled away from one another, but then Thorne got to his feet and kicked at the cat. Randon grabbed the lupine captain's foot and heaved upward, flipping the wolf over. Thorne landed on his back, but rolled over quickly to avoid Randon's boot.

“Faltane… will be lenient…” the cougar said as he stepped back to collect his breath. He held his side with one hand and coughed. “Our part of the take… is more than enough to make us both rich.”

Thorne stood up sluggishly, the aches and pains of the past few fights slowing his movements. He kept his head down, but his amber eyes bore up into the cougar's. “Our take is larger without Faltane,” he said through a sore jaw. “I wanted to find Hoenix long before you approached me about looking for it.”

“Maybe true, but you never did anything about it,” Randon replied.

“I found King Chaaq's treasure in this city on my own, without Faltane's help,” Thorne said with a wave of his hand. He stood up fully and stepped toward the cougar. “I made a mistake in telling you that I'd found it.”

“We were partners,” Randon reminded him again. “You should have told me where the treasure chamber was located.”

Aramis stopped in front of him and snarled. “You tried to kill me when I wouldn't tell you,” he growled, “and you killed Scarlet too!” Randon looked shocked when Thorne lunged forward and grabbed him by the throat. The cougar collapsed beneath their combined weight and fought to free the vise-like fingers from his neck. He shook his head violently and tried to speak, but was unable to draw in a breath.

He raised his fists and brought them both down hard against the wolf's temples. Thorne grunted and blinked rapidly, but didn't release his grip. Randon hit him again frantically, and one of the fists came down on the lupine captain's snout.

Dazed by the blow, Thorne's fingers loosened. The cougar slapped away his arms and then rolled away onto his hands and knees, coughing and heaving to get air into his lungs. Aramis shook his head, but he was having trouble focusing his eyes.

“What… are you talking about?” Randon asked in a raspy voice. “I've done nothing… to Scarlet.”

On the sidelines, Cinjin moved forward almost against his will. He stepped out into the arena and approached the combatants. He looked in concern first to his father, and then to Randon, who had originally introduced Scarlet to Aramis. The cougar had always appeared to like the match, and Cinjin had often called him “Uncle” while growing up.

“I've not seen Scarlet since our last meeting in this very arena the day you betrayed me,” Thorne said angrily. His vision had cleared and he slowly got to his feet.

“I haven't seen her either,” Randon told him. Thorne glared at him. The look of confusion on the cougar's face didn't fool him.

“Did you shoot her and hide her body in a tomb as you did with Jenda?” Thorne shouted at him. Randon's jaw dropped open and he raised his hands in shock.

“Jenda? She's dead?” he asked with a tight throat.

“Shot through the heart!” Thorne roared. “We found her body!”

“It wasn't me!”

“Done by you or one of your crew, no doubt,” Aramis growled. “Where is she, Zef? Where did you put Scarlet's body?”

“I don't… I didn't…”

Thorne lunged again, his teeth bared and his eyes full of hatred. Randon tried to turn away, but the wolf caught his head in his arms and pulled it back to bare the throat. In desperation, Randon dropped and let his weight pull them both off balance. Thorne's fangs missed the taut throat by an inch with an audible snap and then they both rolled over in the dust.

Randon outweighed the wolf, but Aramis was driven by a madness that leant him terrible strength. The cougar wrapped his arms around Thorne's ribcage and then ducked his head down against his chest to protect his throat. With all the power he could muster, he squeezed hard. Aramis let out an involuntary yelp when he felt a rib crack.

Randon stopped squeezing when he felt Thorne spasm with a great gasp of air, but he didn't fully release him.

“Listen to me,” the cougar said to the wolf. “I know nothing about Scarlet's disappearance, or of Jenda's death. It wasn't me. I haven't tried to kill anyone, including you.”

Thorne winced in pain and tried to grab his injured side, but couldn't get to it past Randon's powerful arms. He drew in a ragged breath and swallowed hard. “You had them beat me senseless… and dropped into a pit to die,” he rasped. “How can I trust your words?”

Randon flicked an ear. “Since it was you who betrayed our friendship,” he snapped, “you have no right to speak of trust!” He released the wolf and then sat back on his knees. Aramis dropped to the ground with his arms around his middle.

“Where is she?” Thorne asked again. “Where is Scarlet?” Despite his pain, the expression in his eyes was still dark as he looked up at his old partner. He kept his left arm around his ribs but kept the other loose and free at his side.

Randon gritted his teeth, the anger welling up inside him for the constant accusations. He reached down, took the wolf by the collar of his shirt, and raised a fist. “So help me, Aramis, if you don't sto–”

In one swift movement, Thorne pulled the pistol from its holster and shoved it into Randon's open mouth, chipping a tooth in the process. He tripped the safety catch and pushed the gun deeper into the cat's throat. Despite the pain the he felt from the cracked rib, the wolf's hand was steady. Randon raised both hands into the air and did his best to show his submission.

“You just had your last chance to answer my question,” Thorne growled as an overhead cloud cast the arena into shadow. The madness had left his eyes, but there was lethal determination in them now. Randon swallowed involuntarily. The gun barrel was resting on his tongue like an oversized, metallic depressor and the broken tooth hurt terribly.

“You tried to kill me,” Thorne said in a low voice, oblivious to all the eyes watching them. “Our partnership failed, but she wasn't a part of our disagreement. She didn't deserve to die, but you do. Right now!”

“Stop!” a voice shouted. “Don't shoot him!”  The voice echoed off the stone amphitheatre and had enough of a frantic tone in it that Aramis froze, his finger still on the trigger. Someone walked up beside him and he issued a warning growl.

“Don't interfere,” Thorne told him as he used his free hand to grasp the cougar's throat tightly. “Randon will pay for killing your mother.”

“He didn't kill Scarlet!” Cinjin exclaimed.

Thorne tilted his head slightly to look at his son. Randon could only roll his eyes to look his way. “What did you say?” Thorne growled.

Cinjin swallowed hard at the sight of one best friend only a life-beat away from killing the other. “Uncle Randon didn't kill Scarlet,” the young wolf repeated in a rush. “He doesn't know where she is.”

This time, Thorne turned his head to look directly into Cinjin's eyes. “What is it you know?” he demanded. He hadn't withdrawn his pistol from the cougar's mouth, and he tightened the grip on the throat he held so he couldn't back away.

“All I can tell you is that Randon didn't kill her.” Cinjin swallowed and held his gaze for a long moment, but the piercing directness of the alpha wolf's eyes was too much for him to bear. He looked away and Thorne felt his hackles rise.

Where is Scarlet?” he asked slowly.

“She's dead,” the young wolf replied without looking at him, “but Randon didn't kill her.”

“So you say,” Aramis said irritably. “Listen to me carefully, cub. How do you know that Randon didn't kill her? I want a straight answer, and I want it now!

Cinjin closed his eyes for a moment, but then set his jaw firmly and looked directly into his father's eyes. “Randon didn't kill her. I did.”

Aramis opened his mouth in shock, but no sound came out. The pain that showed on Thorne's face hit him hard. He released Randon's throat, dropped the pistol, and fell backward against the ground. The gun fell out of Randon's aching mouth and bounced lightly onto his knees. The cougar had enough presence of mind to grab it before it hit the ground, though he was no less shocked than Aramis. He put a hand up to his throat and swallowed several times to get the feeling back.

Aramis sat up with great difficulty and gasped from a fresh twinge of pain when he weakly rolled over onto his hands and knees.  Randon reached out and helped the wolf to his feet, and then stared transfixed into the young face. Without a word between them, he could see the truth in Cinjin's eyes. The young wolf gave him a confessing nod.

“W-why?” Randon gasped. “Why would you kill her - your own mother?”

Cinjin balled his hands into fists and suddenly glared down at his father. “We don't need her. It's better that she's gone.”

What did you say?!?” Thorne exploded in disbelief. He grabbed for the pistol in Randon's hand, but the cougar moved it out of his reach without even realizing it.

Cinjin spread his arms wide. “I said we don't need her anymore,” he exclaimed as if it was obvious. “She was only in the way.”

“In what way?” Randon exploded. “Who are you to decide something like that?!?”

Cinjin snorted irritably and looked directly into his father's eyes without flinching. “You always had your attention on her. You did everything together with her. I was always left on the sidelines to watch the two of you together, always waiting for your attention.” He began walking around the wolf and cougar, waving his hands in the air as he spoke. “I looked up to you. I idolized you and wanted your attention and praise, but you never seemed to have time for me! You never noticed when I did something good, nor were ever there when I needed you. Your attention was always on her!

“So that's what this is about!” Thorne sputtered.

Cinjin swallowed hard, letting the bottled up tensions loose into his words. “I despised mother because she always got your attention,” he said forcefully. “She always got your praise, and you brought her gifts when you had been away and returned. She ignored me when I got older, saying she allowed me to do whatever I wanted without interfering. She didn't scold me nor punish me when I did something wrong, and it hurt that she didn't even care if I learned right from wrong!”

Aramis tried to lunge at the younger wolf, but once again, Randon held him back. Cinjin continued to pace, oblivious to his movements.

“When she joined you on the expedition to search for Hoenix with Randon,” Cinjin continued, “I made friends with Astina and she let me stay in her cabin on the Cliffhanger. I hoped that you would find me useful when we found the city, but you were so wrapped up in mother that I don't think you even noticed I was there with you.”

“Cinjin,” Thorne said in a dangerous tone, “where is Scarlet?”

“She's here, in the city.”

“Where is she?”

“Don't concern yourself,” Cinjin said in a voice that was almost casual. “You'll never find her body.”

Without looking at the cougar, Thorne growled, “If you hold me back one more time, the knife in my hand will find a tender spot between your ribs.”  He took a tentative step toward the younger wolf, but this time Randon didn't do anything to prevent him from moving.

“Astina and I found a room with a giant pit of sand that sloped toward a hole in the center of the floor,” Cinjin in proud voice. “After we tossed in a few clay pots and watched them disappear under the sand, I had a great idea. I told Astina what I wanted to do and she agreed to help me kill her.” Cinjin crossed his arms and looked over at Thorne, who had stopped to stare at him in disbelief. “Mother wouldn't come with me alone, as I had intended. She just had to bring her precious Jenda with her. Jenda got suspicious when we entered an empty tomb and tried to call for help, so Astina shot her.”

“I knew I heard a gunshot,” Randon growled.

“We dragged mother to the room with the sand. She was hysterical, so I choked the life out of her and threw her into the pit.”

Thorne closed his eyes and ground the knuckles of one hand up against them, his teeth bared and clamped tightly together.

How can you talk about it so casually?” Randon's voice rumbled. He opened and closed his fists at his sides, the anger welling up inside of him.

Cinjin ignored him. Now that he had confessed to her murder, he felt as if a dam of emotion had suddenly burst. He continued talking, letting his bottled words flow. “Mother's body disappeared under the sand,” he said, “never to be found again. We couldn't get Jenda to the sand funnel without someone seeing us, so we just put her in the tomb you found her in.”

Thorne could handle it no more. He started for Cinjin, but the young wolf whipped out his pistol and aimed it at him. “Father,” he said in a suddenly higher voice, “you don't need her! I need you!” Thorne held his ribs and took another step toward Cinjin, a razor-sharp throwing knife glinting in the sunlight in his free hand. The small gun began to shake in the younger wolf's hand. “No, father! I need your attention…”

“You have my undivided attention,” Thorne growled in fury as he stepped closer. The gun was a foot from the lupine captain's chest and Cinjin's eyes were wide in fear. Before he could react to his father's proximity, Thorne swung out quickly with the hand that had been holding his side and belted the small gun from his grip.

Thorne took the younger wolf by the throat with one hand and shoved the knife up under Cinjin's chin with the other as the pistol clattered to the ground somewhere to the side. His eyes burned in fury and grief, and he wanted to take the life from Scarlet's self-proclaimed murderer, but Randon was suddenly there between them, prying the knife out of Thorne's fingers with powerful hands.

“Stop!” the cougar commanded. “We still need him.”

Thorne allowed his ex-partner to push him back, but he let go of the throat he held in his grip reluctantly.

Randon grabbed one of Cinjin's ears forcefully and yanked his head up to face him. “Where is this sand funnel?” he demanded.

Cinjin stared at him for a long moment and rubbed the thin cut on his throat where the knife had nicked him. “In an antechamber off the throne room,” the younger wolf muttered in a quieter voice. He seemed to have come back to his senses, but didn't appear repentant.

“You're lying!” Randon growled. “We've been all through the throne room.”

“It's through a hidden door. Astina stumbled into it by accident.”

“Show us.” Randon released the wolf's ear.

Cinjin looked over at Thorne, who returned a smoldering glare. He thought it over and then shrugged. “Why not?” he replied. He turned and walked toward the nearest steps of the amphitheatre. Thorne snatched his pistol from Randon's hand and followed his son. The cougar fell into step behind him, wondering where this was going to lead.

A crowd consisting of both crews began to gather in the upper tiers, muted voices murmuring together. As Cinjin and his escort reached each elevation in the amphitheatre, people fell in behind them.

As they mounted the steps close behind the young wolf, Thorne glanced over at Randon. “If you didn't try to kill me,” he said through clenched teeth at the pain in his side, “then why did you beat me senseless and drop me into that pit to die?”

“Because I know you, Aramis,” Randon replied. “You were causing us trouble and I had a deadline to meet with Faltane for the artifacts we were taking from the city. You seemed fascinated with the sacrificial pit earlier, so I thought it would be the perfect place to keep you from disrupting our operation. I knew you were cunning enough to get out of the pit and find your way back to Castelrosso on your own. I tasked Daniel to put you in there, but he later boasted that he'd killed you before dropping your body into the pit.” He cracked his knuckles and added, “I put him into the hospital in a fit of rage for that. I don't think he will walk again.”

“You thought me dead but yet you still didn't come back to retrieve my body for burial…” Thorne grumbled. “How thoughtful.”

“I was out of time,” Randon replied in a guilty voice.

Thorne muttered something under his breath and then called out behind him. “Duster!” He heard the sound of running feet up the steps and Jason Talos fell into step behind him.

“Yes sir?” he asked. His garments were torn and dirty, and there was blood smeared across one part of it. Thorne looked at it in concern, but beyond his broken wrist, the first officer didn't seem to be injured.

“You heard Cinjin's confession?”

“Yeah… the kid's off his nut!” the black wolf growled. “You want me to have someone break his legs?”

“Not yet. Send someone down to the ship to get my underwater gear. Make sure the tanks are fully loaded,” Thorne commanded. “We'll need Crandall's rope, too. I'll leave my DataCom transponder on so they can find us in the hidden chamber.”

“It'll take too long for someone to get back down to your ship and then return,” Randon said. “I have everything you need in the Cliffhanger.” He called to one of his men and gave him instructions on what to get from the ship. The orange cat nodded, stubbed out a cigarette and hopped back down the steps toward the dark vessel.

“Very good,” Thorne said. He grimaced and held his side in pain when he turned wrong going up the steps.

“I think I know what you're planning to do,” the cougar told him, “but I think your ribs might not like it too much.”

“If you still have your medic, I could use her services. Just bind me up well enough to do what I need to do.”

“Let me do it for you,” Randon said in a low voice as he fingered his broken tooth. “I'm not as injured as you are.” Thorne looked at him solemnly and the cougar knew his childhood friend wouldn't give in. “All right, you win,” he said.

Randon glanced around at the crowd mounting the amphitheatre steps behind him and spied the female cheetah several meters back. “Renee!” he called to her. “Go grab your medical kit and get back up here to dress the captain's injured ribs!”

“Aye, sir,” she called back up to him. She turned and retraced her steps back down to the arena floor. Randon turned back to Thorne and took one arm gently. He helped him up over the final step to the top tier and then faced the row of buildings that housed the dead.

Cinjin chanced a look back at them and Randon recognized the look on the younger wolf's face. He was going to make a break for it. The cougar pulled a revolver from a leg holster and cocked the hammer with several loud clicks.

He pointed it at Cinjin's head and looked at him as if to say, Go ahead and run.

NEXT CHAPTER

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