— by Ted R. Blasingame
Farrell Lightner sighed and watched an insect crawl along the evergreen branch in front of his eyes. The gunfire and shouting had stopped some time ago and his imagination had begun to run away with him. His thoughts ranged from wondering if both ships had loaded up and flown away, leaving him and Karla behind, to the bizarre, thinking the ground must have opened up and hordes of the dead had taken away all his crewmates.
The air had grown humid and the once-clear sky overcast from a bank of clouds that had moved in from the west. There was no sign of rain, just grey conditions. He was bored and uncomfortable, but he would follow his orders. The greyhound couldn't see Karla in her hiding place and had begun to think that she had also gone, until he saw her crawl out of the bushes and trot quietly across the flagstones toward the garden entrance. He frowned to himself, now sure that he had been abandoned.
Crandall kept her head low and a firm grip on her pistol as she approached the end of the evergreen path. She could see no one on the trail along the rock cliff, and like her greyhound companion, could hear no one below. She couldn't see the arena for the stone buildings, so she crept along the trail until she reached the spot where Jason and the others were pinned down earlier by gunfire.
She dropped to her belly and suddenly noted the bloodstained ground beside her. She curled up her lip and wondered whose it might have been.
Now that she was out of the evergreens and could see down into the arena, she heard quiet voices murmuring below. On the far side of the upper tier of the arena was a mixed group of canine and feline individuals from the combined crews of the two ships. She thought it odd that people who had just been shooting at one another were now congregated together.
She looked up ahead to see where they might be going, and then saw Captain Thorne and a broad-shouldered cougar following behind another wolf; a second glance revealed that was the ship's supply clerk that led the mixed group. If she wasn't mistaken, both the captain and the cougar had pistols aimed at his back.
She panted in the late afternoon heat and wondered what she should do. She had no idea what was going on, and really wanted to know, but she had orders to keep the crate guarded. The captain might be in trouble, she mused to herself. Should she follow the crowd covertly, or return to the sacrificial pit?
She struggled with her thoughts for several moments before she realized Cinjin and the captain had disappeared into one of the buildings below. The crowd filed in through the balanced doors until they were all gone, leaving the area in silence once again.
The husky frowned and shook her head in frustration. Her hesitation might have cost her a stealthy approach to see what was going on, so she thumbed the safety on her pistol and then returned to the garden.
As soon as she was beside the sacrificial pit, Farrell stuck his nose out of the bush where he had been hiding. “Psst!” he hissed at her. Karla moved over to his position and then squatted down in front of him.
“What's going on down there?” the greyhound asked in a whisper. Crandall told him what she had seen, and when she had finished, it stumped them both.
“I hate not knowing,” the com officer said with a frown. “What are we supposed to do now?”
Karla looked at him sighed. “We still have a treasure chest to guard,” she said. “I don't know what might be going on down there, but until the situation changes, we need to continue to guard it.” She looked back across the garden to where they had hidden the crate and added, “That gold was promised to us and is ours, Farrell. We've been tasked to guard it by our captain, and I intend to keep anyone else from getting it.”
“I know,” the greyhound replied, “but I still wish I knew what was happening in there, especially if the captain's son was leading them under gunpoint!”
“I'm going back to my hiding pace,” Karla said quietly. “Try not to doze off in the heat.”
Farrell raised his eyebrows at her and then she smiled at him. “Not a chance,” he said. “No one will be getting our gold!”
Cinjin looked back at Aramis and shook his head. “I don't understand why you're mad at me,” the young wolf said when he stopped at a pair of wooden double doors adorned with relief carvings of the mountain city itself.
“What don't you understand?” Thorne growled at him. “She was my mate! She was my life! You killed her!” He gritted his teeth and reached out quickly. He grabbed Cinjin's collar and yanked his son toward him so that they were nose to nose. “You took her from me!”
“You've never killed anyone before, have you?” Cinjin asked casually.
Aramis flexed his fingers, imagining the young wolf's throat within them. “I've hurt and maimed those who have crossed me,” he snarled, “but I've never killed anyone outright.”
Cinjin tilted his head and smiled, despite the proximity of his father's face. “Imagine that. I never thought I would ever out-do you in anything!” he said happily. Randon stared at the wolves with an open mouth. He was convinced that Cinjin was quite off-balanced, and knew that Aramis might go that way himself if the young wolf continued to taunt him in that care-free manner.
Without warning, Thorne slugged Cinjin hard across the snout and put another fist into his stomach. Cinjin collapsed to the ground and suddenly the crowd behind the trio gathered close to surround them tightly.
Randon grabbed the back of Thorne's belt and yanked him backward away from doing more to the young murderer. “We still need him!” he said angrily to his ex-partner. Cinjin curled up in a fetal position at their feet, simultaneously holding his stomach and his bleeding nose.
Aramis looked up at him in hatred. “My wife never left this city alive. Neither will he,” he promised through bared teeth. He looked around and saw the closely packed crowd around them. “Back off!” he shouted furiously. People scrambled to give them room and Thorne snorted his impatience.
“Bring him,” he said to Randon with a glare down at his son. He stepped past the cowering wolf and shoved his way in through the doors to the throne room with both hands.
Randon sighed and helped Cinjin roughly to his feet. “You'd better stop baiting him,” he said into the young wolf's ear. “I suggest you keep your mouth closed until you're spoken to.”
Cinjin wiped blood from his nose onto the sleeve of his shirt and stared at the cougar silently. A spark of cognizance appeared in his eyes and suddenly there was fear in them. Randon got the impression that it may have been the first time that Cinjin had realized the consequences of his actions. The feline captain probably should have felt pity for him, but he'd loved Scarlet too as a dear friend. He felt nothing but contempt for the young wolf.
He pushed him through the doorway and the crowd surged in behind them. Although Randon and his crew had been inside the throne room before, it was the first time that Aramis had been there. The chamber was more than large enough to hold both crews, and four great granite columns held up the high ceiling majestically. Each column had images etched around their ponderous surfaces, and brightly colored paint had once decorated the depths of the etchings. The back wall contained a massive relief carving that depicted the face of a regal wolf that matched the image stamped on the Hoenix coins, King Chaaq. The other three walls had scenic carvings of the city itself. Gold leaf had been inlaid into hieroglyphic shapes carved into the bottom third of each wall, but some of it had been dug out of the grooves in one place by the crew of the Cliffhanger on its earlier visit. As with many places in the city, the throne room had been stripped of anything of value that could be taken away.
At the far end of the chamber, between two of the great columns, was a dais a meter in height off the floor. Resting in the center of the platform was a large block of granite. A carved seat, armrests and a foot pedestal were inlaid with gold designs that decorated its sides and back. It would be far too heavy to move without machinery, so Randon's people had left it there.
Torch holders had been ripped out of the walls, but six round openings in the ceiling served as skylights, one of which was directly over the throne. The afternoon sunlight streamed in through the openings and provided a decent enough illumination to see without flashlights.
Aramis saw none of the beauty that would have captivated him at another time, but he marched directly to the steps leading up to the throne and then turned around to face the gathered crowd. He held his side with one hand, but the painful expression on his face was not from physical distress. Randon released Cinjin in front of him, and kept his pistol handy in case the young wolf tried to run.
A cheetah pushed her way through the crowd and approached the throne with a medical kit. Aramis didn't look at her when she stopped in front of him, but that didn't deter her. She gave him a short bow.
“Take off your shirt,” Renee said to the wolf in a voice almost as quiet as a whisper. Without taking his eyes away from Cinjin, Aramis unbuttoned his shirt and then pulled it off. He winced at the pain the action caused him and the cheetah looked at him with a critical eye. She put her fingers into the fur at the side he was holding and gently pushed his hand away. She prodded the area in several places and he winced again at certain pressure points. She nodded quietly to herself and then opened up a black bag hanging from a strap around her shoulder.
She pulled out a small electric hypo and then dug into the side of the bag for a vial of pale green liquid. She loaded the vial into the hypo and then raised it up to Thorne's side, just above the rib she suspected had a hairline fracture. Two tiny probes extended through his double layers of fur to his skin and then applied a mild current to the skin as she inserted the needle in between them.
Once the vial of regenerative medication was empty, she returned the device to her bag and then pulled out a roll of stiff fabric. “Take a deep breath and hold it,” she told the lupine captain. Thorne complied without a word. She got down on her knees in front of him and began to unroll the fabric around his middle. She made several revolutions and then clipped the end tight against itself.
“You can breathe now,” the cheetah said. Without taking his eyes from the younger wolf, Thorne released his breath. Renee pulled a small spray can from the bag, shook it up to a quiet rattle, and then sprayed a fine mist over the wrap fabric.
When she finished, she repacked her bag and stood up in front of him. She frowned at his demeanor and took the shirt from his hand. She helped him shrug back into it, and then buttoned it up for him.
“That rib will heal together in a day or two,” she said quietly, “so take it easy between now and then.” It was only at that moment when Thorne's eyes met hers. His expression softened for a brief instant and he gave her a nod.
“It will have to do for now,” he said to her, “but I'm not ready to rest just yet.”
Renee looked over at her captain with a concerned expression, but the cougar only shook his head with a frown. She looked back up into Thorne's face and gave him a nod of her own. “The medication will promote accelerated healing and will also help with the pain,” she said. “The wrap will limit your movements, so try not to do anything too strenuous if you can help it.”
She gave him a short bow and then moved back into the crowd around them. Thorne returned his attention to Cinjin and the hardened expression resurfaced in his eyes. Randon faced the young wolf and held his gun so that its barrel pointed toward the ceiling.
”Show us this secret chamber,” he said. His voice echoed against the bare walls of the large chamber, making his voice seem louder than it was.
Cinjin stood up straight and nodded. He didn't look at his father, but walked past him toward the granite column on the right-hand side of the dais. Aramis and Randon followed him to the back corner of the room. In a small space between the column and the back wall, Cinjin reached out toward a carving that depicted an emblem that resembled an hourglass. In the exact center of the hourglass neck was a very slight depression.
Cinjin put a finger up to the depression and a faint click echoed in the room. The wolf then put his palm over the symbol and pushed. A section of the wall moved inward and Thorne remembered the small pass he had found in the wall of the sacrificial pit. The city must be riddled with such passages, he thought with a quiet nod.
Cinjin gestured toward the interior when the door was open wide enough to pass through. “We will need lights in there,” he said quietly.
The crowd instantly produced nearly a dozen flashlights to Aramis and Randon. The cougar gave one to the young wolf and aimed another toward the doorway. “After you,” he said. He kept his pistol trained on Cinjin's back, but he need not have been concerned that the wolf might try to escape down a passageway. The doorway led only into a round room no more than five or six meters across, with no other exit in sight.
The floor, walls and the low ceiling were unadorned, except they were all painted black, which made even flashlights seem dim. Cinjin pulled a lighter from a pocket and went around the room to light torches of partially burned stick bundles wrapped in oily cloth.
When the chamber was illuminated, he moved to a spot in the wall on the opposite side from the door and reached for a stone lever camouflaged to match the wall. He pulled this down and a trickle of sand began to fall to the floor below through a small opening in the black ceiling. Directly beneath it was a funneled pit two meters across filled with sand that sloped to a depression at its center. Aramis didn't look up at the ceiling, but his eyes focused on the sand pit. Where the sand went, he couldn't guess, but Scarlet was beneath it somewhere.
There wasn't enough room for more than a few people in the room, so Randon made everyone but he and the two wolves move back outside into the throne room.
With the torches all lit, Cinjin walked to the edge of the pit and sat down on a short ring of stones that rimmed the sand. The quiet hiss of falling sand and the occasional crackling of the torches were the only noises in the small room.
Aramis stared at the sand funnel a moment longer before his eyes moved to Cinjin. “In there?” he asked in a surprisingly calm voice. Cinjin looked up at him and nodded without a word. Father and son exchanged looks that were almost mirrors of one another. In both faces was an expression of regret.
Cinjin swallowed and opened his mouth to speak, but before he could utter a word, Aramis kicked out hard. The toe of his boot caught the young wolf beneath the chin and his head snapped back sharply. Randon rushed forward, but he wasn't fast enough to stop the supply clerk from tumbling backward into the sand. Before the cougar could reach him, the fine sand dropped out from underneath the wolf and he slipped beneath the surface headfirst. Randon grasped frantically for his boots, but Cinjin quickly disappeared from sight.
“No!” Randon shouted. His voice sounded muted in the small room. He sank to his knees beside the ring of stones and pounded a fist on the sand. There were gasps of surprise from those who peered in through the doorway, and Jason Talos couldn't help himself. He burst into the room and ran to Thorne's side.
Aramis stared transfixed at the funnel of sand, oblivious to the others around him. Jason grabbed him by the shoulders and turned his captain to look at him. Thorne's amber eyes suddenly became wild and he bared his fangs with a low growl.
Randon stood up cursing in several languages. He pushed Jason to the side and then slapped Aramis hard with the flat of his hand. Thorne's head rocked and he stumbled sideways a step, but managed to keep his feet. He turned back to Randon with a snarl, but the cougar slapped him hard again. Aramis reeled backward, but reached out blindly and caught his ex-partner's extended arm. He pulled himself upright and then shook his head as if coming out of a daze.
When Aramis looked back at the cougar and released his arm, the wolf's eyes were clear. He gingerly felt the side of his snout and winced. He cast a glance at the sand funnel and then he backed up against the wall behind him. He closed his eyes and began to pant, the realization of what he had done sinking in. He raised a hand up in front of his face and felt it shake.
Randon moved to stand in front of him. “Aramis,” he growled. Thorne lowered his ears and tail when he looked up at him, and the cougar suddenly lost the words that he was about to shout out in anger. Instead, he pressed his lips together and put a hand on his one-time friend's shoulder.
Voices murmuring outside in the throne room suddenly became quiet, except for a high-pitched voice telling everyone to clear a path. Randon looked back over his shoulder and saw an orange cat push his way into the room, laden with a plastic box that was almost too big for him to carry alone.
“Here are the things you wanted, boss,” the cat said in a winded voice as he set his burden on the ground.
“Thank you, Darrah,” Randon said. He opened the lid of the box and pulled out a coil of thin, but sturdy rope from the top. He looked over at Jason and said, “Duster, help him suit up while I go tie off the rope.”
“Right,” the black wolf said without hesitation. He knelt at the box and helped Darrah pull the rest of the articles out onto the floor.
Randon walked to the door and waved the crowd backward. “Move out of the way, rubbernecks,” he told them. Chalmoy Bleys gave him an irritated look, but he complied with the rest of the group. Randon tried to wrap the rope around the large column, but its diameter was too large for him to get his arms around. Cal reached behind the column and grabbed the end the cougar had extended, and pulled it to him.
Randon gave him a nod of thanks and then began to work the rope into a secure knot that would hold a full-grown wolf. It took him a few moments to tie it off to satisfaction and then he played out the coil as he walked back into the funnel room.
Jason and Darrah almost had Aramis fully suited by the time the cougar dropped the coil of rope beside the ring of stones around the sand funnel. Jason lifted a bubble helmet over the lupine captain's ears and set it down onto its seal ring at his neck. The orange cat hooked two bottles of compressed air into a set of large clamps on his back. The helmet didn't allow for a lot of room between Thorne's nose and the glassteel bubble, but he would be able to see in all directions without a blind spot. The tail pouch was for a thinner tail than his was, but Aramis had managed to stuff his thick brush into it with some coaxing.
Darrah lifted up a device that looked like a smaller version of Thorne's own DataCom and tapped in a code. “You should be getting air now,” the feline said into its microphone. The signal emitted through tiny speakers inside the neck seal of the suit and had a tinny sound. Aramis gave him a thumbs-up signal and Darrah nodded. “You won't need to be pressurized for deep sea diving or for a spatial vacuum, so I've set your system for normal conditions to give you more air for breathing.”
Randon took one of Thorne's hands and raised it up to a small control on the suit's chest panel. “This is your call switch,” he said to the wolf. “It has a spring-loaded cover you'll have to push aside, and you will need to hold down the switch while speaking. The com set inside this suit isn't voice activated.”
Aramis touched the control and said, “Understood.” The voice that issued from Darrah's DataCom sounded slightly under modulated.
Randon pulled Thorne's hand to another place on the chest panel and the wolf could feel a concave depression. “This switch activates a set of lamps mounted to your shoulders,” the feline captain informed him. “Don't turn them on until you're in darkness. The suit batteries will give you about an hour of light when fully charged, but I don't think these are. If your lamps start to flicker, call us to haul you out of there. You'll lose the com unit when the batteries fail completely.”
“Should you lose your light, there are several emergency flares in both pouches on your legs. They're magnesium and will burn just about anywhere, even under water if needed.”
“Right,” Aramis repeated as Randon handed a length of the rope to him.
Thorne reached up to the call switch as he looked through the bubble at his ex-partner. “Please have everyone leave the room for a moment,” he said. Jason and Darrah both looked over at him, but Randon made a sweeping gesture with his hand.
“Everyone out,” he said.
Jason gave Thorne a look of resentment, but followed the orange cat out of the room. Randon followed them to the door and then said, “Darrah, take everyone over by the throne. The captain and I need to have a private conversation.”
“Aye, sir,” the cat replied. Darrah raised his hands up into the air and spoke in a loud voice to those assembled just outside the door. “Listen up, people,” he commanded. “Our captains want us to wait by the throne for now.”
“Your captain might want that,” said Chalmoy belligerently, “but we don't follow his –”
“That goes for us too,” Jason cut him off. “It was Captain Thorne's order.” The miniature pincher gave him and Darrah a sour look and then turned on his heel toward the throne as directed.
Randon watched them go, but didn't turn back to Thorne until they were alone. “What's on your mind?” he asked as Aramis unfastened his helmet and took it back off.
“Please turn off your DataCom.”
Randon looked down at his com device and saw the green power light still activated. He shut it off without a word and returned his gaze to the wolf.
Thorne studied his lifelong friend's eyes for a moment before he spoke. “Once I have retrieved my family,” he said in a somber tone, “I will give you the location of Chaaq's gold stash.”
Randon looked surprised. “Why would you tell me that?” the cougar asked with an upraised eyebrow. “After all the fuss you made, why are you offering it to me now?”
Thorne held up the rope in his hand and gestured with it toward the sand funnel. “You abandoned me in a pit once before,” he said. “Consider this your incentive to make sure I come back safely out of this one.”
Randon raised his chin slightly. “What about your crew?” he asked. “Aren't they expecting the gold for themselves?”
“Just before you arrived, we retrieved a crate containing eight bags of gold coins that I'd hidden away before you waylaid me last month,” Thorne explained in a low voice. “It may only be eight bags, but what is in the box will make my people very happy when it is divided up among them. What I'm promising you is an antechamber filled with over two hundred more bags of the coins.”
“What makes you think I'll let you take the crate any more than I would the gold in the chamber you found?” Randon asked as he crossed his arms. “I doubt Mr. Faltane would want even that much to slip through his fingers.”
Thorne fixed him with a steady stare. “It's the cheapest way to avoid more bloodshed,” he replied with a growl in his throat. “Listen, Zef. My followers outnumber yours and they're desperate to keep their treasure. They will fight tooth and claw to keep it now that they have it. Let my people leave with their crate, and the antechamber is yours without either of us losing anyone else to petty fighting.”
“How can I be sure you're telling me the truth about this antechamber?” Randon asked suspiciously. “You have lied to me.”
“No, Zef, I didn't lie to you about King Chaaq's treasure. I simply refused to tell you its hidden location. My crew doesn't know about the antechamber. Let them leave with the crate, thinking that is all there is, and the king's treasure is yours.”
“What about you?” Randon asked as he rubbed his chin. “Will you be satisfied with a mere trunk of coins when you know you lost a larger stash?”
Aramis narrowed his eyes. “I'm here only for my wife,” he said tonelessly. “The box of gold is for my crew. It means nothing to me now.”
Randon fell silent for a moment and mulled over his words. He looked over his shoulder toward the door to make sure no one was there, and then took the bubble helmet from Thorne's hands. “Okay, you have my word,” he said in a low voice. “Once you're back up here safely and have shown me King Chaaq's treasure chamber, your crew can have the box of coins you promised them.”
“What about your master?”
“If there's as much gold in that chamber as you claim,” Randon said with a smile, “Mr. Faltane won't miss eight bags. I promise not to report it to him.”
Aramis studied the cougar's face. “I assure you that you will never find the treasure chamber if anything happens to me. Chaaq chose his hiding place well.”
“It appears we'll have to trust one another once more,” Randon said.
“It appears so.”
Randon nodded his agreement and gestured toward the sand funnel. “How deep do you think it goes?”
Aramis walked over to the ring of stones and put a foot up on one. “I suspect there's an open chamber below. If I reach the end of the rope before I reach the bottom, I will have you haul me back out.”
“Understood.” Randon raised the helmet back up over the wolf's head and then set it back into place. After he had secured the seals and opened the valves on the air tanks, the cougar walked back to the door and peered out. Jason saw him and tapped the orange cat on the shoulder.
Randon waved to them and said, “We'll need some muscle in here.” There was a surge of motion as Darrah and Jason trotted back to the small room followed by the others.
Aramis frowned at the number of bodies that tried to get into the small room, and then handed the section of the rope above his harness to the cougar. He knelt down stiffly and sat down on the ring of stone. He put his feet hesitantly out into the funnel and felt solid ground slope beneath them. He slowly scooted out toward the middle and felt his boot hit something that gave slightly beneath him.
He reached up to his call switch. “It feels like a trap door in the middle. It's probably counterbalanced to hold the weight of the sand, but to give away with more weight.”
“Be careful going over the edge,” Jason warned as he took up a position beside Randon. His broken arm prevented him from helping on the rope, but he would be there to protect Thorne's best interests. “I doubt it was designed with your safety in mind and it might have a sharp edge.” He looked up at the black walls and ceiling with a deep frown. “This was probably the king's private chamber for getting rid of subjects fallen out of favor,” he added. “You may find more than you're looking for down in there.”
Randon played out the rope slowly as Aramis scooted further out toward the center of the funnel. Others got in line on the rope behind him to help manage Thorne's weight.
Thorne eased out further and suddenly the suspected trap door beneath the sand dropped open. He felt his feet go over an edge and he sank quickly into the sand. Randon and his team pulled the rope tight. Thorne stopped when his armpits reached the sand and his oxygen bottles hung up on the opening. He could feel his legs dangling out into open air beneath him and his eyes went wide. He was no stranger to rappelling, but the sensation was unnerving. He put his hands beneath the sand and grasped the edge of the opening. He wriggled enough to free up his bottles and then gave a thumbs-up to Randon. The cougar nodded and the rope line let out slowly to lower him further into the sand.
Jason watched his captain's helmet disappear beneath the sand and saw the rope suddenly become taut. The trap door had closed upon the rope as much as its thickness would allow. Sand from the ceiling began to refill the depression.
When Aramis dropped through into the chamber below, his mouth fell open in surprise. Instead of the darkness of an underground grotto as he expected, there was a shaft of sunlight emanating through a hole in the ceiling several meters away from him. He could see his surroundings well enough that he wouldn't need his lamps for now, but something else held his attention.
It was the chamber from his dreams!
The stone walls of the chamber contained relief carvings of ancient canine kings, and hieroglyphic words written in huge symbols. The beam of sunlight fell parallel to the falling river of sand that washed over him, to another circular pile of sand below ringed with a knee-high wall of fitted stones. Unlike the funnel he had just come through, a trough on a slope on one side of the ring drained excess sand away to a dark hole in a near wall. The small wall was darkly stained with the dried blood of previous deposits from above, and some of the grisly stains extended out onto the stone floor of the chamber.
“Thorne?” crackled Randon's voice over his suit speakers.
He raised a hand to his chest and toggled the call switch. “I'm okay,” he reported. “I'm in a large chamber, about ten meters off the floor. You can continue to lower me.”
“Do you see… them?”
Aramis looked past his dandling feet and spied a body half-buried in the sand. Cinjin's eyes were closed, but his neck was bent to the side at an odd angle. Thorne swallowed hard and then toggled the switch again. “One of them,” he replied quietly.
There was silence for a moment before he asked, “Are you in any danger?”
“Only if you drop me,” the wolf replied.
“Then we shall endeavor not to drop you,” was Randon's wry reply. Thorne felt the rope jerk a bit and then he began to lower further into the chamber.
Thorne fell silent and tried to see more of the pit below, but with the sand still falling down over the top of his helmet, he saw nothing more than he had before. He waited out the rest of the drop by looking around the chamber. At the wall to his left was a set of stone steps carved out of the wall itself. The steps curved down around the perimeter of the round cavern and ended at a small platform near the sand pile. The top of the steps disappeared through a tunnel in the wall near the cavern ceiling. It was anybody's guess where it might lead.
His feet touched down on the sand pile moments later.
“Thorne?” said Randon's voice.
“I can't feel your weight on the rope anymore. Are you okay?”
“I'm down,” Aramis replied as he stepped to the side to get out from under the falling sand. “I'm standing in another sand trap below the first. I'm going to disconnect myself from the rope and then tie it underneath his shoulders so you can pull him back up.”
“Okay, but we'll have a devil of a time getting him back through that trap door. It closed almost all the way after you went through it.”
“Deal with it,” Thorne said irritably. “I'm going to have to dig through the sand to find Scarlet.”
“Right... Let us know when Cinjin is ready to bring up. We'll see what we can do to open the trap door from up here without sending anyone else down through it.”
Aramis knelt down in the soft sand and reached out to grasp Cinjin's shoulders. He then pulled the young wolf over so that he lay on his back. Aramis stared morosely at the still face for a long moment and then gently brushed sand from his son's nose and brow. His throat tightened and he could feel moisture in his eyes, but he cleared his throat and blinked his eyes clear again.
He nodded resolutely and then pushed the end of the rope down into the sand to pull it beneath the young wolf's shoulders. He tied it securely around Cinjin's chest and then toggled his call switch.
“He is ready to come up,” he said quietly.
“Just a moment,” Randon replied distractedly. A moment later, a large dump of sand fell into the chamber and buried the young wolf again in Thorne's lap. Aramis looked up toward the ceiling and saw a flickering of light while the trapdoor seemed to be working itself open. He leaned back and turned on his shoulder lamps. In the light beams, he saw a tree branch sticking through the door above as someone worked it into place to prop it open.
“We found something to jam in the trap door,” Randon explained, “but a fox of yours named Argus almost fell through on top of you trying to get it in there.”
“I see it, and I was right. There is a metal chain attached to the bottom of the trap door that runs laterally through what looks like a rudimentary pulley to a small block of stone – a counter weight.”
“We're going to pull him up now.”
Thorne turned off his lamps and then brushed the new sand from atop his son's face. He gave a tug on the rope and said, “Ready.” The slack disappeared from the rope and then Cinjin lifted from the sand.
Satisfied he needed do nothing more for a few minutes, he plunged his hands beneath the sand and began searching for Scarlet's body. He had no idea how deep the sand might be in the middle, but he didn't find anything right away. He dug deeper so that his bubble helmet was lying against the sand, and then he felt something at the fingertips of his gloves.
He tried to dig deeper, but fine sand continued to fill in every attempt he made to reach it. He increased his effort and somehow managed to attain what he had found. His fingers curled around something that felt like an arm, so he began to heave upward on it as hard as he could.
When he got the buried item up into the light, he found himself holding the forearm of skeletal bone. Strips of old, dried cloth wound around the arm, but he knew it was far too old to have belonged to Scarlet. He tossed it out of the pit, where it bounced onto the stone floor with a clatter that made him jump.
He set his jaw in determination and began to feel around in the sand in other areas. The pile was not as deep as he had thought it might be, and he touched the bottom in places around the outer edges. Even as more sand fell from above, he glanced over at the sloped trough to the side and began scooping sand toward it.
He worked quickly but the suit he wore wasn't configured to cool the body. He began to pant from the excessive exertion and felt as if he were overheating. The tanks continued to supply him with air, but the toil of recent fighting combined with the effort of digging made him weary.
Despite this, however, he managed to scoop a great quantity of sand down the trough and into the abyss below. He found more parts of the canine skeleton that went with the arm bone, but rather than toss out the pieces as he had done earlier, he pitched them down the trough.
His side hadn't given him much trouble since Renee had treated it, but he put so much exertion into his task that it began to bother him again despite the medication. He had made a lot of progress, but he had to force himself to stop to rest. He sat down in the sand and spread out his feet out in front of him. He checked a gauge mounted to the left arm of the suit and frowned at the amount of air left in his tanks. His work had depleted more of the air than usual. Were it not for the sand that continued to fall from the ceiling, he might have been tempted to shed the helmet. If the oxygen level fell too low, he may have to do that anyway.
Aramis gathered himself together and rolled back over onto his knees. He scooped sand toward the trough again, but it only took a couple moments before he realized that he had nearly reached the bottom of the bowl. He continued to find smaller bones scattered beneath the sand, but of another body there was nothing to be found.
He felt stunned when the realization hit him. Had Cinjin lied about killing her and disposing of her in the pit? He didn't think so. The young wolf had been cocky about divulging the details of his deed, and had seemed almost proud of what he had done.
Thorne's eyes fell upon the sloped tough and followed it with his gaze to the dark crevasse. He got to his feet, stepped out of the sand pit and walked parallel to the trough. When he got to the end, he held onto the rock wall beside him and stared down into an abyss.
He knelt down and reached under the flap of a pocket on his left leg. He pulled out one of the flares Randon had mentioned and then stood back up. He closed his eyes, tapped one end of the amber tube on the rock beside him, and suddenly the chamber lit up in a brilliant blue-white light. He dropped the flare into the crevasse and then peered down into the abyss to watch its decent into the depths.
The wolf saw glimpses of rock outcrops where sand and bones had caught, but he saw nothing recent. The crevasse seemed bottomless. The flare bounced off the wall a few times, but continued to fall far below his field of vision. If it ever hit the floor, he never heard its impact. The flare simply vanished into the abyss.
“We have him,” Randon's voice suddenly erupted from the suit speakers.
Aramis reached up to the call switch and toggled it. “Acknowledged.”
There was a pause, and then Randon spoke again in a quiet, solemn voice. “Did you find her?”
“No,” he replied. “Her body is not here.”
“Not there? Cinjin said he—”
“Randon, the sand drains away from the bottom trap into a deep crevasse,” Aramis said hoarsely. “I dropped a flare into it, but never saw it hit bottom. He was right. King Chaaq's death chamber assures that anyone tossed down here would never be found.”
“I'm sorry, my friend,” the cougar said. “I know you loved her deeply.”
Aramis didn't reply. He dropped his hand from the call switch and rested his head against the wall. He swallowed with difficulty and cleared his throat to relieve a bit of the pressure.
“Hold tight for a bit,” Randon said presently. “I've sent one of your men out to get a rock to tie to the end of the rope so we can lower it back down to you.”
Aramis looked back down into the abyss with a heavy heart and imagined her voice singing to him from the depths in a wordless song. For a brief moment, the wolf actually considered joining her in the darkness, but then shook his head as if to rid himself of the thought.
Aramis backed away from the crevasse and walked over to the ring of stones. He didn't step back into the sand trap, but instead looked at the cavern around him.
He glanced up at the images on the walls until his attention settled on the carved steps. He moved to them, as if pulled toward them magnetically, and found himself standing beside a small archway to a dark corridor that he had missed seeing earlier. The steps led up the wall beside him, but he decided to investigate the archway instead.
He turned on his shoulder lamps again and stepped into the passageway. It led for several meters before it made a sharp turn to the left. When he rounded the corner, he stopped and stared.
The chamber was larger than the one he had just departed, filled from wall to wall with gold… There were piles of gold coins, stacks of gold plates, goblets, and bowls and mounds of golden jewelry. There were ingots of gold as large as his helmet, stacked like cordwood against the walls, and he could see rich veins of gold running all through the walls of the grotto itself. The walls here were not the common granite that most of these mountains seemed to be made of, but were a darker, softer material where the gold seemed to flourish. As he gazed around the room, he realized that this was the source of the Hoenix wealth!
He looked around the room and felt dizzy. The gold had tarnished over the years, but was still a magnificent sight. The crate of gold coins he had promised his crew was but a pittance of what was in the antechamber he would disclose to Randon. The treasure there, however, was insignificant against what he saw before him.
Aramis reached out and picked up a golden goblet. He raised it into his lamp beams and studied it. Despite the age of the artifact, it had been artistically etched with intricate scrolls and hieroglyphs of such quality to be awe-inspiring. The historian in him came to life and he tried to visualize what King Chaaq's lifestyle must have been like. It was unknown what had caused the downfall of the lupine king's reign and civilization, and why the city had been abandoned with such wealth stored beneath the throne room. Whatever the reason, he was likely the only person in the last few hundred years to see the spectacle before him.
Randon and his human master could have the antechamber full of gold coins for all he cared, but despite his discovery, Aramis felt no real joy with his newfound treasure chamber. Without Scarlet to share it with, all the riches of Hoenix meant little to him.
Thorne heaved a heavy sigh and put the goblet back down where he had found it. He turned around and retraced his steps back out into the main chamber. He looked up toward the trap door for the rope and rock, but there was nothing there yet.
He looked at the carved steps beside him and decided to see where they might lead. He started up slowly at first, but then he quickened his pace. He walked up the steps around the perimeter of the room. He had no fear of heights, but the steps were narrow and he was consciously aware of the drop beside him.
When he reached the top, he found another archway and a darkened corridor. He was about to switch on his lamps, but suddenly had a suspicion it would be best if he didn't. He walked blindly into the passageway, and like the one he had found below, it only went a few meters before it turned sharply to the right.
He found himself in a small alcove that stopped at what appeared to be a solid wall, but he assumed the barrier in front of him was another secret entrance. There was a difference here, however. He could hear voices and could see a small pinpoint of light. He turned his nose to the side and put an eye up to the light as close as the helmet would allow.
He could see several people milling around in a large chamber and he suddenly realized it was the throne room. The eyehole he peered through must be hidden within one of the carvings in the wall behind the throne itself.
Of course! The king wouldn't go through the sand funnel to visit his treasure chamber. This had to have been his secret entrance down to the trove. Surely, no one would willingly go through the sand funnel, especially if its existence as a death sentence was known to others in the court. Clever… he thought.
Aramis turned and retraced his way back down the steps, musing over what he had seen. By the time he reached the bottom, the end of the rope lowered back down to him with a grapefruit-size stone tied to it.
“I am still here,” Aramis replied as he stepped back into the sand pile.
“I understand how disappointed you must be about not finding Scarlet, but have you had a chance to look around down there?”
Thorne peered up at the descending rock and made a quick decision. “There's nothing here but sand, rock and death,” he told his ex-partner. “I'm ready to come back out into the sun.”
“We will have you up shortly,” Randon promised. “Don't forget our agreement. I have kept my end of the bargain. I want no tricks.”
“No tricks, Zef. The contents of our agreement are yours.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.