Meanwhile, in a low river valley that cut through the rolling foothills at the base of the Cedarbrook mountains, Josiah, Idriys, and Cameron sat, bundled in the warmest things they had, trying to keep out the creeping cold. The towering grey clouds ominously covering the tops of the Cedarbrook signaled that the season’s first snowfall would soon occur, yet no fire would be lit that night, for fear that it would be spotted by the Duke’s militia. Nearby, practically invisible against the deep black hollow that made their hiding place, the Chimera Sub-nakht-re stood keeping watch.
“You must remain warm,” the Chimera commanded in a deep, growling voice, speaking in the harsh language the Chimerae used when communicating with other species. “You are of no use without life.”
“That’d be a lot easier to do if you’d let us light a fire,” Josiah grumbled bitterly.
“Fire is not permitted,” said the Chimera. “We are too close to hostile lands.”
Josiah scoffed. “They won’t find us here,” he grumbled. “Nobody will expect us to have made it this far; they don’t know about our help. We were able to cover much greater ground than humans on foot would have been able to.”
The towering beast could be seen to stiffen slightly in the gloom. “The other human-folk are not stupid,” he said. “They will see signs of a Chimera, and know that one helped you escape. And you will not reveal to my brethren that I carried you,” he continued, eyes glinting warningly, “or I will have no compunctions about doing to you as I did to the scout.” He then turned and resumed his watch, keen eyes piercing far into the darkness. The Chimerae did not sleep.
The Chimerae were strange and frightening creatures, yet oddly beautiful, from a certain perspective. They most closely resembled large, wingless dragons, with sharp, poisonous spines running down the length of their backs. Great incisors hung menacingly from their mouths, and their arms were nothing more than long, extremely sharp bone protruding from short stubs of flesh and scales. An average Chimera stood nearly twice as tall as a man, and were terrifyingly strong. However, none of these attributes caused as much fear as the fact that the Chimerae were masters of Tao. They had magical abilities far beyond that of any human Warlock. They could sense the Tao from miles away, and it was said that a group of three or four Chimerae could move the very earth itself, causing it to open up underneath their enemies, and cause mountains to rise up from the continents in just a few short hours. Rumor had it that the creatures were in fact physical manifestations of Tao energy – in essence, the Chimera were the Tao. As with all rumors, this one contained a kernel of truth, though in reality the explanation of the Chimerae’s existence, and the source of their power, was much more complicated.
The gloom continued to deepen, and slowly the three companions drifted into a cold, fitful sleep. Every so often, an owl would call out, its low hooting voice echoing through the night. It was answered by another owl, further away. Once, a tree branch cracked sharply near the makeshift camp, and the Chimera tensed, listening for more sounds. Moments later, a pudgy possum trundled through the makeshift camp, nose low to the ground, pausing occasionally to chew on some bit of grass or leaves on the ground. The Chimera relaxed slightly, and continued its watch. As the night progressed, small tics betrayed an increase in anticipation and nervousness, as though the Chimera were waiting for something; but the night was still.
Finally, in the bitter hours of the morning, just before the grey light signaling the start of dawn, another Chimera slipped noiselessly into the camp. It bowed low to Sub-nakht-re, and said in a soft voice, “Hai, Sub-nakht-re. What news?”
Sub-nakht-re gestured at the sleeping bundles on the ground. “The prisoners have been rescued from Castle Whitefall. They are unharmed – a bit underfed, perhaps, and cold – but they will live.”
“Good,” said the other Chimera. “You must proceed cautiously from this point forward. The Duke has dispatched many more mounted scouts, and they are patrolling between you and our encampment. It is critical that you are not seen; the time is not yet come.”
Sub-nakht-re nodded gravely. “It is unfortunate that I had to destroy the one scout already,” he said. “I had hoped to avoid them altogether. But it cannot be helped now. We shall leave soon.”
“There is more,” replied the other. “The ghola has escaped her imprisonment, and is tracking you.”
The expression on Sub-nakht-re’s face was unreadable. “This is serious,” he said. “The Duke’s men do not worry me; a ghola is much more dangerous. How much of a lead do we have?”
“It is unclear. Maat-ka-set saw her leaving Castle Whitefall in the late morning, but she evaded his attempts to follow her. By now, you may only have a few hours on her if she was able to find your trail.”
“Of that, I am sure. The ghola will not be far behind us. We must move quickly.”
“Agreed,” the other Chimera responded. “I will offer what assistance I may, but the next portion of your journey will be perilous, nonetheless. Move with haste and caution.”
Sub-nakht-re bowed low in agreement, and the other Chimera slipped away into the night, as silently as it came. Sub-nakht-re sat still, deep in thought, for a few moments, before bending low over the three sleeping humans. “It is time,” it said, its hot breath steaming in the morning air. “We must move again, and quickly.”
Idriys rose quickly, looking as refreshed as one could expect, given the circumstances. Cameron groaned, and rolled over on his side, trying to shut out the Chimera’s face. Josiah snapped, “At this ungodly hour? I know you don’t sleep, but we humans need to.”
The Chimera responded with a faint tinge of rebuke in his voice. “Your Duke’s scouts are between us and our destination,” he said. “If we do not move soon, they will find this camp, and I do not wish to destroy and more of them at this time.”
Idriys muttered under his breath, “I don’t see why you needed to murder that one yesterday, either.”
“It was necessary,” the Chimera replied. “We cannot afford to be found yet. And in any event, the matter is irrelevant. Now we must decamp.” He lightly prodded Cameron and Josiah with the point of one of his blades.
“Ow! Damn creature, I’m getting up already!” Josiah exclaimed.
“Your anger is not beneficial, human,” the Chimera said. “You will refrain from such remarks in the future.”
Josiah’s face darkened, but he made no further comment. When the three humans had arisen, the Chimera spoke a word, and the hollow was swept clean of any trace that they had been there.
The four continued on their journey, rising up into the low flanks of the Cedarbrook mountains, the three humans clung awkwardly to the back of the Chimera, trying to avoid impaling themselves on the poison spines running down its back. After a few hours of this, Josiah finally released his hold on the creature, and tumbled to the ground, bruising his left knee on a rock. “Enough! Enough of this, for the gods’ sake! My arms are going to fall from my body if you do not give us a break.”
The Chimera stopped, and said, “You are right. It is a good time to rest, we have made much good progress this morning.” The other two climbed down awkwardly from the Chimera’s back, and sat down on a large nearby boulder, nursing their bumps and bruises. The Chimera turned and said, “Wait here, and make no sound. I will scout out the way ahead and see if it is clear. I will return shortly.” With that, it faded into thin air, and the three companions were left alone.
Josiah sat on the ground, rubbing his wounded knee. “What a grand adventure you’re taking us, Idriys,” he said sardonically. “I wish we got to spend every day with that thing.”
Idriys looked at him with disdain. “If it weren’t for that ‘thing’, Josiah, we’d still be rotting in the Whitefall prison waiting for the White King to show up,” he said. “Treat him with a bit of respect.”
“I’ll treat him with respect as soon as he starts treating me with respect,” Josiah complained.
Cameron piped in. “Don’t be foolish, Josiah. That Chimera can disembowel you without even thinking.”
Josiah glared. “If it’s going to disembowel anyone, it ought to be you,” he said accusingly.
Cameron sighed. “Will you give it a rest, Josiah? I can’t convince you that I’m not lying, but I won’t sit here and listen to you insult me forever.”
“Is that a threat, Cameron?” Josiah started to say, but Idriys cut him off.
“Hush!” he said. “Someone’s coming.”
The three of them froze. For a minute, they heard nothing, and then a voice said only a few dozen feet away, “This way! I thought I heard voices over here!” Then, slow, cautious footsteps approached, metallic boots crunching in the hard mountain gravel. All of a sudden, a fully-armored knight stepped around a large rock outcropping. An expression of surprise passed over his features as he saw the three men sitting there, and then he shouted out, “I’ve found them!” just as Idriys dove for the man, tackling him to the ground.
Shouts rang out around them, and the clatter of feet came rushing towards the area. Idriys was on top of the knight, pummeling the knight with his fists. Josiah jumped to his feet, pulled a leaf of Tao out of a pouch at his waist, and crushed it in his hand. He tossed the flakes into his mouth and swallowed them down in one fast motion. Cameron dove for the ground behind the boulder, pulling a small dagger from a sheath at his side, waiting for the approaching footsteps.
Suddenly, a hail of arrows clattered on the rocks around them; Josiah looked up and saw several archers standing on a nearby ridge, second round of arrows already nocked. He concentrated, muttering words under his breath, as he pulled the force of Tao into existence. His fists burst into flame, and he made a throwing motion; a jet of fire flung from his body towards the archers, and they scattered out of the way, their arrows flying harmlessly to the side. Josiah grunted in satisfaction.
A second knight came into the clearing, sword at the ready, and Cameron plowed into his knees, stabbing and swiping with his dagger, seeking a chink in the knight’s armor. After a few attempts, the dagger drove home, and the man sunk to the ground, blood spilling out. Idriys was behind the first knight now, choking him. Some of the archers had regained their balance, and were now loosing arrows into the melee from behind partial cover, taking shots whenever they saw an opening. Nevertheless, Josiah had conjured a fierce wind that was sending their shots wild.
Horses hooves rang out, and more shouts echoed off the boulders. Idriys appeared to have subdued the knight that was attacking him. “Josiah!” he shouted. “We can’t hold them off any longer. We’ve got to get out of here!”
“Where in the nine hells is that Chimera?” Josiah shouted back. “We’ve got no hope of escape without him!”
At that instant, the boulder that Cameron was crouched behind exploded in a shower of rock and gravel. Shrapnel flew through the air, several pieces striking Cameron and Idriys, digging deep into their skin. Cameron cried out in pain as five mounted horsemen rode through the resulting cloud of dust; the riders wore deep red robes, and their hands wove complicated symbols of binding through the air. “Warlocks!” Josiah shouted out, and immediately began to counter their spells, but it was clear that their combined power was far too much for Josiah to withstand.
Then, with a clap of deafening thunder, Sub-nakht-re appeared in their midst. Time seemed to slow as the Chimera’s roar ricocheted through the mountains, and as the beast swept its long, scythe-like arms through the air, a tremendous push of Tao flooded from him. The Warlocks were hurled from their mounts, crashing into nearby boulders, and slumping to the ground unconscious. Their mounts lost their balance and stumbled to the ground; one toppled over the side of a cliff and fell to the bottom, screaming and neighing the whole way down, before landing with a sickening thud.
“We must leave now!” Sub-nakht-re roared, and Idriys and Josiah ran to it, jumping on its back. Cameron unsteadily got to his feet, blood dripping from several gashes in his arms and face, and tried to run to the Chimera, when an arrow from the nearby archers struck him in the leg, no longer impeded by Josiah’s gale. He stumbled to the ground, arms outstretched. Instinctively, Josiah reached out a hand and caught him, as Sub-nakht-re began to move. Cameron, using the support to pull himself half to his feet, began to stumble-run behind the Chimera, still clutching at Josiah’s arm.
A hateful look crossed over Josiah’s face as he realized the position he had Cameron in. He could just… let go, and leave Cameron to his fate, and no one could say a word against him. He could even feel Cameron’s fingers slipping a little bit… He could do it! He would do it! And then, he screwed up his face in determination, and swung out his other arm to Cameron, grabbing on to him with all his strength, legs twisted precariously around the Chimera’s body. “You traitorous little bastard,” he shouted, words nearly lost to the wind, “If anybody’s going to kill you, it’s going to be me, not the lackeys of the White King! Now get up here!”
Then Josiah grunted as an arrow slammed into his chest, and he blacked out, coming dangerously close to falling off Sub-nakht-re before Idriys grabbed him and pulled him back on. Cameron screamed as he lost his grip and fell to the ground, a look of terror and disbelief in his eyes.