“Go back! We have to go back!” shouted Idriys as Sub-nakht-re tore up the side of the mountain. He could still hear the shouts of the soldiers and Warlocks as they regrouped and looked for a path up the cliff face. “Cameron is back there!” Idriys shouted again.
“There is no time,” responded the Chimera. “If we return, we will be overwhelmed. I can withstand much injury, but a Chimera is not invincible, and I will not be able to fight them off while protecting both of you. I am afraid your companion will have to suffer under the care of the White King a bit longer – if he is even still alive.”
“No! You must go back! You must!” Idriys’s pleading voice was becoming hysterical.
“We continue on,” said Sub-nakht-re. “If I were you, I would suggest you tend to Josiah’s wounds. When he awakes, he will be in full thrall of your Tao-sickness, and will be much more difficult to care for.”
Idriys fought to bring his rage and fear under control. The Chimera was right, he knew, but that did not make him feel any less like he was abandoning his friend. He forced himself to examine Josiah’s wounds; most were minor scrapes, and thankfully the arrow seemed to have missed all of his vital organs. “He will live,” Idriys told the Chimera. “But I cannot remove this arrow while we climb. We should find someplace safe that we can rest and recover for a short while.”
The Chimera growled unpleasantly. “It is unfortunate,” it said, “but I believe you are right. When we reach the top, we will rest, and you may tend to your companion’s wounds.”
They climbed for several more minutes, though it seemed like an eternity to Idriys. He clutched tightly to Josiah’s limp body, trying to balance him and keep him from falling. Idriys glanced down once or twice, and immediately regretted it. The place they had rested was far below them; he saw no signs of the militia who had been chasing them, but that meant little.
When they reached the top, Idriys let Josiah slide off the side of the Chimera, before himself dismounting wearily. The Chimera stood guard a few feet away, and told Idriys, “You must hurry. We have little time.” Idriys took a leaf of Tao with healing properties from his pouch, and broke off a small piece, swallowing it. The Chimera looked at him, a look of concern on its face. “I cannot shepherd two who are overcome with Tao-sickness,” it said.
“I will be fine,” Idriys said. “The small amount I took will do little more than give me a headache for a few hours.” He began to examine Josiah’s wound in more detail; then, very slowly and carefully, he began to pull the arrow from Josiah’s body. The wound immediately began gushing blood, and Idriys pressed down on it with all his force. He passed his hand over the area once, and the blood immediately began to clot. He took out a needle and thread from his bag, and began to deftly sew the wound closed. “I am sorry I cannot provide you with faster healing,” he murmured, “but Sub-nakht-re is right. I cannot allow myself to become incapacitated at this time.”
When he was finished, the Chimera said, “Let us continue on. We must put as much distance between us and them this day as we can. Will you be able to support your friend riding until he regains consciousness?”
“I believe so,” said Idriys. “I will do what I must.” He climbed back on top of the Chimera, awkwardly pushing Josiah up ahead of him, trying to avoid any of the Chimera’s deadly spines. Once they were situated, the Chimera continued on its journey.
Josiah regained consciousness about twenty minutes later; the first thing he did was to scream loudly. His eyes were wild, and rolled back in his head, as sweat broke forth on his temples. He began gibbering loudly in some strange, unknown language, and swatted at his arms and legs as though trying to knock something off of them.
“You must keep him quiet!” hissed the Chimera. “He will betray our position to every knight in the area… and whatever else is out there,” he added, almost as an afterthought. Idriys struggled to get him under control, finally tearing a strip of cloth from his tunic and gagging Josiah’s mouth. He clutched Josiah’s arms tightly to his side, trying to soothe the fever and hallucinations that Josiah was experiencing. After several minutes, they began to subside, and Idriys was able to remove the gag. Then Josiah just sat and clenched his head in his hands, moaning softly. Idriys could sympathize; his Tao-sickness had just kicked in, and he felt as though cannons were exploding in his mind. He forced himself to push through the pain and stay alert.
They continued in this fashion long into the night. Josiah said little for the rest of the day, occasionally clutching his side in pain. Idriys kept nodding off, exhausted. He nearly fell of the Chimera several times, just barely catching himself in time. Finally, he said to Sub-nakht-re, “We have to stop and rest. I cannot go any further. We must stop.”
The Chimera responded, “It is an unfortunate limitation of human-folk. But there is nothing to be done. We will stop as soon as a safe place is found.” They continued on for a short ways before Sub-nakht-re said, “There is a small cave in the side of that cliff. If you can stand one more climb, we will rest there for the remainder of the night.”
Idriys groaned, but there was nothing to be done. The Chimera began the ascent, Idriys and Josiah clinging to its back. When they arrived, a brutal half-hour later, Josiah and Idriys slid off the Chimera’s back and fell asleep almost immediately. The Chimera began weaving together a series of warding spells to guard the area, and began another tireless vigil over the two men. Josiah slept restlessly; despite Idriys’s work, he was in a substantial amount of pain, and dreamt fevered, fitful dreams. On the other hand, Idriys slept deeply and dreamlessly.
In the morning, they both awoke to a howling, whistling wind that blew through the mountains with the icy vengeance of a winter long kept at bay. The first flurries of snow we just beginning to appear, tossed about in all directions by the violent wind. When they awoke, the Chimera said, “Wait here, and keep watch for a time. I will hunt.” Idriys nodded his assent, shivering slightly.
About ten minutes later, the Chimera returned, carrying the carcass of a mountain goat carefully in its bladed arms. Sub-nakht-re set the goat down, and said, “Eat. You will need all your strength today.”
Josiah grimaced and put a hand to his side. “You expect us to eat that raw?” he said.
“We are too exposed here,” the Chimera responded. “A fire would be visible for miles.”
Idriys made a face, but said, “Sub-nakht-re is right. We must eat and we cannot cook.” He tore off a hunk of flesh and bit into it, making a choking noise as he swallowed. Disgruntledly, Josiah followed suit. The first few bites of the meat were disgusting, but the two men grew slightly more accustomed to it as they continued.
Finally, Josiah stood, wiping the blood from his face. “I’ve had enough of this, and I hope to never eat it again. Let’s get moving.”
The Chimera reduced the goat carcass to a small pile of ashes. “Today, we shall meet up with my brethren,” it said, motioning up to the top of the nearby mountains that towered into the sky. Idriys turned slightly green as he pictured the incredible distances that they must be climbing to reach the top – and consequently, the incredible distances they would fall if they could not hang on. “You must burn Tao within yourselves to stay warm; it will be much colder once we reach the mountain peaks,” said the Chimera matter-of-factly. “However, do not overdose! Your Tao-sickness tonight must not be severe!” it warned. The two men nodded, and swallowed small pieces of Tao before remounting the Chimera.
The morning dragged on uneventfully. In regions that were not too steep, the Chimera allowed Josiah and Idriys to walk and stretch their legs some; however, most of the time, they were clinging to the Chimera’s back as they proceeded up a sheer cliff. Josiah and Idriys said little; Idriys was too scared of falling to talk, and Josiah seemed content to keep his thoughts private. About midway through the morning, they encountered the snowline, and Idriys was happy for the internal warmth the Tao provided. He imagined his fingers freezing to the Chimera’s skin, and shuddered.
At noon, the trio reached a narrow shelf in the rock wall, and the Chimera stopped. “We will rest here for a short while; the most difficult climb is yet to come, and there will be no place to rest for many hours. I will find food.”
The Chimera vanished, and Idriys inched to the edge of the rock shelf and peered over the edge for a brief second before pulling himself back quickly, dizzy with the height.
“Scared?” asked Josiah, a smirk on his face. Idriys ignored him.
A small clatter of rocks echoed up from below. “What was that?” Idriys asked quietly, tensing. Josiah shrugged unconcernedly. Idriys steeled himself and peered over the ledge again, this time managing to forestall the dizziness enough to look around for a few moments. After a brief observation, he saw a flash of movement below – it was just a small mouse, scrabbling along the side of the cliff and picking at vegetation. “Just a mouse,” he said, drawing back over the ledge.
After his head disappeared, Evelyn Diamadre stepped out from under the large rock outcropping at the base of the cliff. Long wisps of grey hair blew in the cold wind, and snowflakes landed on her skin and froze. She raised her face to the wind, drawing in a long, deep breath through her nose, as though smelling for something faint and far away. Her eyes had a dull red glint, as though reflecting the glowing embers of a dying star. Her teeth had been filed to points.
She hissed, and pulled out a handful of Tao leaves from a pouch at her side; she crushed them in her fist and devoured them greedily, and her muscles grew larger. Her skin became a dull grey, blending in with the rock walls, and she began to climb up the cliff, repeating the same names over and over in a guttural, awful voice: “Josssiah Burroughssss… Idriyssss Vydar… Cameron Ssseamusss… Jossiah Burroughsss… Idriysss Vydar… Cameron Ssseamuss…” As she climbed, the rocks that her hands and feet touched cracked and froze solid, her very touch turning them to ice. Her feet were bare, and covered in scrapes and cuts, but no blood ran from the wounds. Several shards of rock embedded themselves in her toes as her feet found their footholds, but she ignored the injuries and continued climbing, always repeating those three names in a faint, soft hiss.
Sub-nakht-re returned with another mountain goat; Josiah and Idriys ate of it begrudgingly, and they continued on their journey. The Chimera climbed well into the night, and the two humans continued to burn their Tao to keep them warm. Nevertheless, the lack of oxygen and the cold were making Idriys drowsy, and he fought to remain awake. On more than one occasion, he looked back behind them, and thought he saw a pair of dark, glowing eyes behind them, but whenever he looked more closely, they were never there. He wrote it off as his imagination and lack of rest.
Finally, after climbing for nearly ten hours, the three reached the crest of the mountain, and they looked out over the valley on the other side. Though they could not make out the details, the two humans thought they could see hundreds upon thousands of large, shadowed figures slowly moving about below them. Sub-nakht-re opened his mouth and howled, a terrible bone-chilling blast of sound, and the valley below erupted in answer. They had arrived at the camp of the Chimeraen army.