If being within ten feet of a single Chimera was nerve-wracking, being in the middle of a few thousand of them was positively frightening, and not a little awe-inspiring. As Josiah and Idriys followed along behind Sub-nakht-re, they couldn’t help but shiver whenever one of the creatures turned its pale golden eyes upon them, looking at them with an expression that was some mixture between curiosity and hunger. The two were careful to say nothing and to remain close to their guide. As Sub-nakht-re proceeded through the camp, the other Chimerae quickly moved to get out of his way, yet even in their haste, there was an gravity about the creatures that projected timelessness.
Sub-nakht-re led them to the center of the camp, where sat the largest Chimera that either Josiah or Idriys had ever seen. It appeared old, as old as the mountains that they strode through; the vibrant reds and oranges of his skin had faded to be almost black, and many deep scars ran across his body. As they approached, Sub-nakht-re bowed low, and Josiah and Idriys felt that it would be unwise to ignore his lead. The massive Chimera spoke in a deep, rumbling voice that seemed to shake the very foundations of the earth. “My child,” it said. “You have returned.”
“Yes, mother,” Sub-nakht-re said, still bowed low, “And I have brought with me two humans who may aid us in our war against the Father.”
“Humans?” the ancient Chimera said. “What use are they to us? They are fickle, weak creatures.”
“They bring information, and they request sanctuary among us,” said Sub-nakht-re. “The Father is no longer Tao-barren. He has learned of the forbidden magics. He is plucking the life from his people to make himself strong.”
There was a deep rumbling that swept through the crowd of Chimerae gathered around them. The large Chimera in the center gave what could only be a cry of rage. “Is this true?” it asked, turning on Josiah and Idriys. “What proof have you of this?”
Idriys stepped forward. “I am – was – personal physician to the White King himself. I can attest to the truth of what Sub-nakht-re speaks.”
Sub-nakht-re continued, “The Father is seeking to once again bend us to his will, and if we do not act soon, we shall not be able to prevent him.”
The large Chimera looked at Sub-nakht-re and said, “Be that as it may; you have not answered my question. Why are the humans among us?”
Sub-nakht-re replied, “Because of the humans, the Father has exposed himself to our armies. A human informant was paid handsomely to give up these men to the Father’s knight; it was believed that the Father himself would wish to attend their trial. We may be able to end this war and free ourselves forever.”
Josiah looked up at that remark. “You used us as bait? That was not part of our arrangement!”
Idriys kicked him sharply, but Sub-nakht-re turned and said dispassionately, “The arrangement changed.”
Josiah made to protest again, but Idriys clamped his hand tightly around Josiah’s arm and hissed at him, “Be quiet!”
Sub-nakht-re turned back to the large Chimera. “The humans requested our help and sanctuary, and once they played their part, I saw no reason to deny their request. After all, we share common goals. The large one is a wanted criminal in the Father’s lands, and is quite proficient with Tao for one of their kind.”
“That was not your decision to make,” the Chimera reprimanded. “Nevertheless, it has been done.” It motioned to one of its attendants. “Take the humans away; prepare a place for them while we decide what is to be done.”
The attendant bowed, and moved adjacent to the two men; Idriys took a small step forward. “Please, ma’am,” he said. “One of our compatriots was captured in our escape from Castle Whitefall. He is very dear to me. What can be done for him?”
The large Chimera paused before responding. “You are bold, human, to address the Matriarch of the Chimerae with such a trivial request.” Idriys’s face twitched slightly, but he made no other move. “However, it may be as Sub-nakht-re has said; our desires may be aligned in this matter. However, for now, you must leave. There is war to be planned.”
Josiah and Idriys allowed themselves to be led away to a small tent that appeared to have been recently prepared for their arrival. They crawled inside to find a rather Spartan, but not altogether uncomfortable, dwelling. When the Chimera had left them, Josiah turned to Idriys and said, “I always suspected you were a lunatic, but now I know for certain. What possessed me to allow you to talk me into this?”
Idriys laid back on a bedroll in the tent and closed his eyes. “My genteel nature and innate charm, I am sure,” he responded.
Josiah snorted. “Yes, I’m sure that’s it. I’ve just always wanted to be used as pawns by the Chimerae to lure the White King away. Here I was sure that Cameron had given us away the whole time, and instead it turns out to be the very creatures we are trying to ally with.”
Idriys sat up at this, a puzzled expression on his face. “Actually, I’ve been meaning to ask you about that,” he said. “During the attack, you could have just let Cameron go. But you didn’t. Why?”
Josiah shrugged. “I don’t know”, he said. “I hate the man, doesn’t necessarily mean I want him in the hand of the White King.”
Idriys said nothing. Josiah continued, “Looks like I was wrong about him, anyways. He didn’t betray us to Ser Robert. Could’ve sworn…” his voice trailed off.
“Cameron means well. He has always meant well; I know you didn’t always see eye to eye, but he is a good man,” Idriys said.
Josiah said, “You were always the sensible one of us, Idriys. Cameron was too naïve; he was always getting in my way. And when Evelyn…”
“Do you still mean to bring her back, Josiah? Have you learned nothing from Tao’lin?”
“No, Idriys, I have learned much. This time will be different.”
There was silence for some time. Then Idriys said, “Josiah… what happened at Gavin’s Wold? Did you really kill those people?’
“Don’t ask me questions you don’t want to know the answer to!” Josiah snapped. “Anyways, it was a long time ago.”
Idriys looked grave. “Josiah, I must know. I have long moved past judging you for your actions – only the gods may do that – but I cannot continue with this journey without knowing the character of my companions.”
Josiah refused to look at Idriys. “Yes,” he said after a long time. “I killed them. I was experimenting with some new strains of Tao. They tried to stop me. They said it was against the law. I was beyond caring about the law – only Evelyn. When they tried to use force, I stopped them. All of them.”
Idriys nodded, but said nothing else. Soon, the two men were fast asleep, exhausted from their long journey.
In the distance, Evelyn Diamadre sat perched atop a large boulder, staring hatefully at the Chimeraen camp. Her black robe had gotten torn in many places during her climb up the mountains after Josiah and Idriys, and her body was covered in grotesque black bruises. Slowly her head lolled back and forth, as if she were sleeping, and her shoulders began to slump. One of her feet slipped, and she nearly fell the ten feet or so off the rock, but something seemed to jerk her awake, and she caught herself. She reached into a pouch at her side and pulled out several leaves of Tao, crushing them in her fist and swallowing them hungrily. Within seconds, her body seemed rejuvenated; her head was upright, and she sat stiff and eagle-eyed, looking out across the valley.
“Despicable Chimerae,” she muttered to herself hoarsely. “Keeping Josiah and Idriys. We can’t kill them yet, no we can’t, the Chimerae are in the way. Wish they were all dead. Dead! Then we would be happy. We would kill Josiah and Idriys and Cameron for what they did to us. Kill them dead, we would. Dead! Let their souls be eaten by monsters for once, and then we can be alive again.”
She made a motion as though she were going to climb off the rock towards the Chimeraen camp, but she caught herself. “Can’t go there yet!” she said to herself. “Too many Chimerae. They’ll kill you dead, dead! We must wait, wait until the Chimerae abandon them. Then we will strike. Kill them all, Josiah, and Cameron, and Idriysss…” Her voice trailed off into a faint hiss, and quick as lightning, her thin, petite hand snaked out and snatched up a small nightingale that had the misfortune of landing next to her. Idly she caressed the struggling bird with her left hand, while holding it tightly in her right. Then, an thin smile crossed her face, and she snapped the bird’s neck in one swift motion, ending its song forever. She tossed the bird’s carcass away into the night, whispering one word as she did so: “Dead.”