The trio hiked along the base of a scraggly knoll under the midday sun. Tali had at least stopped complaining about the dirt soiling her dress, and now joined Aberny in eyeing the skies for any sign of their foe. Ralynn kept an easy, if steady, pace ahead, one blade always out as he scanned the wild brush and every dip and curve of the earth in case the chimera crouched in wait.
When the others weren't looking, Aberny wrung a pinky finger in either ear.
How did he still hear Whistledown's fluting charms in the distance? Even if they remained closed enough, normally they only played at night, when the lake breezes blew through the village. Had the chimera's attack jarred him more than he thought?
He tried to distract himself by scanning the rolling landscape, with its high grasses, occasional groves, and streams. How did such a verdant area host such a deadly creature? Where did it lurk? Chimeras often holed up in their dens between meals. Yet this stretch of land lacked any significant caves he knew of, having hastily studied a few maps before they set out.
Not more than half an hour later, Ralynn crouched and touched a patch of earth. Aberny and Tali hesitated, checking all about until the fighter waved them closer.
"Sign?" Aberny asked.
Ralynn shook his head and displayed fingers stained with mud. "Water nearby."
Aberny nodded, but Tali pouted in confusion.
"Water," the merchant explained, "suggests a spot where animals might come to drink on a regular basis. Tempting for predators."
They crept forward, weapons in Aberny's and Ralynn's hands, a charcoal nub and parchment in Tali's. They crested a subtle ridge and found it sloped down sharply into a rockier area, where a stream funneled in and formed a wide pool ringed by crumbling earth and stones. The place appeared undisturbed, but Aberny well knew appearances deceived only the foolish.
Tali wriggled in delight. "Gorgeous. I must fix this place in my mind."
As she dangled bare feet over the ridge and outlined the geography, Ralynn shifted closer to Aberny, voice lowered.
"I think the beast is close, but waiting to catch us off guard again. How about we use her as bait?"
Aberny narrowed his eyes. "You're that desperate for the bounty?"
Ralynn raised both hands. "I never make a bet I don't intend to win. But I'm not saying we let her get eaten. We'll divert it before it reaches her."
The screams of Aberny's men briefly intruded on his thoughts until he shoved them back. He shook his head. "No. I'll go down with her while you watch our backs."
Ralynn shrugged. "Won't stop you."
Calling Tali to help him refill their waterskins, Aberny led her into the depression, trying not to skid too much on scree and raise a clatter. When they reached the pool, he set his staff down and kneeled to cup a palm of water. As he swallowed, he glanced at Tali's sketch, noting she'd expertly captured the rocky pool, but had added a few embellishments, including scattered animal skeletons and the chimera itself crouched among the bodies.
"Preparing a morbid masterpiece?" he asked.
She held the parchment out, eyeing it critically. "Hm. Are the bones taking it too far?"
He peered at the chimeric figure as she filled in various details. "Are you managing that from memory last night? Impressive."
She pointed with her charcoal nub. "Oh, no. It's right over there."
Aberny raised his eyes and met the triple gaze of the chimera as it stood from its hiding spot across the pool. Its tawny, dappled hide had blended in with the yellow earth and stones, and its goat and dragon heads emerged from where they'd been tucked under the wings until then.
Ralynn must've known it was there the whole time. It couldn't have eluded his half-elven sight that easily.
The chimera's dragon maw drizzled acid, while its goat teeth gnawed a scrap of flesh that Aberny hoped didn't come from any of last night's kills. It began prowling around the pool toward them. Its ears twitched, and it spoke through its lion head alone this time.
"What's it saying?" Aberny asked Tali.
Her tongue darted over her lips. "Oh... er... something about me not being more than a nibble, while you might make a few mouthfuls."
Aberny rose, taking up his staff and drawing his sword. He used the staff to pull Tali along with him as he backed away toward Ralynn's concealed spot on the near ridge. But before they took two steps, the chimera filled the area with a three-throated roar and a great beat of wings propelled it straight at them.
The first leap sent it splashing into the middle of the pool. The second brought it onto the bank before them, where it shook itself like a wet dog, whipping out a vortex of water. In the midst of that half-blinding spray, it rushed in.
Ralynn's yell resounded as he landed on the chimera's back, swords driving down to plunge into its lungs and heart. Its water-slicked fur, though, offered no firm footing. He slipped and what might've been a death blow merely scored across the beast's ribs. The chimera screeched and reared. Ralynn dropped one sword to grab a fistful of fur, holding on as he readied for another strike.
Aberny forced himself forward, spearing the staff at the lion snout while chopping the sword whenever the dragon head wove too close.
The chimera fell back to all fours, and its wings slammed back over Ralynn, briefly clamping the fighter against its back. Then the chimera threw itself into a roll. Ralynn cried out as the creature's bulk crushed him into the earth, and he dropped off to lie stunned in the muddy gravel.
The chimera flipped back to its feet. Fangs slavered drool and acid as it approached the stunned fighter.
Then a harsh keening filled the hollow, painful enough that Aberny almost dropped his weapons to clamp hands over his ears. The chimera's heads swung around to fix on him. The creature growled deep enough to make the waters ripple, and snarled in its own tongue.
Aberny braced as it loped for him. He lashed out when it neared, but a claw struck him across the stomach, throwing him aside. He lost staff and sword as he rolled and slammed up against the base of the embankment.
The keening cut off, followed by a shriek from Tali. Aberny's jarred vision cleared just as the chimera flung itself into the sky, Tali screaming and writhing in its lion's maw. He stared aghast as the chimera made off with their small companion, following the stream as it wound out of sight among the hills. Her cries dwindled into nothing.
The merchant pushed upright, groaning at a clench of pain where the chimera had struck him. His chest would be a mass of bruises, and breathing already proved strained. A quick inspection revealed four tears and shallow cuts across his torso. Seemed he owed Desna, the goddess of luck, a few prayers.
He struggled to his feet and limped to Ralynn, who lurched up, gasping and reaching for his weapons. The half-elf stilled as he realized they stood alone.
"What happened? It fled?"
Aberny gestured to Tali's parchment, abandoned when the chimera nabbed her. It had fluttered from her grasp and landed in the pool, already a pulpy mess. "Maybe it wants to work up an appetite before it feasts."
Ralynn grimaced and rose to retrieve his short swords. Then he grunted and bent over, hand pressed to his side.
"Damn it to Hell. Must've broken a rib."
Aberny rummaged through the satchel of food and supplies he'd brought. While several had been smashed in his tumble, one healing potion had blessedly survived. He considered his own minor wounds and chances for survival. Then he handed the vial to Ralynn, who nodded gratefully and downed it.
As the fighter recovered, Aberny went to where Tali had been standing and closed his eyes to whisper a prayer of protection. Desna smile on the gnome, and may she be lucky enough to live, despite all odds.
When he opened his eyes, his gaze fell on an item where Tali had been standing. He bent over to investigate and found... a Whistledown charm. The wooden carving formed a complicated spiral, the tip secured with a metal hook where it was meant to dangle from eaves or doorways. She must've had it altered to produce the music on command, rather than just at night. Had she brought it thinking to actually mesmerize the beast or use it as a distracting weapon, as she'd just done?
He tucked this into a pocket, inert for the time. Then he turned to Ralynn, who stretched and twisted to test his healed ribs. "We have to go after her."
Ralynn frowned. "Actually, I've been rethinking my rule about never backing off from a bet."
Aberny strode over and grabbed the half-elf's collar. Ralynn stiffened, but didn't draw a blade.
"You sent us straight into its grasp just now, and her potential death is on your soul. You want to leave this hunt a coward?"
Ralynn jerked out of his grip and brushed himself off. "Better a coward than dead! And since when have you cared about someone's fate unless they put coin in your pocket? Oh, don't look surprised. You act so friendly, buying us rounds all night long—but only because we're spilling gossip you can use to get better deals. I know how it works."
"That was... that was idle business. This is life or death!"
"Thought it was all the same to you."
Aberny threw up his hands and spun away, sick of them both.
Ralynn's voice softened. "Look, there's no shame in knowing when to cut your losses. The biggest payoff doesn't mean a thing if you aren't alive to collect it. Even if we find wherever it's hauled her off to, we'll be walking straight into its territory. And it has a hostage."
Aberny stared into the water as if it might offer a solution. Then he focused on his reflection and realized he still had certain resources available. Best use them.
He turned back to the fighter. "I'll make you an offer."
Ralynn eyed him in suspicion. "Like?"
"Help me rescue her, and the bounty, plus a thousand from me, is yours. You don't even have to kill the chimera. Just as long as she lives."
The half-elf blinked. "You're serious."
Ralynn scowled, looking like a trapped beast himself, sleek figure coiled as if ready to sprint for freedom. Then he sighed and straightened. "Fine. You've got a deal."
Relieved, if slightly, Aberny pointed out the direction the beast had flown. He and Ralynn followed the river, finding it broadened farther up and cut through a ravine that would've been invisible from their trek up in the fields.
At last, Ralynn crouched and pulled Aberny down with him. He pointed ahead. The stream poured out from a wide crevice, not a hundred paces ahead. Half-hidden by overgrown grasses, the opening led into the earth beneath a large hill.
They split up and approached the crevice from opposing angles. One sword readied, Ralynn eased up and peered inside for a moment. Then he slipped in.
Aberny held his breath until the half-elf leaned back out and waved him on.
Once beyond the low stony lip, the ceiling quickly rose enough for standing room, and outside light reached past to show a natural tunnel leading into the depths of the hill. They paused, listening.
Tali's voice echoed from somewhere deeper in, indistinct. A guttural murmur followed, as if she conversed with the chimera.
Aberny's heart rose. Alive! But not for long if they bungled this.
Ralynn took the lead, using his heightened sight to guide them. After creeping through a darker section, light once more appeared ahead. After ten paces, the tunnel ended, exiting onto a wide ledge that curved around the edges of an earthy cavern.
The chimera's den lay within the hollow hill, the walls all root-snaked dirt and rock. Several wide cracks allowed shafts of sunlight in, illuminating the scene below as the pair sneaked to the edge.
Tali stood before the chimera, which lay basking in a narrow splay of sun, forepaws crossed, tail twitching. All three heads watched her, cocked as if fascinated by this odd creature it had brought back.
All around them lay spines and skulls and femurs of a dozen different creatures, including at least a few humanoids by Aberny's estimation. Tali had gathered a pile of bones and now worked them together, linked and stacked into a grisly sculpture—a fragile spread of ribs that evoked wings.
"See?" she said, as she crafted the piece. "Even in death, there's beauty. Think of it! If you let me live, I could craft you a gorgeous necklace out of nothing but vertebrae and finger bones. I don't suppose you have any gems lying about? Those could be socketed to enhance your natural glory. No? Pity. But one must work with what one has."
Ralynn and Aberny drew back while the chatter continued below.
"I don't suppose you'd let me paint you? Trap your essence for all to admire?"
Ralynn made several circling and grasping gestures with one hand. Aberny shook his head, not understanding. Did he think to try and sneak down the ledge without drawing the beast's attention? Or attempt another leap onto the chimera's back?
"Oh! Have I mentioned how I love the way your fur absolutely traps the light? Divine."
At Ralynn's impatient pushing motions, Aberny edged along where the ledge sloped toward the cave floor. The half-elf nodded, moving the opposite direction.
"I once saw a chimera trapped in a menagerie, you know. Such a horrible thing to do to such a magnificent beast."
A snuffling made him freeze. The chimera's gravelly voice rose, the words alien, but the tone unmistakable. It had detected the intruders.
Tali sighed. "For Shelyn's sake. It's a fools-be-damned trap. Run!"
Coming Next Week: Three-headed horror in the conclusion of Josh Vogt's "Hunter's Folly."
Josh Vogt is the author of the Pathfinder Tales story "The Weeping Blade." His short fiction has been published in such venues as Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show and Shimmer. For more information, see his website at jrvogt.com.
Illustration by Glen Osterberger