Aberny gaped at the body for a moment, blood staining the earth at his feet. Then the scene around the campfire snatched his stare away.
The chimera crouched on the far side of the fire, a guard pinned and twitching beneath its massive forepaws. One of the servants crawled for the trees. Entrails dragged from a horrible gash along his side.
Leathery wings tucked back along the chimera's body as muscles bunched for another attack. Its three heads wove independently—a maned lion's, a horned goat's, and a green dragon's. Each set of eyes gleamed with a putrid yellow-green light, alive with vicious hunger. Triple maws drooled in anticipation of a feast. The lion snarled, while the dragon puffed an emerald haze that sizzled as it plumed over the fire. Acid, Aberny realized.
He nearly ducked back inside, but he'd not built his reputation on cowardice. Taking up a knobbed walking staff from beside the tent flap, he emerged and grasped it in both hands. A gasp drew his glance aside to Tali, who'd poked her head out from her tent, and sketched furiously on a parchment.
Then the chimera—roaring, screeching, and bleating—lunged at the second guard, who'd tried to circle around to flank it in the brush. A sweep of a paw and wing knocked the man back and the sword flew from his hands.
Ralynn dove in from the other side, a wordless battle cry erupting from him.
Aberny never knew such an immense beast could move so fast. It snapped its lion fangs while trying to gore the fighter with its goat horns. At the same time, the dragon head curled back around to spew another stream of acid onto the hapless guard. The man's screams wrenched Aberny's guts, but there was nothing he could do.
Wielding two short swords, the half-elf had to get in close to do any damage, putting himself within range of wings, talons, and fangs. The chimera lashed with its bared claws while snapping at Ralynn from several directions at once. The fighter evaded the bites, but one claw stuck him across a shoulder and sent him tumbling.
Ralynn rolled through the blow and back up to his feet, swords readied. The dragon head clamped down on the guard's body and flung it through the air at the fighter.
Even as Ralynn dodged, the beast pounced, leaping through the flames of the campfire. The stink of burning fur filled the air as its hind legs trampled the blaze, and the beast's roar shook the shadows themselves. Burning logs scattered about, casting just enough residual light to limn the fight in a red glow.
Ralynn hurtled forward, swords raised. As the chimera pounced, he tucked and rolled, trailing a slash at its belly. The chimera yowled and threw up chunks of grassy earth as it dug in and reversed course.
Aberny lunged and swung his staff, trying to distract it so Ralynn might get in a solid blow. The unsatisfying thump on the creature's hind side only served to irritate the beast, which sideswiped with a paw, while the goat's head jerked toward the merchant. He threw himself aside, almost crushing Tali, who yelped and rolled out of the way at the last instant.
She hurried to his side and tugged at his robe. Aberny lurched to his feet, fearing the chimera might decide to eliminate the two unarmed party members.
But Ralynn had reengaged, combining the ferocity and grace of his mixed parentage. Blades flashed in the light of dying embers as he turned the chimera away from the others, expertly rushing in and twisting aside before it could land another blow. However, he couldn't maneuver for any serious strike.
The horses had already gone near-mad in their proximity to the chimera, and their efforts to escape only grew more frantic as the creature dove into their midst. In a frenzy of teeth and talons, the beast laid several of the hapless pack animals low, while two others at last tore loose and galloped off.
Then the poisonous green gaze of all three heads locked back on the companions, who could only watch in dismay. Three voices spoke in unison, each a bestial utterance that tortured Aberny's ears. He'd traveled widely enough to recognize the language of dragons, but didn't speak any of it.
Ralynn winced as well. "What's it growling about?"
Tali perked up. "It says to be happy it's already feasted tonight, but it'll be hungry again tomorrow and has our scent. Also, it called you a weakling coward."
Aberny raised an eyebrow her way. She knew its language?
Ralynn flourished a sword. "Drop in for lunch and I'll have your heads for trophies."
The chimera snarled at Ralynn's challenge. Then, with a final chuff, its leonine head snatched up the one of the servants' bodies. The creature spun about and charged into the darkness. Moments later, a flap of enormous wings indicated it had taken flight.
The survivors studied the starry sky for several minutes, ensuring the beast didn't intend an immediate return and ambush. Then Ralynn glared at the few dribbles of blood on his blade and headed for the nearest brush where he wiped it clean.
"Well, you two were useless," he said over a shoulder. "Try running screaming into the night with the horses next time and at least provide a distraction."
"Useless?" Tali shot back. "I interpreted its warning, didn't I? That's doing plenty. Want me to fight for you? Then offer me your share of the reward. Didn't you say there was no sign of the creature around when we camped. Piss-poor tracking! Certainly let our guard down. How'd it know we were here?"
"Beyond our fire and earlier noisy arguing?" Aberny shook his head. "It must've caught detected us while prowling about." He frowned at the corpses. "It took the most vulnerable first."
Ralynn scowled at Tali. "Then why's she still here?"
"Because!" Tali lifted her chin. "Even a chimera is more perceptive than you when it comes to strength of spirit. Maybe if you had three heads, you'd have enough brains to—"
Aberny flung his arms wide. "Enough. The beast caught us off guard and marked us for later. Can we focus on that?"
"Dumb boasts," Ralynn said. "In a fair fight, it doesn't stand a chance against me."
"Chimeras don't fight fair," Tali said. "And they're wickedly cunning."
"What do you know?" asked Ralynn.
The gnome tapped her cheek with a silver-painted nail. "Much! Most chimeras live in prides, hunting in groups to outnumber prey. This one could be a younger male or an outcast, and hunting more aggressively as it tries to establish dominance of its chosen territory. Oh, and they like shiny things!"
Aberny eyed her. "How've you learned all this?"
"Besides everyone around town talking for the past few weeks since the first deaths?" Tali drew herself up. "I always—always!—study my subjects in-depth. It's the only way I can properly convey their essence through my pieces."
"You learned the tongue of dragons in a few weeks?"
She sniffed. "Of course not. Languages are a form of art. I've immersed myself in many of them over the years."
"What of you, Aberny? With your investments..." Ralynn indicated the bodies with a flick of his eyes, "not paying off, want to renegotiate?"
Aberny hitched his shoulders back, trying to project his usual confidence, which had alarmingly fled. He'd thought himself sturdier than this. "The hunt continues." He slumped again. "But first, let's respect the dead."
They found a patch of soft earth and Aberny procured a small shovel from the supplies his deceased servants had brought along. Ralynn dug four shallow graves, and then they dragged the fallen over one by one. Tali surprised them by joining in, though she took care to only grab the bodies where blood or bile hadn't marred them.
Aberny and Ralynn took turns shoveling dirt over the holes, even though it proved more manual labor than the merchant had experienced in a long while. He'd sweated through his robe by the time he stopped to pray Desna's blessing, wishing the dead good fortune in the afterlife for their loyal—if short—service.
Ralynn rebuilt the fire and claimed the watch for the rest of the night, but the other two didn't return to their tents. Tali claimed inspiration for a piece she called "Foe by Firelight" left her too roused to sleep, though Aberny noted she kept well within the circle of firelight and sat a bit closer to the fighter than before.
For himself, Aberny settled on his stool and sipped wine to soothe his nerves, while pondering this ill turn of fortune. How could he, bereft of his guards, expect to triumph over such a vicious beast? He'd underestimated the creature, since reports had it picking off one or two victims alone. Now it appeared emboldened and loath to spare any threats to its territory.
Yet he'd always found a way to turn even the most dire circumstances to his benefit. This time, though, it wasn't just about recouping losses. If he considered the chimera a bandit as well as a beast, it put things in the proper perspective. It hadn't just attacked their party. It had robbed him, specifically; and no merchant worth his abacus allowed thievery without consequences.
He slugged back the last of the wine in silent oath to himself. So be it.
The scratching of Tali's sketching nibbled at his ears until just an hour before dawn, when she gave an enormous yawn and slumped, snoring against Ralynn's side. The fighter sighed, but didn't push her away. As the sun lit a candle on the horizon, Aberny rubbed his eyes, wishing he could follow the gnome to rest, but knowing it'd be a futile effort.
Once morning rose in full, he made them a quick, cold breakfast. Ralynn gulped his down and then jostled Tali awake for her portion, which she took with a grimace. Then they debated what to do with the tents and equipment.
"Leave it," Aberny decided, "except for any food we can carry. If the creature plans to return, we might not need to go far before picking up its trail. And we don't want to be overburdened if it ambushes us."
As the others prepared to head out, Aberny retrieved his staff, and then—after a moment's thought—took up one of the swords from a fallen guard.
Ralynn raised a slim eyebrow. "Planning to use that?"
Aberny gave an experimental swing, trying to awaken long unused arm muscles. "I was a caravan guard once, long ago. I didn't leave that profession entirely unscarred."
"You?" Tali asked, goggling.
He grunted. "During a trip through Cheliax, our caravan was ambushed by orcs. I alone survived, managing to get most of the goods to Kintargo in the aftermath. I then established my name based on my former master's reputation. Turned out I had an even better knack for it than he ever did." He tucked the sword into his robe's belt and thrust his staff toward the hills. "Onward?"
Ralynn smirked. "Still willing to brave the danger?"
"By all means. When it slaughtered my men, the chimera made this business rather... personal."
Coming Next Week: On the trail of the beast in Chapter 3 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