At the warning cry, Aberny looked back and noticed the crude frame of branches that propped a large rock pile above the tunnel they'd emerged from. Even as he did, a scrabble of talons alerted him just before the beast burst upward, jaws snapping every which way. It clamped onto the ledge with one claw and swept the other out.
Ralynn jumped away, but the claw tore out the supporting branches instead, dropping the pile in a dust-raising crash and sealing off any escape. The chimera fell back to the floor, crunching Tali's bone sculpture beneath its feet as she scrambled for cover.
Ralynn leapt to the ground after it, whipping out a second sword. He kicked a skull at the chimera and ran in after, blades leading the way.
Aberny hurried to see if he could dislodge the rock fall and give them a chance to flee. He threw aside several smaller rocks, but realized the boulders would require massive effort to budge.
The chimera bounded all about the cavern, with plenty of room to maneuver despite its bulk. It flapped up to the far wall, clung there for a moment as its claws dug in, and then dropped to crush the fighter. Ralynn somersaulted aside, and the chimera landed with a boom that shook the whole place.
Aberny grabbed up a larger rock and lugged it to the edge. He took aim, and then flung it down at the chimera. He howled and raised a triumphant fist as the rock smashed into one of the beast's wings, preventing another leap-and-crush attempt.
Ralynn darted in, using the distraction to gouge the creature's flanks. Aberny went for another rock, as yowls rose from below. Right as he reached the edge a second time, the chimera lunged up, abandoning Ralynn to attack him instead. He threw the rock, but the dragon's head snapped it out of midair. At least now it couldn't spew acid in his face.
The other two heads drove forward. He fell back, grabbing for his weapons as fangs and horns strained inches from his feet. Then the chimera bellowed and fell back. Aberny leaned over to see what had happened.
Ralynn had hacked off a hind paw, and the chimera now hobbled after him while trailing a ragged, gore-soaked stump. The fighter grinned and flicked blood from his blades.
The chimera stumbled forward and Ralynn thrust for the kill. However, the dragon head rose and spewed a wide stream of acid. As Ralynn twisted desperately to dodge this, the chimera threw itself forward. A claw snagged Ralynn's leg and pinned him to the ground. The chimera leaned in, all mouths gaping.
Tali's voice rang out. "Ralynn, shut your eyes!"
The half-elf squeezed his eyes closed right before a flash of dazzling lights burst before the chimera's faces. It reared and staggered on its remaining hind paw.
Freed, Ralynn rolled up and raised both swords as the chimera dropped back in front of him. He brought the blades down on the neck of the nearest head—the goat. The head gave a gargling bleat as it was hacked off to splatter at Ralynn's feet.
A frenzied wing beat knocked the fighter back, while the lion and dragon roared and screeched in pain. The chimera hunched and launched itself toward one of the wider cracks in the cavern walls.
The crack must've been formed in soft earth, for it burst wide under the chimera's impact, raining roots and rock all about. The creature shoved most of the way out. Its hind leg gave a last kick to free itself, and then only its fading cries could be heard as it fled.
Tali emerged from her hiding spot behind an oversized ribcage, while Ralynn caught his breath and Aberny made his way to the chamber floor. By the time he got there, the half-elf and gnome were inspecting the paw and goat head.
Ralynn probed the head with the tip of a blade. "Poor trophy. Might as well have killed an oversized goat."
Aberny eyed the hole in the cavern wall. "Even if it survives that wound, I doubt it'll return to let you claim the rest."
"Just in case," Tali said, "maybe we should get out of here?"
The three climbed back to the ledge and began the arduous job of clearing the path out. Before they left, Aberny made sure to retrieve his sword, feeling an odd desire to never travel without one close at hand again. Ralynn grabbed up the paw and head, while Tali chose a few blood-speckled rib fragments.
Once they emerged into sunlight and fresh air, Aberny leaned on his staff, suddenly more weary than he'd ever been. "I've a proposition."
The two looked to him.
"Since our contract was hastily made and without the clearest of wits, what say we mutually dissolve it and let survival be its own reward? We can tell whatever version of what happened here that we wish."
Ralynn lifted the chimera parts. "So long as I keep these." He caught Aberny's eye. "I'm not as stuck on our original deal."
Tali glanced between the two, curious, but shrugged when neither was forthcoming. "Good enough for me."
Aberny smiled, pulled out the battered parchment, and tossed it back down to languish with the bones.
∗ ∗ ∗
Aberny entered the art gallery, double-checking the card delivered the previous day to make sure he had the right time and place.
It would be the greatest honor if you would attend the opening exhibit of "Horrors of the Hunt," under the patronage of the Gilvreau Gallery. We feature the finest paintings and sculptures ever to grace our town, being a testament to Whistledown's continued contributions to the pinnacle of society that is artistic inspiration and craft.
Steward Feles, on behalf of the Gilvreau Gallery
He scanned the main room. Humans, gnomes, elves, and others crowded the hall, where at least a dozen paintings hung alongside another dozen sculptures and carvings. Some of the pieces even combined sculpture and painting, with molded bronze, steel, and silver interwoven with canvas to give the work a surprising depth and substance.
In one painting, a shadowy beast loomed over a trio of figures, framed against a background of vivid firelight. There, fighters engaged a chimera on the edges of a rocky pool. And there, random bones had been wired together to create a miniature model of a chimera skeleton, wings spread, looking ready to leap on viewers.
Never had Aberny seen such raw depictions of dread and violence. Not only had the artist captured the chimera's bestial qualities, but also the underlying terror and imminence of death it evoked. Many of the scenes even gave the impression of the hunters being the prey.
After perusing the selection for a while, he found Tali chatting in a ring of admirers. A month had passed since the ill-fated hunt, and her attire had taken a turn for the fashionable. Adorned with a gem-studded tiara, she wore a dress of blue and crimson. When she spotted him, she excused herself and rushed over to grasp his hand.
"Master Aberny! So glad you could make it."
He smiled and they exchanged pleasantries, such as her rise in society and how his sword-fighting lessons progressed. When they found a corner beyond the press of the crowd, he cleared his throat.
"I've been thinking a bit since we last saw one another. Reflecting on a few oddities of our time in the grasslands."
One of her emerald eyebrows twitched. "Such as?"
"Such as how the chimera tracked our scent so quickly. Why it took off with you when it had the upper hand with Ralynn. And how you knew enough of its nature—even its language—to appeal to its bestial vanity."
Her lips tweaked at the corners. "Quite strange."
"As I recall, a large portion of our first dinner went... well, not missing, but perhaps unaccounted for would be the better description. Now, I'm not one to doubt a voracious appetite, but for a gnome, such a repast would've likely split his or her stomach wide—if it was actually devoured at all. And then there was a particular item that would've drawn the creature's ear from a goodly distance."
He drew out the Whistledown charm she'd dropped when the chimera had taken her beside the pool. "A memento of our little hunt and congratulations for your success."
Tali licked her lips as she squirreled the charm away. Then she glanced about, no doubt looking for a particular half-elf.
"Are you going to tell him?" she asked.
He chuckled darkly, suspicions confirmed. "I haven't decided. He's not in town at the moment, either way. While the head and paw weren't exactly the trophies Ralynn wished, they worked well enough to boost his reputation—especially after an alchemist confirmed the chimera blood. He left two weeks ago with a band of treasure hunters."
Then he shed all mirth. "But I want to know how you managed to come to an agreement with the chimera."
Her nose crinkled. "Agreement?"
"How did you get the creature to act as a model for your art? An offer of safety in exchange for leading it to us?"
Her eyes widened. "No! I might've aggravated the situation a bit, but we had no dealings. It wouldn't have been real, if so. I had to live it. The struggle had to be authentic, or else it wouldn't mean anything."
"You understood it. Spoke with it."
"Languages are art, like I said. Each one I can converse in adds to my palette of comprehension."
"But why? What possessed you to tempt our deaths that way?"
"Oh! This, of course." She wobbled her head, indicating the gallery. "My art can now be infused with unparalleled passion and perspective."
"You got my men killed."
"We all accepted a certain amount of risk, didn't we? I faced the same dangers as everyone else."
"You could've told us. We could've set an ambush from the start."
"That would've been just as bad as if I'd collaborated with the beast. It would've undermined the reality I needed to experience."
He sighed, trying and failing to summon fury at the deception. Sadly, he understood all too well the lengths one might go to for personal advancement. Should he reveal the deal he'd struck with Ralynn? Or perhaps scrawl another debt in his ledgers?
Aberny rubbed his chin, as if pondering the virtues of the piece they stood before. "Perhaps Ralynn will never find out, so long as certain steps are taken. A favor paid, say, to avoid dark rumors besmirching the reputation of a promising young artist."
Tali squared up with him, thin arms crossed. "So! What's the bargain, then?"
He waved at the surrounding artwork. "Your work should be admired by lovers of art far and wide. I would... politely... request an exclusive contract as distributor and representative of your craft beyond Whistledown. Sole purveyor, receiving a significant percentage of every sale for my efforts."
Tali grinned. "Ah! I'll have to talk to the gallery owners, but I'll be as persuasive as possible for an old friend." She stuck out a hand. As his engulfed hers for a brief squeeze, she held it a moment longer. "Good fortune, Master Aberny. Of course, I say that hoping you'll funnel some of that my way in the end."
His laugh drew a few askance looks. "Be careful what you hope for, dearest Tali. In the end, fortune makes fools of us all."
Coming Next Week: Viking-style adventure and the return of Jendara in a sample chapter from Wendy Wagner’s new Pathfinder Tales novel, Skinwalkers.
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