Minbarg the Quill-Keeper crouched behind a wicker basket, waiting to spring out and ambush the fleeing prisoners.
This was his moment! This was his day of glory! Once he defeated these pitiful criminals, Captain Zarth would see how faithful and loyal he was! He would be rewarded, raised up to the highest annals of Gnasher legend!
As soon as the prisoners showed up. Any moment now.
Minbarg waited patiently, clammy hand wrapped around the handle of his bronze-mace. His wiped his other hand across his face, rubbing his eyes. They just wouldn’t stop itching!
Off in the distance, Minbarg heard stone shatter and metal ring on metal.
He kept waiting. Captain Zarth was counting on him, and he wouldn’t let his leader down!
Off in the distance, Minbarg heard loud rumbling, and furious cries of pain.
Minbarg dabbed at his eyes again. Why wouldn’t they stop itching?
Off in the distance, Minbarg heard a series of loud war cries and the sound of tramping feet drawing closer and closer.
“Oh!” Minbarg exclaimed. He raised his mace up past his shoulder and readied himself to strike. The sound of running grew louder and louder. Minbarg quivered behind his hiding place, trembling with excitement.
Finally, he leapt out from behind the wicker basket, raising his mace high into the air. “Death to the enemies of the Gnashers–!” He cried out.
“What are you doing, fool?” Captain Zarth declared, pointing an accusing finger at Minbarg.
Minbarg nearly choked on his own tongue. “Forgive me, Captain!” He gasped, falling to one knee and laying his mace on the ground. “I was just following your orders!”
“My orders?” Captain Zarth muttered, tilting his head to the side and scratching his cheek with a single finger. His expression brightened. “Ah yes! My orders!” He waved his hands around wildly. “Forget those orders! I’ve got some better orders for you!”
“Better…orders?” Minbarg asked, blinking frantically, trying to banish the itching sensation from his eyes.
“Yes!” Zarth proclaimed. “I need you to saddle up the Chimera and take me to the top of the Infinite Temple!” He gestured to the blurry-looking Gnashers and the Dinosaur that stood behind him. “Me and my…honor guard here,” the Captain clarified.
Minbarg frowned. “But what about the escaped prisoners?”
“Those guys? We took care of them!” Zarth said with an idle wave of his hand.
Minbarg rubbed his forehead; it was so hard to think. “But I can hear footsteps…and the sounds of combat!”
“Training exercises!” Zarth blurted out. “I was, uh, disappointed at how long it took for the Gnashers to respond to the prison break, so I’m having them run around the corridors!”
“That—“ Minbarg stammered, fighting the urge to wipe his eyes in front of his leader. Something was off. Something wasn’t making sense. “But why do you want to ride the Chimera up to the Temple’s peak?” He blurted out.
Zarth gave Minbarg a huge smile full of white, polished teeth. “Do you really need a reason to go ride a Chimera through the sky on a beautiful morning?”
Instantly, Minbarg’s expression brightened. “Of course not, Captain Zarth!” He chirped. “Every day’s a great day to ride a Chimera!”
Harnessing a flying beast with three heads, it turned out, was hard work.
The Chimera’s goat-head tried to nibble through the straps of the saddles as Corax tried to buckle them on. The Chimera’s lion head tried to maul V’vendy when she shoved the bit and bridle between its teeth. The Chimera’s snake head nearly swallowed Uuco whole like a mouse, but Rintha and Dragon Face were there to pull the old sorcerer free by his legs.
Eventually, everything was made ready. The Pilgrims strapped themselves into the saddles along the Chimera’s back, while Minbarg buckled himself into place behind the ears of the Chimera’s lion-head.
“Hold on, Captain Zarth!” He called behind him, purple motes dancing around his eyes and confusing his senses. “We’re taking off now!” He flicked his steed’s reins. “Hup-Hup!”
Three noses snorted loudly. With a single beat of its wings, the Chimera took off and soared into the sky.
The air slammed into everyone like a living force, howling and swirling around them with a fearsome roar.
Lady Ira’s long dark hair blew around madly, flapping back and forth like a war banner. Uuco clung to the horn of his saddle, the thick strands of his mustache wiggling about.
Rintha and Dragon Face withstood the howling gales in a stoic silence, even as the skin on their bare arms turned pink from abrasion.
The wind ruffled the emerald feathers on Corax’s hide and the white feathers on V’vendy’s scalp. As the Chimera climbed higher into the air, V’vendy’s lips quirked upward, while Corax let his mouth fall open in mirth.
Corax glanced over his shoulder towards where V’vendy was strapped in. “Why are you smiling?” he asked her.
V’vendy relaxed her grip on her saddle’s horn and spread her arms wide, relishing the touch of the airstreams. “For some reason,” she shouted over the howling gale, “it feels like I’ve come home!” She looked at Corax. “Why are you smiling?” She asked.
Corax shrugged. “I haven’t ridden a flying beast in ages. It…reminds me of happier days.”
Up along the Chimera’s spine, just past the creature’s goat-head, Lady Ira let out a hearty, bubbly laugh, cheek flushed with both wind chill and joy.
“Why are you laughing, Ira?” Corax shouted, a tone of worry in his voice.
Lady Ira gestured at the sky and the earth. “Because it’s beautiful!” She exclaimed. “Look! Look!”
Far below, the city of Baruck spread out like a picture, a mosaic of interlocking cubes and colorful awnings, surrounded by a strip of grey wall. To the north and east, the west and south, four suns crept over the horizon, staining the dark twilight sky with streaks of red, orange, and sea green light.
Lady Ira leaned down past the leather rim of her saddles, sinking her fingers into the Chimera’s feather hide and giving her a few scratches. “Thank you…” she said fondly to the beast.
Behind Lady Ira, Dragon Face’s cheeks grew green behind his copper mask. He slapped two hands over his mouth and bent over, moaning softly.
“Well I’ll be darned!” Uuco chuckled, watching the masked wrestler’s private struggle. “Looks like one of our party’s not feeling too well! Let’s cut the scenic trip short, eh, Minbarg?”
“Of course, Captain Zarth!” Minbarg replied. He flicked his reins again. “Yuk, yuk!”
The Chimera hissed loudly, folded its wings against its back and dove.
“Ahhhhhhh!” Dragon Face howled in terror, raising an arm to cover his eyes.
“Whoooooh!” Lady Ira hollered in joy, eyes sparkling as the Infinite Temple’ peak soared up to meet them.
“Whoah!” Minbarg called out, yanking his reins straight up.
The Chimera spread its wings, breaking against the wind. With a loud squawk from its three mouths, the beast glided onto the highest steppe of the Infinite Temple, landing with a loud crunch as talons dug into stone.
“Easy, girl,” Minbarg called out, stroking the Chimera’s lion-head behind her ears. “Easy.”
The Chimera’s lion head growled, then calmed down. The goat-head and snake head also calmed down.
“That,” Lady Ira declared out loud, “was quite bracing!”
Dragon Face fumbled at his saddle’s restraints with trembling fingers, before giving up and ripping the leather bands free. He slid off the side of the Chimera, ran three paces away, and sank to the ground mask first.
“Oh Mother Earth,” the masked wrestler moaned, “forgive your wayward son! I shall never forsake you again!”
“Heh heh,” Uuco chortled, freeing himself from his own saddle. He sank his hands into the Chimera’s feather coat and clambered down handhold by handhold. “Haven’t gotten your sea legs yet, eh, Dragon Face?” The elderly Nobble tilted his head to the side, thoughtfully. “Or should I say air legs? I’m not sure what the slang is for riding flying critters…”
Corax, Rintha and V’vendy dismounted, with Ira reluctantly following.
“You used to be friends with this Rothgar,” Ira said to Corax, brushing the creases out of her dusty, stained tunic. “Do you think you can reason with him?”
“Not a chance,” Corax said with a loud avian snort. “But if we can beat him in combat, he’ll submit to us. It’s part of his code of ethics.”
“The Lady Ira,” Ira said with a sigh, “should not have expected anything else. “ Her mouth pressed into a thin line. “We know little about the true nature of the Hidden Gods,” she reluctantly admitted. “What are the odds of us defeating this Rothgar?”
Corax snapped his jaws shut. He shook his head slightly, the feathers on his scalp lying flat.
“Ah,” Lady Ira said.
Minbarg the Quill-Keeper looked down from his perch on the Chimera, purple motes still dancing around his eyes. “Captain Zarth,” he said to Uuco. “Shall I stay until you’ve concluded your business here?”
Uuco waved his hand idly. “Nah,” he said. “You’ve had a heck of a morning; head back to the barracks and catch some rest.”
Minbarg flinched, almost too imperceptible to notice. “You…don’t need me anymore?” He asked softly.
A faint flicker of guilt crossed Uuco’s face. He stroked his thick, curled mustache thoughtfully. “Tell you what,” Uuco said with a sudden cheer. “After we’re done with our business here, how about I take you out for a night on the town? We could visit the hanging gardens, watch some pretty ladies dance, and buy ourselves some cups of yogurt?”
Minbarg blinked suddenly. A few flecks of purple light drifted down from his eyes. “What was that?” he asked.
“What was what?” Uuco asked back.
“What did you say just now?”
“Er,” Uuco said, scratching the back of his head. “I thought we could go for a walk around the town–?”
Minbarg shook his head; a few more purple sparks drifted down from his glamoured eyes. “After that.”
“We could got to the hanging gardens and watch beautiful women dance–?” Uuco offered.
“After that,” Minbarg repeated.
“Oh!” Uuco said, his expression brightening. “I said that maybe we could get a bowl of yogurt together. Obviously you’d be paying for it–“
“You’re not the real Captain Zarth,” Minbarg said coldly.
“Uh–“ Uuco stammered, beads of sweat dripping down his face. He straightened up and folded his arms over his chest. “What are you talking about, boy?” He barked in a deep, authoritative tone. “How dare you question your commanding officer–!”
“Captain Zarth hates yogurt!” Minbarg shouted, trembling with battle-rage. “He hates all dairy products; he calls them ‘the food of weak babes’!”
A shattering sound like crumbling rock rang through the air. The glamour Uuco had cast into Minbarg’s eyes broke, motes of purple light blowing away in the morning breeze.
“Ooh boy,” Uuco muttered, backing slowly away and raising his hands. “Guys? I think we should get a move on.”
Minbarg, his eyes clear and wide, looked from Uuco, then to Lady Ira, then towards everyone else. “You…” he stammered. “You’re the prisoners who escaped!”
He yanked on his steed’s reigns. His Chimera reared up on its hind legs, lion head, goat head and snake head all snarling in unison.
“Devour them, girl!” Minbarg shouted. “Eat them all!”