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Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Easily fifteen feet high at the shoulder, the lion’s head glared at the skullpion hoard with disdain, sulfurous vapors escaping its mouth with each powerful breath. Its serpent tail, hissing as it undulated hypnotically in the air, kept a cold reptilian watch on Graves and Rarity.

“Graves,” the soaked girl whispered hoarsely, violet hair hanging limply around her frightened face. “What should we do?”

“Just wait,” he replied levelly, hand tightening around his spell gun as his mind raced for a solution. Though the beast’s main focus was on the numerous insects before it, Graves had no doubt where the chimera’s full attentions would turn if they tried to escape now.

There was always the option of fighting, but a second, more intense stab of pain in his gut precluded that plan. It wasn’t easy taking on a class C threat like a chimera even at his best, and he was certainly far from that right now. Plus, that still left the skullpions to contend with, and if he took out those first, the chimera would have him for lunch. Either way, with his current ‘condition’ as advanced as it was, a straight up fight would simply be impossible.

That just left the third, rather crazy and rather desperate option. If he couldn’t run and he couldn’t fight, then maybe, just maybe, he’d be able to weather the storm.

“Rarity,” Graves called out softly. “How fast can you climb up that ledge?”

“Um… a minute, maybe minute and a half?” she replied hesitantly, eyeing the squall-swept cliff with a wary eye. It’d be close, but she could probably make it.

“I’m gonna hold you to that,” the marshal said. Even as he spoke, the spell gun began to glow, a faint hum rising as the artifact slowly gathered magical energy.

“Graves?” Rarity called, a hint of panic in her voice, “what do you plan to do?” From where she stood, she couldn’t see the grim smile pass over his face.

“Let’s just say I’m gonna take this powder keg and blow it sky high.”

*****

Neither the chimera nor the arachnid mass paid much heed to the humans discoursing to the side. In the wild, words didn’t matter; only strength did.

The chimera growled, the fetid stench of rotten eggs wafting out as it took in its prey. Humans were far tastier; their flesh was soft and lacked the acrid aftertaste of insect meat. But the chimera was hungry. Hunting had been scarce in recent times and being driven far from its former home, two measly humans would not fill its stomach. Still, treats like that were hard to pass up, so it leisurely pondered which group to devour first.

The skullpions, on the other hand, chittered and shrieked at each other warily. The human had proved troublesome, what with its magic tricks and confounding noises. Each blast of energy not only took one of their brethren, but also deafened the rest, making tracking difficult indeed. And now, there was the great beast, a threat that even together they might not overcome. The chimera growled again, hunger driving it forward. The skullpions screeched and scuttled back in the beginnings of a retreat

But then they slowed. And then they stopped.

No. They had already been driven from their nesting grounds once. Here, the tunnels provided safe havens for their hatchlings and plentiful feed for all. The great beast may be powerful, but it would not come into their territory and snatch their prey.

Shrieking and clacking claws with redoubled effort, the skullpions skittered forward to face the threat. The beast, sensing a challenge to its meal, roared in defiance and stamped at the ground with one massive hoof. Both groups eyed each other and advanced, drawing steadily closer to the humans.

As focused as they were on one another, neither noticed the small, brown clad man slowly raise the dull grey object it carried. They didn’t notice that, but they certainly noticed the effects.

The chimera roared as it felt a white, searing pain in its shoulder. Turning both heads, the beast saw Graves strafing the canyon wall with the spell gun raised. It bellowed in agony again as another bolt of lightning found its mark, only this time striking the serpent’s head and blinding it.

“Graves! What are you doing?!” Rarity shrieked above the din below.

“Don’t worry about me!” Graves yelled back, never once taking his eyes from the battlefield. “Just keep climbing and get out!”

“But –“

“JUST GO!”

Rarity looked down hesitantly at Graves: between the massive horde of skullpions and the titanic figure of the chimera, he just looked so small. Nevertheless, he’d given her directions, and she’d just have to believe he knew what he was doing. So, with one last, reluctant glance, Rarity began climbing out of the canyon and out of danger.

*****

Though he couldn’t see her, something inside told him Rarity was out of danger. Maybe it was gut instinct, the way his shoulders loosened slightly with one thing less to worry about. She was safe: that was good. Now, he could really get down to business.

Neither of his shots had done much damage to the chimera, but they had hurt it. Hurt was good. Hurt made it angry, and angry made it predictable.

Quickly slinging the rifle over his back, Graves ignored the pain beginning to radiate from his abdomen and kept running towards the arachnid brood. Just before he reached the front line of insectile beast, the marshal broke away from the canyon wall and kept running. They chittered and shrieked, but none dared to advance with the giant form behind him.

The chimera roared once more and took a deep breath, its massive chest expanding as a sickly, yellow light glowed in its mouth. Graves slowed, dropping low and gathering strength in his legs as he kept a steely eye on the lion’s head beside him.

Wait for it…” he told himself, every fiber in his body poised for action.

Wait for it …” he said again as the chimera glared at him with baleful eyes.

Wait for it …

Now!

The chimera exhaled and a huge plume of caustic, chemical fire gushed out at Graves. Or more correctly, right where Graves had been. At the moment the beast lowered its head, the marshal had run, pumping his legs for all he was worth and sprinted out of the way just in the nick of time. The tail of his leather coat was singed, but it didn’t matter: the blast had missed him and instead hit is intended target.

The skullpions screamed as one as the chimera’s flames incinerated a dozen of their brethren. Throwing caution to the wind, they charged en mass, swarming over the offending beast and pitting their numbers against its might. Claws snapped and barbed tails struck as the chimera roared in agony. In return, the serpent head struck, the goat hooves crushed, and the lion’s maw breathed out plume after plume of sulfurous flame, carving burning rents in the skullpion ranks.

As the battle raged, Graves ducked behind a stone outcropping and sat down hard, pressing a hand to his stomach to soothe the pain that had grown into stabbing agony.

The battle wouldn’t last long. Dangerous as skullpions were, their claws and stingers wouldn’t get very far past the chimera’s thick fur. With its size and devastating fire, the great beast would soon push the insects back before it turned its attentions back to Graves.

He’d have to be out by then. Peaking around the rock and through the pouring rain, he spared a few moments to survey the terrain. Aside from the ledge Rarity had used, the sheer rock faces of the canyon walls precluded any escape quick enough to avoid the chimera’s breath. Armed with that final piece of information, Graves took a last, deep breath, and ran.

*****

With the chimera and skullpions fighting close by, Graves was forced to waste several seconds running around the battle in order to reach his target. Detouring around the chaotic melee, the marshal was still more than a hundred feet away when the chimera noticed him.

Roaring in anger, the giant beast inhaled and readied another flaming blast to burn its escaping prey. But the skullpions around him had not yet given up. Scrambling up its side, one daring arachnid mounted the chimera’s back and whether by luck or skill, managed to plunge its barbed tail deep into the serpent’s eye.

The chimera cried in pain and turned to face the offending creature. However, the brimstone fires in its lungs could not be stopped and as it swung around, it exhaled his fiery breath out not at the marshal, but instead at the stony cliff side.

Graves gaped, watching in stunned horror as the sickly yellow blast tore explosive rents across the canyon wall before finally alighting on his only means of escape. As the rain washed out the flames and cleared the dust, the marshal could see that the only remnant of the path was a tiny overhang a hundred feet above him: everything else had been thoroughly and utterly demolished.

Finally, proving that misfortunes come in threes, the skullpions chose that moment to shriek and scuttle away in retreat. The chimera had proven to be too much, and well over half their numbers lay crushed, torn, and burned in the mud beneath. Though the marshal stood in their path, none challenged him as each was too focused on escaping back to the safety of its burrow.

Slowly, Graves turned and fixed its eyes on the chimera, its fur torn and soaked, but otherwise still very alive and very dangerous. If Graves hadn’t known better, he could have sworn the chimera was grinning as it turned its remaining three eyes on him.

Roaring in triumph, the beast scanned carnage around it, sniffing and snorting before giving off a satisfied growl. It was hungry, and its stomach growled at the insect feast around it, but that could wait. First, it would celebrate by devouring sweet, human flesh.

Graves was worn out: his legs quivered beneath him, his heart pounded in his chest, and his gut feeling like he’d just drunk a tankard of acid. Yet despite this, the marshal stood straight, head held high as he coolly regarded the beast before him as he would a kitten.

“So, guess there’s no chance we both go our separate ways?” Graves asked lightly, his demeanor almost casual, even lazy. The chimera bellowed in reply, raising its lion head to the sky and howled in defiance.

“… Had a feeling you’d say that,” he sighed, bowing his head as if in prayer as he unslung his rifle. When he looked up again, his face was still relaxed, but his grey eyes now glinted like twin silver daggers.

“Alright, ugly. You wanna dance? Let’s dance.”

The thunder rolled, drowning out even the chimera’s roar as it began its charge.

*****

The sound of explosions and crumbling rock halted Rarity in her tracks. Turning and squinting through the torrential rain back, she caught the briefest sight of oily plumes of smoke rising from the very stop she’d climbed up. The rain washed away the rest.

She wasn’t a soldier. The most fighting she’d ever done was thrashing Rainbow Dash a good bit for stranding her in the desert outside Applaloosa. But even she could tell, right in the pit of her stomach, that something was wrong.

And now Rarity hesitated. Graves had told her to run. But he’d also said he’d be right behind her, and there was certainly no sign of him now. What should she do? Should she follow his instructions and keep running? Or should she follow the feeling in her gut and run back to the danger and mayhem she’d only just escaped?

The thunder rolled, and Rarity made her decision. She ran.

**********