The Vertic of Hyra Betal was a mountain so high that at sunset its shadow darkened sixty miles around it and was visible from both of the moons and the space station that orbited the planet. It was said to be the hardest mountain to climb in the galaxy.

Even so, the first part was relatively easy. It could be described as an arduous walk. Even the second, third, fourth and fifth days weren’t so bad. They were still below the snowline and they made easy progress.

By the seventh day of the challenge they reached that snowline that, by coincidence, marked a quarter of the way up the mountain. But now it was harder. Even the flattest parts were snow-covered incline and now large sections involved vertical climbing using the specialist equipment in their backpacks.

Now Penne, especially, was having to prove himself. This sort of thing hadn’t come readily to him. He had never been used to testing himself in any way. He had spent his youth fornicating with his servants and doing no more exercise than was necessary to stop himself becoming fat and unattractive, and then only because his vanity had overridden his laziness. Now, of course, he was the crowned head of state of a seven planet empire and he never had an idle moment, but his busy days tended to involve a lot of sitting and talking to people. He didn’t get many physical challenges.

At least until he met his grandfather whom he had never known existed. Maestro had allowed himself to be persuaded not to return yet to the monastery on Gallifrey where he spent his retirement days, and Penne had treasured the time he had to get to know him fully. But Maestro had decided that Penne needed to become a better man, and those busy days now were punctuated with martial arts lessons, swordsmanship and periods of meditation to hone his mind.

And then Maestro had told him that he needed to spend some time away from the trappings of royal life and suggested the Vertic of Hyra Betal.

“Endurance,” Maestro had said. “That is the literal translation of your surname. “Dúre – durance. And I believe you have it in you. I KNOW Chrístõ does. I taught him when he was a tyro in his mere twenties how to endure hardship in order to strengthen the mind and body and ensure that both were in harmony with the soul.”

Penne had thought being compared to Chrístõ was a LITTLE unfair. But he rose to the occasion, only insisting that, if they were to do this, Chrístõ must come, too. So Natalie and Julia were left at the palace on Adano Ambrado to keep Cirena company while they set off together.

“Men have died on that mountain,” Julia had reminded him as they set off.

“Men have died in their beds, too,” Chrístõ had answered her. “I know which I prefer.”

To die in his bed when he was old and grey, he thought as he stretched his arm and found a crack in the cliff-face that made a handhold to pull himself up by. Yes, he would be happy to do that, when he had lived out his full life and achieved all he wanted to achieve.

Meantime, life had to have challenge for it to have meaning. It was a change, though, for the challenge to be merely a physical one. There were no plots to uncover here, no despot or would-be dictator to overthrow.

Only a mountain that had claimed the lives of a thousand men, so the legend went.

“Was it JUST the physical impossibility of it that killed them?” Penne asked when they took a breather at the top of that section and prepared themselves mentally and physically for the next sheer rockface. “Or is there something more to this mountain?”

“What do you have in mind?” Chrístõ asked him. “Some kind of mythical beast that devours people?”

“Well, maybe not mythical. But a beast, perhaps.”

“There are legends,” Maestro conceded. “But that is all they are. I certainly saw nothing when I first climbed the Vertic.”

Penne and Chrístõ both laughed. That was 2,000 years ago. Empires had risen and fallen in that time. Mythical beasts could certainly have arisen.

Erosion had meant that the Vertic was actually twenty metres lower than it was then. Penne and Chrístõ laughed at that, too, and considered themselves lucky to have it so easy!

“The challenge has not changed,” Maestro told them. “It is still about physical effort and mental discipline.”

“For those who do it the traditional way,” Penne pointed out. “At base camp there were people setting out with all kinds of mechanical aids. Did you notice the ones with the hoverpads that would allow them to float up the rockfaces? And the ones with gravity clamps instead of crampons.”

“Wimps,” Chrístõ declared. “This is the only way to climb the Vertic. On foot, with basic equipment.”

Maestro smiled at them both as they scorned those who ‘cheated’ at the discipline of the Vertic.

A long time ago, Maestro remembered, he had climbed mountains with his daughter. Before she married Mordlock Ixion and became a stranger to him, Dannan was a beautiful young woman who he had loved and cherished. She had shared his joy of physical challenges. She took after him more even than her mother, a quiet, aescetic woman who spent her leisure time painting the mountains he and their daughter were climbing.

Something of that adventurous spirit was certainly in Penne. He HAD, it is true, spent much of his life in idleness and wantonness, but having found his redemption in the friendship of the Heir of Lœngbærrow, he had discovered his own hidden talents and hidden depths. Yes, there was something of Dannan in his spirit. The better part of her.

He wished he could see something of her in Penne’s features. But Gallifreyan DNA worked in odd ways. Chrístõ and Penne had nothing in common at all at their molecular level, but they had been taken for twins by the men at the base camp where they set out from.

His twin sons. Even if it was a deceit, it was one that made his hearts warm. Chrístõ had been like a son to him in those years when he stood in for his father and taught him all he needed to be the first half blood Time Lord in living memory. Penne, his own grandson, he had known only a little time, but he was coming to know him, and to love him. Penne, in his turn, reached across the bitter gulf that his dead parents left between them, and gave that love back in return.

“So, about these legends,” Chrístõ began.

“Not now,” Maestro insisted. “It is time to move on. We shall tell of the Khimaira of Hyra Betal when we rest again.” He stood and looked at the next section they had to climb. Chrístõ and Penne looked, too.

“You know,” Penne said. “I bet if we walked along this ledge for a bit we’d find some well cut steps leading up.”

“Or a lift!” Chrístõ giggled, joining in the humour.

Maestro allowed himself a smile at the idea. It was good to hear their laughter, and after all, he knew, even if there WAS a lift to the top of the mountain they would both take the challenge of climbing it themselves.

“Now I would,” Penne said as he hammered in a steel peg to give a foothold where there was no natural crease to make a first step up. “Before I met Chrístõ, I would have taken the stairs.”

“You would have given orders to have the mountain moved out of your way,” Chrístõ countered. Penne blushed and admitted he was right. And pointed out that he now owned a space fleet capable of doing the job in a matter of minutes.

Their laughter rang out on the empty air as they began to climb again and there was no talk for a long while. They needed their breath, they needed their concentration for what WAS, after all, a dangerous exercise. If any of them HAD looked down the drop was already a frightening one and they were far from halfway yet.

They didn’t even talk telepathically except for necessary instructions to each other. It was a strange, silent world with no more than the sounds of their efforts to climb and the occasional screech of a Betal Eagle wheeling in the air.

At the next level, there was only a very narrow ledge where they crouched long enough to take a sip of the water from their camelback pouches.

“It’s strange to feel out of breath,” Chrístõ said. “I am used to working at half my potential, so that Humans can keep up with me. The more so lately when I am making sure Natalie can keep pace. But even with Sammie I was only rarely breathless.”

“That’s why even you need to test yourself against bigger challenges from time to time, Son of Lœngbærrow,” Maestro told him, using the term he called him by when he had been his student. It seemed a cold, detached term, but it had come to be a term of endearment.

Onwards again, climbing steadily, feeling the strain in all of their muscles. Maestro took the lead, and then Penne, the least experienced climber, then Chrístõ who had learnt the skills under Maestro and had come to enjoy such challenges.

Finally, they reached a point where Maestro told them they could take a fuller rest. Here there was a cave in the rock face and they sat in its shelter and looked out over the world that lay beneath them now. The Vertic rose up from the midst of a plain. It had no foothills or gentle gradations. It was simply there, and for that reason above all it tempted climbers.

“You know,” Chrístõ said as he looked to the west where the capital city of Hyra Betal was clearly visible on the edge of an ocean that continued to the horizon. “Maestro may have climbed the Vertic 2,000 years ago, but nobody here believes him. The first recorded man to reach the summit was a Bedran called Petran Gerran and he lost two toes to frostbite.”

“I didn’t climb it in order to be recorded in the history books,” Maestro told him. “I climbed for my own satisfaction.”

“Anyway, what about the Khimaira of Hyra Betal,” Penne said. “Let us have the story, Grandfather.”

Maestro smiled to be addressed in that way and sat up in the straight-backed way of the monks of Mount Lœng.

“It’s not much of a legend, I’m afraid. Nothing on the scale of the Fendahl or the like. It tells of three creatures that lived on this mountain, a great snake, an eagle and a panther…. And Chrístõ is thinking that on Earth the legend is a little different.”

“The three creatures are a lion, a snake and a goat,” he said. “But do go on, please Maestro.”

“One day, so the story tells, the eagle caught the snake and swallowed it whole and a little after that the panther caught the eagle and devoured that, then settled to sleep. But while it was sleeping the souls of the snake and the eagle asserted themselves and when the creature woke it had the body of a panther with the head and wings of the eagle and its tail was a serpent with a venomous head.”

“Creepy,” Chrístõ commented. “But just a legend. I doubt there can be any truth in it.”

“I shouldn’t think so,” Penne agreed. But he looked around at the dark cave behind him nervously.

“There would be nothing in there,” Maestro assured him. “Except possibly a body or two.”

“What?” Penne looked around at his grandfather in shock. “What do you mean, a body or two?”

“By tradition, people killed on the Vertic are not brought back. They are ‘buried’ by wrapping them and laying them out in caves near where they died. The bodies desiccate and mummify and are preserved.”

If they didn’t know, they would have gone on without even looking into the cave. But now that they did know, they had to look.

“Some of these have been here for a LONG time,” Chrístõ noted as he looked closely at the half a dozen bodies that were lying there, wrapped in blankets or bed rolls, tied up with bits of rope. There was some kind of identification on each of them, a name, date and cause of death. Falling tended to be common. No surprise there.

“Nothing unusual, except the idea of just leaving them here,” Penne noted.

“You were expecting?”

“I don’t know,” he answered with a laugh. “But everywhere you go you find some sort of mystery and sort it out.”

“Not here,” Chrístõ assured him.

“Pity,” Penne laughed. “I’d love to solve one of the mysteries alongside you. Instead of just hearing about them when you come to see me.”

“No, this time we’re just going to climb a mountain, rather more successfully than these poor souls. Come on, we ought to get on with it if we want to make our designated camp site before nightfall.”

They pressed on hard, pushing themselves to their limits. Their limits, of course, were higher than any of the mere Humans and humanoid types who had attempted the climb before. They covered more than twice as much of the climb as those without two hearts and a superior musculature would manage in the time.

“We should overtake the ones with the hoverpads and gravity clamps tomorrow,” Penne said as he lay down in his sleeping bag next to Chrístõ.

“They’ll be miffed,” Chrístõ laughed. Maestro made a sleepy comment about Chrístõ’s use of strange Earth vernacular like ‘miffed’ and how it would never do in Gallifreyan society and then the tent went quiet as they all three slipped into the sleep of people who had worked hard all day and deserved their rest.

“Chrístõ,” Penne whispered in his head. “I think we’re dreaming the same dream.”

“Yes,” Chrístõ answered. “Stay there, brother. It’s good to have you with me.”

It was a soft, sweet dream. It wasn’t about anything in particular. Just a feeling of letting their minds relax and float away together as they slept. A feeling of warm companionship and trust as only two people who are both telepathic could possibly feel.

It was still not quite dawn when Chrístõ and Penne both woke suddenly from their shared dream. They both sat up in their sleeping bags and Chrístõ reached for his sonic screwdriver in penlight mode. By its light they saw Maestro by the tent entrance opening the zip.

“What is it?” Chrístõ asked, trying to stop his teeth from chattering as a sudden cold came in.

“There was a scream,” Penne said. “That’s what woke me.”

“Yes,” Chrístõ said as he shook himself out of the stupor of sleep. “Yes, that was it. There was a scream.”

“There’s a body out here,” Maestro called softly. Both of them unzipped themselves from their sleeping bags and shoved their feet into their boots before rushing out of the tent.

It was a man in climbing gear not unlike their own. He had fallen from a very great height. High enough to reach the terminal velocity that caused the body to split open on impact. It was not a pretty sight.

“He wouldn’t have felt it,” Chrístõ said as he switched the sonic screwdriver to medical analysis mode just to be certain of his diagnosis. “The speed of the descent would have caused concussion in the brain. He’d have been unconscious.”

“Then what screamed then?” Penne answered, looking around nervously.

“He did,” Chrístõ explained. “The sound would have dopplered as he fell. He’s one of the gravity clamp crowd, incidentally. Didn’t do him any good. The gravity field is switched off.”

“So WHY did a man fall off the mountain in the middle of the night?” Penne asked as he helped Chrístõ to wrap the body in a piece of canvas sheeting and bind it tightly.

“We’d better strike camp and start up once the dawn breaks,” Maestro suggested. “If we catch up with his comrades we can tell them we found him.”

While they waited for the sun to come up they ate a breakfast that was far less enjoyable than their evening meal, tainted by the thought of sudden death right outside their camp. As the sky lightened they packed and prepared to climb the next rockface. The one the dead man had fallen down. This was an advanced climb, not for the faint-hearted or the incautious. Again they kept talking, even telepathic, to the minimum. But when Maestro reached the top of the cliffside both Penne and Chrístõ, coming up behind him, felt his shock mentally before they heard him call out.

“Steady,” Chrístõ warned Penne as he tried to climb faster. “No, carry on the way we were going. If you try to rush you’ll make a mistake. I don’t want to have to push your brain back into your skull and leave you to mummify on this mountain.”

The instinct for both of them had been to hurry, but it would have been fatal. They climbed steadily together the last metres, their hearts deliberately steadied and their breathing carefully regulated.

When they reached the cliff top it took the same effort to keep calm. Maestro was all right. That was a relief to them both.

But everyone else was dead.

“Do you think he jumped… took his own life rather than be taken by whatever did this?” Penne asked between gulps of air. He was shaken. They all were. Even some of the things Chrístõ had seen in those ‘adventures’ Penne had joked about yesterday didn’t compare.

“How many people were there?” Chrístõ asked as he tried to count body parts and work out which went with which. There was not a whole corpse to be seen. A half a dozen people at least had been torn to pieces.

“I count six heads,” Maestro answered more calmly than either Penne or Chrístõ felt. “With the one we have below, that’s a group of seven.”

“What did it? Or who?”

“The Khimaira?” Penne suggested.

“That was a legend,” Maestro insisted. “I told you it for amusement, not to give you anything to fear. This is something more than a legend. This is something very real that has killed mercilessly.” As he spoke he felt the icepick on his belt and a sharp knife the other side. “We may have to defend ourselves,” he added. “There was no room in our packs for dedicated weapons, not even a short butterfly sword. But these tools will suffice if we must.”

Penne and Chrístõ both touched the same weapons and tested how quickly they could get them into their hands and adopt a defensive position.

Meanwhile Maestro turned and looked at the cave entrance before which the bodies were strewn. It looked not dissimilar to the one they had looked into yesterday where some of the victims of the Vertic’s more usual hazards were laid to rest. But this one looked as if it went deeper into the mountain, and there was something else.

“Look…” he said. There was a fresh dusting of snow over everything, including the bodies. It had been coming down steadily and they had hardly even noticed it as they took in the gruesome scene. They had almost missed what it had started to conceal.

“Animal footprints?” Penne looked at them closer. “A soft pad and four clawed toes. Like a….”

“A panther,” Chrístõ finished for him. “Or a Khimaira?” Maestro gave him a stern look and he reminded himself that the Khimaira was a mythical creature.

“There is something odd about it, though,” Penne continued as he looked closer at the prints. “I could be wrong…. But… doesn’t it seem to you as if this panther or Khimaira or WHATEVER walks on two legs?”

Maestro bent and examined the prints and he smiled grimly at his grandson.

“You’re right,” he said. “WHAT are we dealing with here?” He stood up and looked again at the cave.

“Why do I feel we’re going to find out in there?” Penne sighed.

“You wanted an adventure,” Chrístõ told him as he switched his sonic screwdriver to its powerful penlight mode again.

“Me and my big mouth.”

“Something organic has been living in here,” Maestro noted as they ventured into the cave. “You can smell it. Something that eats meat after it has gone off.”

“I have closed off my breathing and I am trying not to smell it,” Chrístõ answered, his voice sounding hoarse because he was not breathing in.

“Why have neither of you taught me how to do that?” Penne demanded as he tied a scarf around his own mouth and nose.

“If either of you had the true discipline you would be able to steal yourself against the smell and not worry about it,” Maestro answered. “Chrístõ, you have gone soft. Once you COULD have withstood it. And Penne, you have much to learn, still.”

“Grandfather, I am ruler of a seven planet empire, I don’t usually have to worry about bad smells. I have people to clear the air for me.”

Chrístõ laughed. Something that wasn’t easy to do while by-passing his respiratory system. Maestro chuckled, too.

Then they reached the back of the long, deep cave and there wasn’t much to laugh about.

“There must have been more than one creature,” Chrístõ noted as he examined the body of what at one and the same moment all three of them christened as The Khimaira. Even Maestro stopped denying the possibility now.

It fulfilled two of the criteria. It had a body of a panther and the wings and head of an eagle, with golden feathers merging into black fur. It didn’t have a serpent for a tail, but it would have been pedantic to point that out.

It walked on two legs, like a bear. Its upper limbs ended in vicious claws that looked as sharp and were about half the length again of the knives they checked in their belts.

It was dead. There were two bullet holes through its back.

And that was why they knew there was more than one.

Because somebody had killed the creature in its lair, and yet the people outside were STILL dead.

“What happened here?” Maestro asked. He wasn’t talking to Penne or Chrístõ. He was talking, if anything, to the cave itself. “Chrístõ, do you know how to read a room?”

“Yes,” he said. It wasn’t something he did often. It was harder than telekinesis and sapped his energy. What Maestro suggested now would be harder than ever, because something much more traumatic had happened here. It would be painful to read.

“Come here, both of you,” Maestro said. “Penne, your telepathic skills are as underused as your muscles but you can help. Join your minds the way you did when you shared your dreams. Then both of you join with me.”

It was like a dream. They were at one and the same time standing there in the silent cave, with the creature dead beside them, and they were watching the scene twelve, fifteen hours ago when the tragedy began to unfold.

“Oh.. My…” Penne whispered when Maestro released them from the mental connection. Chrístõ reached out to grab him. He was in a near faint from the psychic effort.

“We shouldn’t have used him,” Chrístõ said as he held Penne upright on his two feet. “He’s never been formally trained. His psychic ability is purely natural.”

“I’m all right,” Penne assured him. He gripped Chrístõ’s shoulders for a few more minutes as he regained his strength. “I’m fine. But… Oh… what we saw happening here…”

“What happened here isn’t over,” Maestro reminded them. “There are more people up this mountain who are inextricably linked to this. And if they’re still alive, they may not be for long.”

“It definitely went up?” Chrístõ asked as they stepped out of the cave and looked up at another section of steep rockface. “Not down?”

“If it had gone down we would not be standing here,” Maestro said. “Those who are not on their guard will have little chance.”

“These were the anti-gravity clamp climbers,” Penne noted. “The hoverpad ones were further ahead.”

They started to climb again. This rockface called for just as much attention to detail as those before them, but this time their minds were full of thoughts not connected with climbing.

“We’re going to find another bloodbath, aren’t we,” Penne said telepathically to Chrístõ. “On the next ledge there will be more dead people. And then we….”

“We don’t know for sure,” Chrístõ answered. “We only know that somebody – NOT the victims down there – SHOT the creature in the cave and then moved on. And that another came back and found it dead and…”

“And went on a killing spree in revenge.”

“The anti-gravity clamp party camped there, not knowing what was in the cave. Not knowing that the others had done what they did before.”

“So was the one that was killed the male or the female of the pair?” Penne asked. “I get that it’s an angry mate, grieving. Looking for revenge.”

“Wouldn’t you be?” Chrístõ replied philosophically. “If you were the only two creatures of your kind and somebody killed one of you.”

“Yes,” Penne answered. “But I was wondering if it was the male or the female. You know that old saying – the female of the species is more deadly…”

“I do know it,” Chrístõ answered. “Though I don’t know if it is generally true. And in any case, it doesn’t signify here. This is an infinite universe. There are more ways of making babies than with a male and female.”

“This much is true,” Maestro added. “This creature is a legend. It is rarely seen except in glimpses. It would not be in its interests to reproduce exponentially. I would guess that the adult is an asexual being that produces one young, once in its life, replacing itself.”

“That’s risky,” Penne said. “What if the young died? The species would die out.”

“What have these people done?” Chrístõ wondered.

“They have destroyed a species,” Maestro answered. “And it will likely destroy them.”

“Unless we stop it,” Penne added.

Maestro said nothing in reply. Neither did Chrístõ. Penne wondered why.

But the mountain itself was enough of a challenge for the present. As they climbed they were aware that there was a rock overhang over their heads. The closer they got to it the more they were aware of it. It was almost a roof over them. A solid rock roof, grey, glittering with pieces of quartz or some other mineral that caught a shine from the early morning sunlight. Later, when the sun was higher, it would be in deep shadow.

Chrístõ reached the top of the rockface first, but only by an arms length. Penne and Maestro followed behind him quickly.

At the top there was a wide ledge, entirely sheltered by the overhang. It formed a natural crease in the rock just about the height of an average man. Since an average man was a few inches shorter than Chrístõ and Penne, who both stood six-foot one in their socks, and Maestro, who was taller yet, they all had to stoop to avoid painful concussions.

“We shall rest and take a hot drink here,” Maestro told them. “Before we tackle the ‘Beast’.”

“The beast?” Penne looked at him sharply.

“That’s what this next section is called,” Maestro explained. “Because of the way it overhangs, even getting onto it is tricky, and only for the most experienced climbers. And once you are climbing, there is nothing but a long, long drop to the bottom of the mountain below you. If you fell, you would fall all the way. Many people HAVE fallen just that way.”

Penne looked at the roof above his head. He thought of how high up they were. Nobody could call him a coward. But…

“I’m NOT an experienced climber. This is the first serious mountain I have ever been up.”

“You are a Time Lord. With skills that are natural to you that mere Humans must learn. That stands in for experience for the most part. For the rest, Chrístõ and I are both experienced and we will help you.”

Afterwards, if anyone had asked Penne to describe how he got up under the overhang and onto the rockface he would have had a hard time describing it. It involved ropes and steel pegs and pulleys and hanging upside down and a lot of faith in his companions. But somehow he got onto the rockface and as long as he didn’t look down, after that the climb was no harder than anything they had done already. The knowledge that there was nothing between him and sea level but air was unnerving, though.

“There’s an Earth book called “Dracula,” Chrístõ told him telepathically. “In it, the hero, Jonathon Harker, has to climb down a precipitous wall. Before he starts, he looks down first to get used to the sight in case he accidentally glances at it. Try it. Look at it once. And then let’s get on with it.”

Penne looked and decided that was something else he would never adequately describe to anyone who wasn’t on the ‘Beast’ with him. But Chrístõ was right. Now he knew the worst it was easier not to think about it.

“I can hear voices up ahead,” Chrístõ said after a long, silent climb. “The other party…”

“It must be,” Maestro answered. “Let us go cautiously.”

“I thought it was the creature we had to worry about.”

“The creature is a problem,” Maestro said. “But I am also concerned with the Humans on this mountain. Sometimes the monsters look like us.”

“Where did it go, anyway?” Penne asked. “After it killed everyone below. Can it fly?”

“No,” Maestro said. “The wings are vestigial. The mountain has a series of linked caves and tunnels within it. I suspect the creatures know them far better than any Human explorers. They nested in that cave temporarily. They would usually keep moving, I think. Any permanent ‘home’ would be located long before now. There is a largely unexplored east side of the mountain that is even more un-climbable than this one. They may have hiding places there.”

“So it could be climbing inside the mountain while we’re here on the outside.”


“And the people up the mountain…”

“The best we can do is warn them.”

They reached the top of the ‘Beast’ and looked around curiously. There was a party of eight climbers sitting in a ring around a gas operated camp fire, cooking food and drinking tea as if nothing was untoward. They didn’t even look like people sitting on the edge of a precipitous drop, Penne thought.

“Hello,” one of them said. “Where did you come from?”

“Below, obviously,” Chrístõ answered thinking it the most idiotic question to ask somebody on the side of a mountain. “What are you doing here?”

That must have struck them as the second most idiotic question to ask on the side of a mountain. They looked at him in faint amusement.

“Which of you killed the Khimaira?” Maestro demanded.

“The what?”

“Khimaira. That was the name given to the creature by legend, even if it is not noted in any list of the flora and fauna of this planet. Who killed it? And why?”

“I did,” one of the men said. He stood up and regarded the three of them with eyes best described as haughty. “It came lumbering out of the cave, made straight for us with those great claws. I shot it. Self defence.”

“No, you didn’t,” Maestro replied. “Yes, you shot it, but it was running away from you. As soon as you all started shouting and yelling it panicked and ran back into the cave. It was more scared of you than you were of it… unless you are very cowardly people. You chased it and shot it in the back. And then you moved on up the mountain. What you didn’t know…. Two things you didn’t know. One, that by the time you had reached the base of the ‘Beast’ and camped for the night, another group had made THEIR camp on the ledge beside the Khimaira’s cave. And you didn’t know that there was another Khimaira. And that it killed everyone down there.”

“Oh my….” There were suitable cries and moans of horror as Maestro said a few more words that described how the people were killed.

“It was self defence,” the man insisted. “That thing would have killed all of us.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Maestro said. “If it was hungry it might just possibly have killed one of you for food, but actually, they prefer wild goat. The cave was full of remnants of goats. I would think farmers in the plains of the mountains regularly lose livestock, too. But you’ve got too much artificial fabric, ropes, bits of metal and plastic, and generally unpalatable bits that would make you smell like non-food.”

“Then why did it kill the people below….”

“Because YOU killed its child,” Maestro answered. “It’s an animal. Nothing more than that. Just an animal with basic instincts. Grief and revenge are two of them. You killed its child, you destroyed its future and it looked for revenge.” He turned to Penne and Chrístõ. “We’ll take a short break here. Eat some food, take a drink. Then we’ll set off back down.”

“What?” Chrístõ and Penne looked at him in surprise. So did the other party of climbers.

“I’ve given you fair warning,” Maestro said. “Now we’re going to go back down the mountain. You’re nothing to do with us. If you move fast you might get down, too. Or the Khimaira might pick you all off. If you make it, all well and good. If not, then the Khimaira has its revenge and that’s an end of it.”

“What?” Penne was shocked. “Grandfather… you can’t. We have to save them.”

“But they’re just Humans. There are billions of them in the universe. The creature is unique. IT is the one that should be protected.”

“That is true,” Chrístõ added. “I remember when I was a boy – about fifty, I think - My father was a delegate at the Bo’gra-V Conference where the Protection of Endangered Species Treaty was ratified. He showed me holovideos of some of the species they protected. Some of them were the ugliest things imaginable. But father said that our perception of beauty was subjective and even ugly things must be given the chance to survive.”

“I never realised then that sometimes ugly things look like us,” he added, glaring at the man who had killed the Khimaira.

“You can’t be serious,” one of the other party said. “You’re going to just leave us here?”

“It is nothing to do with us,” Maestro insisted. “We are not even Human. We’re Gallifreyan, and interference in the affairs of other worlds is actually against the Laws of Time that govern all of our people.”

“But…” Penne protested. “Surely…”

Chrístõ wondered if Maestro was bluffing. Although what he was saying made perfectly logical sense he really hoped he WAS. As much as he sympathised with the Khimaira he had his own strongly held beliefs about preserving life. He wasn’t sure he could do as Maestro said and just walk away leaving these Humans to an almost certain grisly death.

Besides, did the Khimaira know the difference between Human and Gallifreyan. Shouldn’t they all stay here and combine to mount some kind of defence? If the three of them set off down the mountain alone they would be dangerously exposed.

“No,” Maestro said. “The Khimaira WILL be able to tell the difference. Animals can tell us apart from Humans. We smell different. It is the Humans who are its target.”

That was true, of course. Their bodies DID exude a different chemical composition to Humans. While Humans secreted salts in their perspiration, Gallifreyans secreted salts and sugars. To an animal that identified its prey by smell, they were a different species altogether to the one the Khimaira was seeking revenge on.

But he still didn’t think they should just leave.

Nor did Penne. He was looking at his grandfather with a shocked expression. In his head, Chrístõ could feel his confusion, his disappointment. He was wondering about more than just this incident. He was wondering if, after all, his mother WAS an aberration in their family. If his grandfather could speak so coldly and calculatingly about leaving eight people to a certain death…..

“No,” Chrístõ assured him. “No, don’t think it. Maestro is a good man. He would not say these things if he did not have a reason. I think he just wants to scare these people, make them see the terrible thing they have done.”


“Penne, I would trust Maestro with my life,” Chrístõ added.

“Of course you can, my boy,” Maestro told Penne telepathically.

“It’s not my life that concerns me,” he argued. “Grandfather, if you abandon these people you are no better than my father who killed in cold blood. Or my mother who is YOUR child.”

“Penne…” Maestro began. His voice, even the inner voice that he spoke with in their telepathic conversation sounded hurt. He and Penne had built a relationship in the months since they had found each other. And now it seemed under threat.

A scream of fear ended the silent discussion. All three turned and reached for their knives and icepicks. Sympathy for the Khimaira was one thing in abstract, but when the seven and a half foot adult creature was bearing down on them, when they saw one of the climbers sliced in two with a single swipe of the long claw, grabbing a sharp weapon was the natural thing to do.

“Kill it,” screamed the one who had killed the juvenile creature. He reached immediately for his gun, but he never got a single shot off. The Khimaira side swiped him with one of those taloned arms and swept him off the ledge. The Doppler sound of his scream was lost in the snarl of anger from the Khimaira and the screams of panic from the rest of the party as it picked them off.

Attacking it was futile and fatal. The three Gallifreyans stood firm, but all they could hope to do was defend themselves a little better than the Humans were doing.

“No,” Maestro said, putting his weapons back onto his belt. “No. We must not appear to be a threat.” He turned from the creature and pushed Penne and Christo against the rockface and told them to crouch down. He covered them both as they did so, his arms embracing them.

“Maestro, no,” Chrístõ begged him. “No, please. It’ll cut you in half. Don’t try to protect us….”

“You’re my children,” He answered. “It’s my duty to protect you.”

The screams fell silent. There was nobody left to scream. They heard the growling breath of the Khimaira as it approached them, sniffing the air as if trying to work out if they were, indeed, the same creatures as those it had taken its vengeance out on.

“What…” Chrístõ began to say.

“Grandfather….” Penne too, tried to speak but couldn’t get the words out. Both of them were scared. They couldn’t hide it from each other. Their telepathic nerves screamed fear of the sudden and violent death they were only inches away from.

“You’re my children,” Maestro said again. And they both felt him reach out and make mental contact with the Khimaira. It had no language as such, but it had an understanding of emotions. They felt Maestro thinking about his daughter, Penne’s mother. He was thinking of how much he loved her, and how distraught he was to lose her. He didn’t explain to the creature how he lost her, only the fact that he knew what it was to lose a child. Then his thoughts changed. He was thinking of Chrístõ, and how he had come to love and cherish him as a surrogate son in the years when he trained and taught him, and Penne, his grandson.

My children. That was the message he was giving the creature. These are my children and I love them as you loved your child. We are the same. We feel the same feelings.

They hardly dared breathe. They waited to hear Maestro scream as a knife like claw ripped him in half and threw his body aside as it came for them.

Time Lords couldn’t regenerate if their bodies were dismembered.

But the blow didn’t come. Maestro suddenly gave a soft cry of anguish. He stood and turned. Chrístõ and Penne uncurled themselves from their crouched position just in time to see the creature launch itself off the edge of the cliff. Chrístõ ran to the edge. Maestro grabbed him and held him back but he glimpsed the Khimaira falling. It would take a long time, but the end result was inevitable.

“It killed itself!” Chrístõ’s voice was hoarse as it sank in. “It killed itself.”

“Its child was dead. It had no reason to live,” Maestro told him. “It was driven by revenge to kill all the Humans on the mountain, knowing that a Human killed its child. But once that was done it had no other reason to live.”

“It preferred to kill itself than live on alone, until it died of old age and that was the end of the Khimairas.” Penne reasoned it out slowly. “Oh… but…”

“I felt something like that when I lost your mother,” Maestro told him. “She was as good as dead. Worse. At least it is socially acceptable to talk about the dead. A Renegade… Her very name was poison. I know what that creature felt. I considered such an ending to my own life. My children, be glad you are young and cannot understand such a grief. I pray you will be spared it in your future. But if you should…. Then you will know why a lonely creature… why the Khimaira… chose to die.”

Maestro stepped forward and embraced them both. “My children,” he said again. And nobody would have been so pedantic at that moment to point out that neither of them were his actual children.

“What now?” Penne asked. He looked up at the dizzy height of the Vertic. “We’re not still going to try to reach the top? We’re only just over half way, you know.”

“I don’t think I want to,” Chrístõ admitted. “Not now, anyway. Maybe another time. Start again.”

“My hearts aren’t in it, either,” Maestro admitted. “Besides, we have a rather gruesome duty.” He looked about at the bodies and body parts still strewn around. “It falls to us to make these bodies decent and collect identification. The ones below, too. We will do that. And then we will make our way down again and inform the authorities. I think these bodies will NOT be left for posterity. I rather suspect, too, that they will lie in some way. Put the deaths down to some freak weather or the failure of equipment. They will not want to reveal to the public what really happened.”

Penne and Chrístõ nodded. What Maestro said was depressing but all too true.

“Grandfather,” Penne said as they set to the grisly work. “Would you have left them? Really… would you?”

Maestro looked at him steadily.

“In your hearts, what do you think?”

Penne looked at him and shook his head. He didn’t know what he thought. But he at least knew one thing.

He didn’t want this to come between them.

“Grandfather,” he whispered. He meant to say something else, but he didn’t need to. The expression in the old man’s eyes said it all.

They would always be blood kin to each other and nothing could cloud that.