by Adrian Diglio
Tons of rock bounded down the mountain face, sliding and plunging at increasing speed. Plumes of dust billowed into the air. Broad trees splintered like twigs. Boulders crashed and tumbled as they raced each other to the bottom.
At the foot of the mountain, the town of Sira Tenoble got one last look at the sun before its chalk and flint structures buckled under the crushing force. In a flash of darkness, life was engulfed in stone.
He could hear the dust settle on the bed of rock upon him.
One man walked overhead.
“Help,” gasped Grindor. His voice was dry and empty and did nothing to stay the footsteps. He tried to muster a fuller breath, but a heavy weight lay upon him. It was cold. A single ray of light filtered through the rocks above him; dust swirled in weightless bliss.
The footsteps turned. Grindor could feel them reverberating in the earth beneath the mammoth crags that surrounded him, growing louder, nearer, right above him.
Grindor watched a spike-toed steel sabaton cross the cleft of sunlight overhead. A shadow descended over him. It was a man, staring down at him. Grindor blinked with disbelief. Shadows enveloped the man’s body like a colorless flame. The man’s ominous stare peered above a steel gorget that covered his mouth; his eyes were black as the blood of undeath, but he was no liche. He held a curious hammer, its shaft solid onyx and the head an ebonized chunk of raw crystal.
Black diamond? thought Grindor. He looked up to meet the man’s hollow gaze. A sudden panic sped his heart, clutched his already air-starved lungs. Without knowing why, he thought: this is no rescue.
The man spoke in a language that Grindor had never heard in all his travels, and a dark light kindled within the large, rough diamond. Grindor’s eyes were drawn to its glow as the man raised the hammer into the sky. When he spoke his last word, the mountainous stones that surrounded Grindor began to vibrate. Dirt and dust fell upon Grindor’s face as the stones levitated, hovering just the slightest. Grindor hacked and coughed between sporadic breaths. His mouth tasted of dust and blood.
“No. Please,” he muttered through his cracked lips.
A dangerous voice spoke to him, weighted in a thick accent. “You will tell your king what I have done here this day, or I will come to reclaim your life.”
Grindor’s breaths escalated to hyperventilation.
The ubiquitous stones that loomed over him parted. A flood of light streamed through. His lungs scrambled for another breath.
Grindor awoke to a searing sun, his face red and raw. Carrion crows cawed in frustration, bickering in their horrible song. His head throbbed.
Sounds of people rummaging through the rubble above.
“I got a live one!” squawked a bird-like voice above him.
Did… a vulture just speak? Am I going crazy? thought Grindor.
He strained to open his eyes, but they were swollen and tender. All he could make out was a figure standing above him atop a boulder, extending a hand down to him, but Grindor hadn’t the strength to grasp it.
“Ocamyr, he looks in bad shape. Go down there and get him.”
Grindor was cradled by a pair of feathered arms and felt a sense of weightlessness as he was lifted from his premature grave. Circling above were the buzzards, their featherless heads as red as Grindor’s blistered skin.
“Give him some water,” called Ocamyr.
Warm water poured over his cracked lips. As the water trickled down his throat, it was as if the rest of his body came to life. Grindor took hold of the hollow yak horn and guzzled it dry.. Ocamyr set him down in the shade, and his tormented eyes could finally get a look at his saviors.
Standing before him was a flock of avians, man-sized birds each resembling a hawk, with pointed, down-turned beaks. They wore studded leathers that covered their torsos. Their arms and hands, covered with white and brown feathers, were their only human trait. The talons on their yellow feet scratched the surface of the rocks upon which they stood.
Great, saved by society’s scavengers, thought Grindor.
“Where are you hurt?” one of them squawked.
Grindor pointed to his side. Then to his leg.
“Raise your shirt, let’s have a look.”
An avian wearing a silver coif inspected him. “His ribs look tender, but just bruising. Nothing’s broken.”
“You’re one lucky son of a bitch! Can you stand?” said the first.
Grindor shook his head.
“There’s dry blood on his pant leg. Broken, most likely.”
A feathered hand rested upon his forehead. “The sun has made his skin hot; I cannot tell if he has contracted a fever.”
A new voice cut in. “Here. Eat this. . . Can you tell us where we are? Have we made it within His Majesty’s lands?”
Grindor ate the food offered to him and nodded as he finished chewing. When he spoke, his voice was as dry as dust. “This is… was… Sira Tenoble.”
“Then we aren’t far from help. Save your energy, friend. We’re taking you to your own.”
Grindor strained as he rolled over to his side. “What was that you fed me?”
“The melon of the Leudinar tree. Did you not like it?”
“No. I loved it! Have you any more?”
The avian produced a knapsack and unfolded its edges to reveal more of the honey-glazed succulent fruit. Grindor, keeping his leg still, grabbed the entire knapsack and laid it upon the ground. He took the cut pieces of melon and devoured them hand over fist.
He looked up at his saviors with his blistered face. “More?”
The avians guffawed in their eagle-voice, which startled the carrion crows into scattering. The buzzards cawed and bickered nervously, then followed with complaint. The discordant cries sent Grindor’s pounding head into a migraine.
“Have you a name?”
“Grindor,” he said, wincing.
“Grindor the Ravenous, more like it. Go ahead. Give him another. I’m Ocamyr, and this is my flock. We arrived here from the east.”
Grindor was preoccupied gobbling Leudinar fruit, so Ocamyr continued, “I noticed the curved blade in that scabbard of yours. No merchant is trained in the use of a kukri, yet you wear their clothes. Even more peculiar are the rings of nobility that are on every one of your fingers. So, who are you really?”
Grindor finished the honeyed fruit and laid back down flat in the shade, massaging his temples. “I’m a hired sword. A nobody.”
Ocamyr squinted at one of his rings in disbelief. His neck feathers puffed in anger. “Were you ever hired to kill an avian?”
Silence fell. The avians stared at Grindor like he was prey. Even the carrion birds ceased their squabbling. Grindor made an effort to look Ocamyr in the eye as he shook his head.
The avians looked at each other with a skeptical eye and Ocamyr gave them a nod. “Liar!” squawked one, sending the vultures into a cawing frenzy, as if cheering. He grabbed Grindor by his buttoned tunic and almost pulled him to his feet as another smashed his fist across Grindor’s face.