The air shimmered, heavy with oppressive heat. His vision blurred. Valak blinked, focused again on the distinctive rock ledge some yards ahead, up a steep incline. Scrawny fir trees dotted the horizon beyond it. The fabled valley, he knew with bone deep certainty, lay with reach.
Valak managed to move a few more inches before his muscles cramped. His eyes shut, closed out the unrelenting sun. Agony racked him. His face sank to the ground. Only pure stubborn will held his fading life force connected to his mortal body.
Talons rasped sand. Disgust coiled in his gut. A single cut from a bastard with a tainted blade and a thrice-blessed champion became vulture’s prey.
A sharp beak tore his flesh. His guttural objection halted the attack but Valak knew the reprieve wouldn’t last. Bitterness pulsed with each slowing beat of his heart. He couldn’t defend himself, couldn’t fight. Trust wrought this pathetic end.
Without warning, the sound of running footfalls filled his ears and sent the vile creatures skyward. Loud, angry words in an unfamiliar language flowed over him seconds later. Strong hands gripped his shoulder and hip then rolled Valak onto his back. He moaned. Nausea threatened the remnants of his dignity and robbed him of speech.
Valak fought for control. His brain fogged, he struggled to think. The stranger’s exchange lowered in volume but their voices still reflected discord. It meant next to nothing that they hadn’t killed him on sight. After a time, stomach under control, he opened his eyes to slits.
Conditioned to note details, his gaze traveled over the man squatted by his left shoulder. Sandaled feet, tan pants, a loose white shirt, mocha skin, trimmed beard, short dark hair and eyes were unremarkable. All that mattered to Valak was the stranger didn’t carry a weapon then something odd in the cadence of their speech snagged his attention.
Some words reminded him of an Old Earth language but he rejected the notion. Those tongues were long dead, spoken now by only a handful of scholars. The poison must have affected his mind. Frustration swelled as a logical answer eluded him.
Suddenly red-hot agony shot through Valak. With a snarl, his gaze swung to the source of his pain. Close enough that he could’ve knocked her away if he’d the strength to swing his arm, a young woman knelt, bloodied hands pressed against his right thigh.
Teeth clenched, Valak glared at her while her companion droned on tone unchanged. Either the man hadn't noticed his reaction or hadn't cared. The dogged focus on her was his only advantage, a few seconds to strike out before retaliation, if it became necessary and he found the strength.
His tormentor leaned harder on the wound. Acid climbed his throat. Fresh waves of pain crashed over Valak. His mouth fell open but no sound escaped. Seized, consumed, he couldn’t move, couldn’t think, all he could do was breathe.