For my entire eighteen years I have known nothing but the solid grit of rock. Cast in stone for all my life, I live in the shadows of a world that knows nothing of my kind. They paint us as gargoyles. Concrete monsters, with horns and teeth. Creatures of the night, but that is not what we are. We are the gatekeepers. We safeguard the Souls drifting between the here and away. I don’t know what’s beyond this life on Earth, but I know I am to keep humans moving past it when they die.
For a rock, I have the grace of a falcon. Horns and fangs are actually feathers and skin that is all silk and slate. My perch is at the top spire of a sacred church. I was placed here because I was born here, and I’m sworn to protect the souls brought here after death.
The stone angels are more like shepherds with wings and at night, when the resting souls are vulnerable, we keep them from the Vultures who would lead them Underground to feed their kin. Like I said, I don’t know what’s beyond, but I do know what’s below. It’s no place for a Soul. So I fly, and keep my sheep safe from the darkness of a Vulture’s wing.
This night will be darker than most. Moonless and cloudy, the sky is a soup of vapor and sounds dampened by fog. My knees scrape the edge of the church’s dormer.
My name scrapes out of Derik’s mouth like gravel. “You’re with Salem tonight.”
“The target?” The vultures have been hounding the dead boy, creeping up to shadow him. I don’t understand their motives, but they want him.
“You’ll be fine,” he says.
“But tonight is his Journey.”
“He will cross over just fine.”
That’s as close to praise as I’ll ever get, and the weight of the words lays lead across my shoulders in the best way.
“Go on, then,” he says.
Tonight will be my sink or swim, and air has currents stronger than oceans. It’s nightfall, and Salem’s soul hangs in the vapor that rises off the marble tombstones. I’ve got to get him to the gate that separates this world from beyond.
I dive from the roof, wings splitting the air so that it crackles around me, static and heavy. The only time I forget I’m made of stone is when I’m flying. I do a loop around the yard, trying to search out wings blacker than the creeping darkness.
It’s all clear, but I know they’re waiting.
My feet leave fissures in the soft ground next to Salem’s grave. He’s sitting over it, more aware than normal, which is a testament to this night. He’s ready to cross.
“Are you my bodyguard?” he asks, giving me a sly smile.
“For the last time,” I tell him.
“Thank God,” he says, “I was getting sick of you.”
I laugh. He must have been a charmer when he was alive, because he makes me feel less like a gravestone and more like the sun.
“What do I do?” he asks, and it’s the first time his eyebrows have drifted toward concern since he showed up here. His body is the idea of solid without hitting the mark, but his fingers grip the edge of his grave as if holding on will bring him back to skin and bones.
It won’t, and he knows it.
“You walk ahead, through the church, up the aisle and out the other side. Through the Gate and that’s it.”
He eyes the pathway I’ve paid out in a few heavy words. His ideas of fingers turn white at the tips.
“I’ve got your back,” I tell him. “It’s almost time.”
They know. They circle above us, hunting their version of roadkill.
His fear has him caught. He knows the price of this walk. He’s seen Vultures tear a Soul into the Underground. It’s nearly midnight, and if he doesn’t go now he’ll be stuck. I pry his fingers from the grave as softly as I can. I pull him to me only to nudge him away again. His hands on my rough skin feel like fire, and it’s intoxicating.
“Go. I’ve got you.”
He’s shooting off the slab of rock so fast I fly to catch up, and before he even clears the yard a wingspan darker than pitch falls over him.
“Run,” I yell. Vulture talons rake my shoulders, and sparks fly.
To be continued… in Part 2: The Breaking
Stay tuned for extra content this week from Julie. This month we’re posting extra short stories on Halloween. Check out Anne’s answer to this prompt next Monday.
For more amazing photos by Days of K, please visit her Flickr page (http://www.flickr.com/photos/daysofk/). Photograph © Copyright, Days of K 2012. All rights reserved. Used with permission.