The vulture’s claws scrape my arms like fire and find purchase on the grit of stone. There is a moment where all is quiet, and only the lush fall of wings breaks the silence. Their talons are made to dig deep, and they do. Small chunks of rock splinter off my shoulders like glass and if I could bleed I would be. The missing pieces burn like raw nerves. At least I know they can’t take stone Underground.
Salem glows a little in the fog down below. The Vulture’s wingspan can’t quite drown him out. His brightness is good, they’ll have trouble pulling him down with the energy he’s got. It buys me time. Salem flails, all fists and elbows, as if his suggestions of arms will make a dent in a Vulture. They won’t. His visage flickers like it’s not getting a signal, and I know it’s the pull of the Underground already stealing the tiny bits of his soul.
I look back to the church. Derik watches, and I know this is my test. Salem hangs in the balance. My skin still burns where his own brushed it.
This Vulture that holds me has made a mistake. They never grab us, mostly because we’re heavy but also because we bite. There’s something like venom in us, but we have to be strategic about it. My eyes pan below me, and the Vulture wheels for a crop of trees just as Salem reaches the church. He’ll be safe in there, but much less on the other side. Even if he sprints to the Gate, he’s an easy target if I don’t get out of the sky to cover him.
He fumbles with the door latch. Vultures swipe at him, tearing light away from his body, but they can’t grab him so close to sacred ground. “Steady,” I whisper. “Concentrate.” He takes a breath, eyes scanning for me in the sky. His hands glow brighter as he makes them solid enough to open the door.
“Go,” I say, though I know he can’t hear.
He’s in, and I take his moment of safety to stretch my neck up and sink my marble teeth into the Vulture’s snakeskin leg. It screams and releases me. My wings ache to pull me up in midair. The dark bird skitters in the air, it’s legs stiffen with the creeping hold of my exact makeup. Its wings set in stone and it plummets, it’s eyes wide as it crashes into a tombstone below. It breaks into pieces, dust mingling with the fog.
I turn my back on it, and shoot for the far side of the church. A screech falls over the yard, and the second that follows brings another vulture on my back, but this time he grabs my wings, talons digging into the thin stone. They splinter, and I try to wheel away, but the bird sticks. I twist in the air, and he shadows me, pulling at my feathers.
I let myself fall to earth and the vulture falls with me. Fifteen feet from the ground and the giant bird twists upward, corkscrewing against the fall of rock.
There’s a crack like thunder but sharper, and my wings tear at my back. Dust and grit fly as he digs in harder, and they’re gone and I’m falling for real now. My wings rise with the Vulture, and I hit the ground hard. I roll to my feet, stumbling, blind with pain. Hundreds of Vultures clog the air as Salem springs out of the back door of the church. I crash into him, keeping him in the door’s threshold. Too many to shield him from.
“Holy,” he says, looking up. I think it’s far from that.
“Too many,” my voice sounds like a kicked dog. “I’m sorry.”
“Your wings.” He runs a glowing hand across the mess of my back, and his fingers leave ice behind. I think he might be magic.
“You’re so good and I’m so sorry,” I tell him. “I can’t keep them away. It’s too far. They’re going to take you.”
He’s starting to fade. His time is running out. Without the gate he’ll burn out as a Vulture’s meal or be nothing more than a ghost trapped on Earth.
“It’s alright,” he says. “I’m not going.”
“You’re more than a ghost,” I tell him.
“I will be. Let’s try.” He pull me into his shoulders so that his lips are at my ear. “If they try to take me, you know what to do. I’d shatter for you.”
My eyebrows pull together but he grabs my hand and pulls me toward the gate. We run.
Vulture wings raze our faces, lash our shoulders. A set of talons sink into him, and he glows brighter than ever. I wrap my arms around his shoulders and pull him hard to the ground.
Our legs tangle, stone and light. His chest remembers breathing and his ghost breaths push against my cold chest.
“Not gonna make it,” he whispers. The gate is far off, and there are a thousand Vultures between here and there.
“No.” I say.
He kisses my stone lips hard and I’m afraid of crashing, but I am. I break away and sink my teeth into his shoulder, and as he turns to stone under me I know I’d shatter for him too. I have. The Vultures scream in agony, and turn the sky blacker with their leaving. Hush falls, and he is opalescent and smiling.
“I’m more than a ghost now, eh?”
“You always were.”
“So were you.”
And this is how we shatter, together.
Happy Halloween! Check back at 3pm for our final Cimmerween story, and on Friday for Anne’s No Rules post.
Join us next month when we post four more tales on a new prompt.