LOVER IN STONE, Installment No. 12

INSTALLMENT NO. 12 #wings #swarms #hell
Angelia’s spine stiffened like his words lashed her, yet, she kept walking.
But she isn’t. Even if Merrick did argue with himself, he obviously liked the shape of her. Not that he knew why. Kynd didn’t take mates, or lovers, as humans called them. He shouldn’t be feeling these strange sensations as he watched her hiking in front of him.
No. She wasn’t hiking; she was marching now, and he found himself lengthening his stride to keep close to her.
“What I meant,” he cleared his throat, “was that members of the Literati seem to have made a bad bargain with Knowledge. They look, well, you know what I mean.”
Merrick held his breath, waiting for the woman to say something, anything, before his mouth opened again to spew God knew what out of it. He was a Chimera, for the Lord’s sake, accustomed to endless years of saying little to nothing.
He thought maybe the last thing he might have spoken was Hey, I’m going to tear your legs off, Vampire, if you take one more step toward that threshold. Or something like it. Yet, here he was dribbling nonsense off his tongue like a yenta.
Angelia slapped at another fly. “I know what you mean.”
His skin tightened instantly. He didn’t like the surrender of her tone, as if she agreed she was trading her life for something that maybe cost more than she wanted to pay. He didn’t want to look close at his reaction to that, either.
She flapped her hands over her head, whisking away the cloud of tiny gnats hovering there. “So, how long will it take before we see the Acheron?”
“You know where you are, then?” She wasn’t ignorant of the Vestibule, just undaunted. Relief stole its way to his lungs, letting him breathe a little easier.
Until the woman in front of him bristled under her pack, her spine stiffening again as she trudged doggedly forward. Merrick silently cursed his traitorous tongue. He’d insulted her worse than telling her she was a withered husk. Couldn’t he just keep his mouth shut around her?
“Yes, I know precisely where I am, Mr. Merrick.” Angelia spun around, her fingers coiled around the shoulder straps of her backpack, her eyes swirling, dark pools.
He almost walked over the top of her, she halted so abruptly.
“Jesus, woman.” She was so close he felt the heat of her anger. And her body.
“Mr. Merrick, if you—”
“Merrick. Just Merrick. I’m not a—”
“Whatever.” Angelia waved her hand as if shooing away his explanation along with the swarming flies. “If you think for one minute I’m not wholly aware of where we are,” she brushed a hornet off her arm. “Then we’re going—”
Merrick pressed the rough pads of his fingertips to her soft lips as he felt the rumble under his feet and the thunder drumming his sensitive ears.
“Jesus Christ.” Far from it, but he didn’t have time to list the differences. Bearing down on them was the one reason he thanked God for not being quite so cruel as He could have been.
The tormented hordes.
Angels unwanted by Lucifer, and rejected by God for their indecisiveness, were barreling down on the spot where Merrick and Angelia now stood. The tattered banner the spirits eternally chased loomed so fast Merrick could hear its flapping as it sped closer.
He shucked his coat, not caring where it landed as he crushed Angelia to him and dropped to the ground. His wings exploded from his back, and he folded them round her body to shield her from the flies and hornets that descended in a choking, stinging cloud.
The swarming mass stole the very air they breathed, suffocating them, and they bumped against his stone-rough skin, their screeching buzz piercing his eardrums as he strained to listen for the following hordes, the hundreds and thousands of shaded souls on foot and horseback who pursued the banner.
Angelia would be crushed by the charging throng if he couldn’t get them off the ground. Yet the insects swarmed too thick, their teeming mass a solid, burning thing that would flay human skin if he removed the protection of his wings to fly them out of harm’s way.
But he had to do something; their time was running out. He could feel the earth shuddering under his feet, rattling his bones with the sheer force of stampeding feet.
Merrick clutched Angelia tighter, fear for her safety crushing heavy on his chest, tightening like a steel band, making it even harder to breathe.
He didn’t pause to ponder why, but used his desperation to get her the hell out of their predicament.
“Hold on,” he bellowed into her ear, and the instant he felt her fingernails dig into his forearms he unfolded one wing, drew it back, and shoved it forward through the thick swarm of insects as hard as he could, propelling them off-kilter, but at the same time backward, out of the direct path of the rushing hordes.
He staggered with the effort of their tilted get-away, but refused to ease his grip on the woman. Merrick curved his battered wing back over her as he surrounded her body, blanketing her from the insects until they, too, receded with the awful tremor of the ground.
****
Angelia, protectively curled beneath the Chimera, couldn’t ignore the slam of Merrick’s heart against her back, the fierce hold of his arms, the heat of their bodies trapped within the canopy of his wings.
She felt her own heart kicking her breastbone as it ricocheted off the Chimera’s muscled forearm.
She’d nearly gotten herself killed.
She had nearly gotten them both killed with her inattention, with the preoccupation that had consumed her when she’d felt Merrick near, as if she had antennae tuned to the frequency of his presence. Images of him in her head had sharpened the closer he got, completely dominating her senses so that the landscape around her had diminished to the narrow space under her feet.
But his presence hadn’t suppressed the insecurities that always hovered around her like an aura.
More like a stink, she remembered thinking. Merrick was strong, self-confident, while she was—well, she was just human, and not a particularly exceptional one, at that. The only reason she worked for the Literati was because they needed a human they could trust, and she filled the bill. Having a father who was Vampyre and a member of the Triumvirate had clinched it. Aro initiated her the day she’d turned eighteen.
You’re no withered husk. She’d kept walking when she’d heard Merrick’s words, blazing her ignorant trail as she’d nursed the sting of his backhanded compliment, his flippant comment cutting too close to the bone.
Of course, she’d known what he’d meant. She had passed enough hours fretting about that very thing. Not that she was vain, she just didn’t want—well, she didn’t quite know exactly what it was she’d hoped to get from joining the Literati.
Adventure, maybe, like Indiana Jones. But that the Chimera saw traces of her fading and wasted youth hit her harder than any of her own self-criticisms. It was one thing to blast herself, but to hear her self-conscious fears voiced by a Kynd she harbored a secret enthrallment for?
Angelia had felt like a bug splattered on a car windshield. And just as gross.
Seconds later, she’d almost wound up as exactly that.
If it hadn’t been for the Chimera’s quick thinking and his tremendous strength, they would both be mangled road kill, and a scrumptious meal for the billions of flies, which had descended in a swarming, stinging mass.
“Angelia?”
She stifled a sob. When Merrick had peeled back his one wing she had seen the nightmare boring down on them, the tortured, fanatical visages of the hundreds of thousands of souls raging by. Her thin skin had been pelted by thousands of stinging hornets and chips of dirt flung up by pounding hooves. Thank God she’d had the wherewithal not to open her mouth to scream. As it was, her lips and nose burned as if raw, and she wasn’t too sure they weren’t stripped clean of skin.
She certainly didn’t mind if the Chimera had yet to let her go. His arms kept her from freaking out, his hold on her body transferring to a grip on her mental state so she could take a few minutes to sort out what she had just seen.
Hell.
She just got her first glimpse of Hell, right up front and horrifyingly personal. Doubt crashed down on her, feeding the sobs mushrooming in her chest, threatening to choke her as the insects had done.
“Angelia?” She hadn’t answered him, and his tone seemed genuinely concerned, which squeezed at her traumatized heart.
“I’m okay.” Except her bottom lip, raw as it was, trembled as tears pooled to blur her vision. Not that she could see much anyway, only Merrick’s knees and his bare arms as he remained hovered over her.
~S.C. Dane
~Installment No. 13 coming Tuesday, March 10, 2015

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