Downrush. 3


“She said what?” Wesley’s icy blues peeked from beneath his tilted brow not wanting to lift his head from the text he was studying.

“That she didn’t want to waste another vision on this woman,” Angel repeated. “She just sounded so…cold.”

“Well, I can see her point. I mean one wouldn’t choose to have three mind-splitting visions just to save one person if one could avoid it. Not very efficient on the part of the Powers.”

Angel still paced in front of Wesley’s desk not satisfied with that reasoning. “I get the point. It’s just that she didn’t sound like that was the real reason. I sensed something. I think she was really scared, and I don’t mean for the victim.”

Wesley finally gave Angel his full attention, sitting back in his chair and removing his glasses. “Do you think she was afraid of something in the vision or something else?”

“I don’t know. In the vision I think. When she thought about where it was going to happen she freaked out. I haven’t sensed that kind of fear from her since…since the whole Vocah thing. I mean once the vision is over and she’s giving us the details, I never feel any fear. She always manages to distance herself from whatever the victim’s going through. But, today when she went back into the vision, she was terrified.”

Horror-filled hazel eyes sprang to his mind’s eye. His body become rigid as he replayed the dream. When he’d heard her voice on the phone and knew she was fine, he’d decided the dream was merely that and nothing more. But, now he couldn’t be sure.

“Wes, I had a dream last night. Something evil was chasing a woman through the woods. I was inside the animal or whatever it was, and when it finally caught the woman, before it sliced her throat, I saw that it was Cordelia.”

“That doesn’t sound ominous. I mean it sounds like a typical dream, of sorts. For you anyway.” Wesley cleaned his glasses somewhat afraid to look him in the eye.

Angel pounded his palms on the desk and leaned in. “Damn it, Wes. It wasn’t typical. It wasn’t me chasing her. It was something worse than me. I got pleasure from the fear of others, but this thing got stronger from it. It fed on her fear, and trust me when I say whatever it is got a big three-course meal out of her last night.”

Wesley perked up, excitement shining in his eyes as he rose and crossed to the bookshelf to search for a book. “I just remembered. Yesterday, before the vision, Cordy fell asleep and said she had a dream about being chased. She said it was a wolf or something.”

“Yesterday? Then this thing has attacked her twice at least, and we didn’t even know it?” Angel turned to leave but Wesley stopped him.

“Angel, don’t go yet. We need to find out what this is as well as what will be attacking that woman in the vision. I need you here.”

“Get Gunn or Fred to help. I need to get to Cordy.”

“Call her and let her know what’s going on, but I need you here. You’re the one that experienced the dream. I’ll need to ask you details as I research.” Wesley thought he had convinced him to stay, but Angel made a counter offer.

“I’ll call her, tell her what’s happening and give her time to get ready. But, then I’m going to get her and bring her back here to stay.” He didn’t wait for Wesley to okay the plan because he didn’t care if he approved or not. He picked up the phone at the counter and called Cordelia.

“Great, Dennis. I’ve got a dream demon messing with me. When do I get the sexy leather pants dream demon that makes love to me all night and feeds off my sensuality? Huh? When do I get that guy? I’ll tell you when. Never!”

The steam poured over the top of the curtain. Dropping her robe, she raised her foot to step into the shower but halted as her body shook with foreboding. Looking around for anything out of the ordinary, her heartbeat resumed regular rhythm when nothing odd jumped out at her. She turned back to her shower and felt another tremor as her foot came in contract with the pulsating water.

“Okay, this is ridiculous. Just get your ass in there and clean the nasty fever sweat off. It’s just water.” She brought in the other foot and thought her legs would fold. She leaned against the cool tiles to keep her upright and slowly inched along the wall toward the cascade.

“Clean, refreshing water. Good for what ails ya.” The pep talk was working. As the forceful drops met the skin of her shins, knees and thighs her thumping heart settled into a fast, but steady beat. She breathed deeply and kept talking. “That’s right. Tiny bubbles. That’s all they are. Tiny, wet bubbles that make everything clean and bright.”

The water reached her shoulders and she turned slowly to wet her hair. The heated moisture relaxed her stressed muscles. Tremulous fingers delved through her wet hair massaging her scalp. She released a satisfied moan and turned her body to splash her face.

Her eyes closed. She imagined the force of the jet spray like the tiny hands of Swedish masseuses kneading her corded muscles into sinuous threads. She opened her mouth anxious to feel the lovely warm beat on her coated tongue.

As the water rinsed her mouth and she spit it out again and again, the dread that was buried deep in her subconscious wiggled its way to her conscious mind. She thought she felt something cold and weighty on her shoulder but it was gone in an instant. There it was again. Then something fell on her head and slid down her back. She shivered but didn’t open her eyes to look. It was just nerves. Nothing more.

She plunged her head fully under the showerhead and rubbed the stream through her slicked back strands. Once again she opened her mouth to feel the calming massage on her tongue and began to choke as something cold and thick made its way toward the back of her throat.

She pulled back from the downpour, coughing and spitting and her eyes opened to a horrifying sight. Crawling and slithering on the walls, on her feet and down her shoulders were hundreds of snakes. Not much bigger than fat worms, they plagued her vision with an undulating sea of black, red, green, and yellow hues. If it weren’t so frightening it would be beautiful. She knew instantly that the feeling on her tongue had been one of them.

She gagged and retched trying to expel the slimy sensation in her throat. Feeling them all over her body, she violently tried to shake them off. She couldn’t stop quaking or her skin from crawling. Screaming tore through the apartment but she was deaf to her own voice, her mind not capable of handling the frightened wails on top of the visual terror.

Then her thought shifted from external torment to the unknown internal one. How much water slid down her throat and was now coiling and moving inside her? Her stomach churned, and she thought she felt the slithering bodies of thousands of them consuming her from the inside. Her mouth widened in a shriek so terrifying it caught in her chest and resounded only in the chambers of her racing heart.

Her rickety hand reached for the shower curtain and slowly shoved it over, trying not to loosen the snakes stuck there. With a path open, she lifted a trembling leg and prayed she could step from the tub before the other limb gave way and she tumbled into the snake pit beneath her. Leaning out slightly, her foot made contact with the soft, furry rug and she dove from the tub.

Falling hard on her hands and knees, she turned over and scooted on her behind across the room until her back met hard wall. Black pupils stared back at the source of her torture, a wide-eyed watchful glare, unmoving but moved. She hugged her knees to her chest holding them together so tightly her fingernails dug into her forearms and drew blood.

The only sounds she heard were the roaring train of spewing water and the screeching of sliding snake bellies against porcelain. She didn’t hear the chattering of her teeth or the rattling of her bones. She didn’t hear the pounding fists on her front door, or her name being called, or the creak of his shoes on the linoleum as he skid into the bathroom and stopped dead at the sight of her.

“Cordelia,” Angel said as if this huddled, quivering, wet mass was unrecognizable. “Cordelia,” he said louder and firmer, not sure if he was naming her or calling her. Not a muscle of her form twitched to acknowledge his presence or his words.

Kneeling beside her, his fingers hovered above her dripping strands too afraid to disturb the fragility. Afraid she would crack under the barest touch. “Cordy.” His voice was soft and pained and full of pity. He lifted a mass of clinging locks from her glazed eyes.

Whether it was his touch or the pity in his voice, something reached through her internal fog and pushed a fight button. It was a tiny switch, but it was enough to stimulate her vocal cords.

“Ss-ss-ssnaakkkeess.” It was faint and wobbly, but it was her voice and it was enough to dampen the roar and the skin-crawling slithering. She blinked.

Angel heard her stuttering word and saw her eyelid move. It was a response, one he didn’t understand, but it was something. He sucked in a lung full of moist air as the weight of being too late…of losing her…lifted off his chest. He followed her gaze and went to the shower. Just as he was about to pull back the curtain, she gasped and whimpered, “No.”

“Why?” When she didn’t respond, he jerked back the curtain and reached down to turn off the shower. “Cordy, what’s …,” he turned back to see she had shifted her side to the wall. Her hands were flying all over her head and body swiping at something only she could see and feel. She was mumbling something that he couldn’t make out until he was beside her again.

“Get ’em off, get ’em off, get ’em off,” over and over again she pleaded.

“Get what off, Cor? Tell me and I’ll get rid of them. I promise.” He grabbed her flailing hands and noticed for the first time the blood on her arms from her embedded nails and the scratches on her neck. He knew instantly where the damage on her neck had come from.

“Damn it! Why didn’t you tell me? You wake up with chunks of your skin missing and you don’t think it’s anything important?” Her eyes continued to stare inward oblivious to his questions. He crushed her cheeks between his massive hands and yanked her face up, forcing her eyes to his. “Look at me. Look. At. Me.”

He shook and shook her until slowly her pupils constricted in familiarity of his hooded warm brown eyes.

“Oh, God. Snakes, snakes, snakes.” She babbled in his ear the same word over and over as she hugged and clutched at him, her fingers digging through his coat and shirt leaving bruises.

He gathered her robe from the floor and placed it around her shoulders as her pulled her up, her arms still in a death grip around his neck. Her legs shuddered beneath her and against him. He couldn’t budge her from her position, so with an arm around her waist and the other just under her rear, he raised her feet off the floor enough to carry her to the bed.

Laying her down, it took all his strength to pry her arms from him. He picked up the edges of the comforter and covered her exposed body and went back to the bathroom for a towel. He dabbed wet drops from her face, neck and shoulders and then began vigorously rubbing her hair to towel it dry. All during his ministrations, she shivered and repeated through chattering, clenched teeth the same word constantly.

Satisfied that she was in no danger of catching pneumonia, he brushed her hair with his fingers and felt the heat radiating from her damp forehead.

“You’re burning up. Jesus, Cordelia, you’re sick, having demon dreams, your body is being torn to shreds, you’re hallucinating and none of that strikes you as odd enough to mention to the people who love you? You make me so fuckin’ mad.” He went to the bathroom and filled a glass with water. Putting it up to her lips, he tried to force her mouth open. “Drink this. You’re probably hallucinating because you’re so damn dehydrated.”

Panic clenched her mouth shut as her mind processed what he was holding to her lips. The clear container writhed with tiny red, black and green scaled reptiles. All of them licking at her lips aching to crawl inside, coil in her throat and lungs and choke her.

Before he could flinch, she slapped his hand away sending the glass flying. Screeching, she tumbled from the bed and cowered against the wall, her haunting voice saying over and over, “Snakes, snakes, snakes.”

Angel stared at her. He saw her quivering, smelled her fear, and all he felt was anger because she’d spilled the damn water all over the bed and him. He got up and brushed the water off his pants. He was about to admonish her when he saw her eyes and face flinch with his motion. He watched as her eyes darted from his pants, to the wet spots on the bed, to the glass and back again, each area filling her with horror and trepidation.

He picked up the glass and refilled it with water. The moment he entered the room her gaze was glued to it. The closer he got to her, the more pungent her fear became, the more wild and feral her vocalizations, and the further she backed into the corner until trapped all she could do was fold into a ball and whimper.

With the dawning of comprehension, Angel’s anger melted into compassion and the too familiar guilt. Getting rid of the offensive object, he retrieved a dry blanket from her closet and cradled her in the cozy warmth of fuzzy fabric and strong arms.

“Shhh. It’s going to be okay now. No more snakes.” His deep, tranquil voice soothed her frayed nerves as he carried her, shielding her from the imaginary creatures on the bed, and sat in the living room chair keeping her snuggled in his lap. She gasped shallow, hiccupped breaths as her tears subsided. He sensed her calming and rocked her gently hoping she would close her eyes and find some peaceful rest.

When her heartbeat was slow and regular, he shifted her gently and pulled out his cell phone. Wesley answered on the second ring.

“Wes, I hope you’ve found the demon. We’ve got a big problem here.”

“Where the hell are you two and what do you mean a big problem? You mean there’s another one besides the two we’ve already got?”

“Just tell me if you’ve found the demon.” Cordy stirred slightly and dug her nose into his chest.

“I’m not sure, we have several possibilities, but I need the both of you here to confirm some details,” Wesley insisted.

“That could be harder than we thought. It’s still raining, isn’t it?”

“Yes, even more so than when you left. Why is that a problem?”

“Tell me Wes, how do you get someone who’s terrified of water to go outside in a rain storm?”

Angel watched the rain trail down the window pane. Lightening sparked in the distance. Nature’s strobe in the early evening sky made the moving stream of drops appear eerily reptilian. He shivered as he imagined what Cordelia would see.

A shift under the sheets and a soft mewling let him know she was coming around. He quickly closed the drapes and watched as her eyes fluttered open.

“Hi,” he said when she focused on his face and recognized him.

“Hi,” she said, her voice dry and raspy. She was about to sit up when he put his hand on her shoulder and nudged her back down.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” He smirked and she titled her head confused. “Well, I have no objections if you want to flash me, but I thought maybe you should know before you do.”

She lifted the blanket and sheet and looked. “What the…how…who?” Holding the edges tightly around her she tried again to sit up but fell back weakly.

“You’re sick, Cor. I found you and put you to bed.” He tried to be serious, but he couldn’t keep the image of her naked body out of his head. His mouth curved in a leer.

“Uh-huh. I only have one question and you’d better have the right answer. Was I good?” She hissed as the laugh she tried to use to cover her embarrassment only intensified her headache.

“Just stay there and sleep. You need the rest. Wesley’s coming over and we’re going to find out what’s going on with that dream demon of yours. Do you want anything?”

“Yeah, two months in Tahiti and a brain surgeon. God, my head hurts.” She rubbed at her temples for a moment until her eyes shot open in horror. Her hands reached for him and clamped onto his arms. “Oh, God! The snakes. They were…there were hundreds of them. Everywhere. Jesus H. Christ. What the hell is going on?”

Angel rubbed her hands and she relaxed her grip as he spoke. “It’s okay. There aren’t any snakes. We think this dream demon has somehow made you imagine the snakes. Water seems to be the key. As soon as Wes gets here, we’re going to figure it out. I promise. Now just go back to sleep, okay? Do you want some aspirin?”

She nodded and he brought the bottle to her and shook out a couple into her palm.

She thought about asking where the water was and then remembered. “I guess dry is better than with a side of water moccasin. Thanks.” She choked them down and then let out a disgusted, “Blech.”

Angel watched her snuggle back under the covers and waited for her breathing to slow before he turned to leave. Her voice called to him.

“Angel. You never answered my question.”

“What question?”

She yawned. “Was I good?”

He simply lifted his brows, smiled deviously and growled. Closing the door behind him, he didn’t see Cordy’s satisfied grin or hear her softly mutter, “Damn skippy.”

They had narrowed the list to two demons and couldn’t distinguish between them. After almost three hours of researching every detail they could assemble, Angel thought at last he’d found something.

“Wes, I think this is it. A subspecies of the Acridanoitinit demon not only feeds on the fear of its victim in its sleep, but by injecting its venom, the victim becomes paranoid.”

Wesley moved to sit beside Angel on the couch and read over his shoulder. “That does sound promising. Does it say what the purpose of the paranoia is? For the demon, I mean?” He reached for the text, but Angel wouldn’t relinquish his find.

“Hmm…yadayada…lots of fear…lots of feasting….ah, here! Eventually the paranoia sends the person into a catatonic state. The demon takes up residence and feeds off its perpetual fear until the victim dies. Then it just creates a new host.” Angel’s eyes lit up with the eureka glee typically exhibited by Wesley.

“How is the paranoia triggered?” Impatient and feeling useless, Wesley finally wrenched the tome from him and scanned for the answer himself. Finding it quickly, he read, “After being infected, the victim becomes afraid of the first object of their desire.”

His eyes glistened with the excitement of solving the puzzle. “That’s it! Cordy woke up and immediately wanted a bottle of water. That’s the one! Now if it just tells us how to counteract the paranoia and kill the demon…”

“I’d be kinda interested in that tidbit of information myself.”

Both men lifted their eyes to the sleepy female voice. A disheveled Cordelia approached on wobbly yet determined legs.

“You should go back to bed, Cordelia,” Wesley said, concern etched in every deep-set wrinkle.

“Please, Cordy. We don’t know what we need to do to fix this yet and you’re going to need all your strength.” Angel stood to shepherd her back to bed, but Cordy put up her hand to fend him off and pointed for him to sit.

“First I want to know what’s going on. Last I heard there was a dream demon taking over my lust-filled Jude time, and that pisses me off. So spill it. What kind of wacky demon is it?”

Wesley took his rightful place as teller of the boring details. “It’s called an Acridanoitinit demon.”

“Of course it is. Aren’t there any demons called George?” Cordy yawned with her already apparent boredom.

Her spirit never ceased to amaze and fill Wesley with pride. He couldn’t help but smile his reply. “When you discover a new species of demon, you may feel free to call it George.”

“Nope, not gonna wait that long. We’re calling this one George because I can’t say Acridawhazzit and I’m too tired to learn. Scoot.” She stepped over Wesley’s legs and shoved him to move over so she could sit on the couch between the two people she trusted with her life.

“Cordy,” Angel said, “this demon has infected you. Those scratches on your neck were the first clue. Which, by the way, we are going to talk about once this is over. As in why in the hell didn’t you tell someone what was going on?”

“Pfft. Like I knew. And don’t think that whole discussion about my nakedness is over mister sneaky peek.” Her arched stare wasn’t as intimidating as it had been before he’d seen her bared. Now it was just cute as hell.

“Ahem,” Wesley interrupted. “Yes, well…George, if you will…infected you so that you would become paranoid and feed it more and more of your fear with each dream. In your case, the paranoia has manifested in a fear of water.”

“So, I don’t have to worry about installing the sandblasting equipment in place of the shower? It’s all just a fake out? No snakes?”

“Technically, there are no snakes. But, that doesn’t mean you will stop seeing them and your fear is gone. As long as you’re infected, the paranoia is real to you.”

“So, sandblasting still an option. Okay, then. How do we kill it and more importantly, what do I drink in the meantime because I’m thirsty as hell?” Cordy tugged at her throat scratching the dry itch there.

Angel rose to help. “Do you think you can handle milk? It doesn’t come from water. Just a cow.”

“Just a cow that drinks water to make milk.” She smirked as his lips curled down at his rebuffed idea. “But, I may be able to handle it and since the only other option in my fridge is blood, I’ll try the white cow stuff first.”

Angel returned with the glass of milk as Wesley was just beginning to explain the solution to their dilemma.

“You have to kill the demon in your dream. Once the demon is dead, the infection should wear off in a short time barring any complications. Simple really.”

“Uh-huh. Simple. How do I kill this demon in my dream, Wes? Do I fall asleep with a crossbow in one hand and an axe in the other and hope they end up in my dream with me? So far all I’ve hand in these dreams are my two scared, running feet and apparently they’re not real good at killing anything but me.”

She had the glass of milk in her hands and had been swirling it around looking for flashes of red or green scales. Angel watched her play with the liquid and honed his senses on her body for hints of heightened fear. There was some, but only enough to indicate she was anxious.

“I think there are two avenues at our disposal. The first is that we use hypnotism to put you in a trance-like state. In this trance, I will tell you the weapons you have and even suggest you possess slayer strength and agility to fight and defeat the demon. The only problem is I’m not positive the demon will join you in this trance or that my suggestions will carry through to your dreams if it doesn’t.”

“Cordy, are you going to drink that or just stare at it all day?” Her fidgeting fingers had Angel nervous and edgy.

“I’m just making sure…ya know.” She stopped the swirling and tentatively dipped a finger in praying nothing swam past and rubbed against it. When it seemed unharmed, she pulled it out and let the milk drip onto her tongue.

Angel screwed up his face in disgust. “I think I’m going to be sick now. What’s the second option, Wes?”

“I believe the link you two share could be used to join your dreams. Angel, you’ve already experienced one of her George dreams.” He still felt silly saying that. “I don’t think it would take much to induce you into another one of her dreams to kill the demon before it harms her.”

Cordy brought the glass of milk to her lips and took a small sip. When she had no difficulty swallowing it and nothing felt like it was going to crawl back up her throat, she tilted the glass up and chugged it voraciously.

As a stream of milk escaped the corner of her mouth, Angel felt queasy. “For some reason, that’s more disgusting than the blood.”

Cordy opened her mouth releasing a contented sigh and cleaned her chin with the back of her hand. Wriggling the empty glass in his face, she asked for more.

He rose with the glass and started for the kitchen. “Fine, but after this glass, we’re going to bed.”

“You’d better put a fifth of JB in that if you expect that to happen.” She turned to Wes. “He doesn’t have to actually be in the same bed with me, does he?” Her forehead winkled begging Wes to tell her anything but that.

“Well, umm, actually for what I have in mind close proximity is necessary.”

Cordy yelled toward the kitchen. “Make that a quart of JB. Ah, hell, just bring the whole liquor cabinet.”

Wesley studied the face of the supine figures. One was relaxed and grinning, the other tense and fidgeting. The stinky incense was lit and Wesley was ready to begin. Just one thing he needed to do.

“All right. Join hands.”

Angel reached for her hand and found a reluctant palm slapped into his. He squeezed it just to irritate her.

Wesley continued. “Now repeat after me. I, Angel, take you Cordy…”

Both pairs of eyes shot open and glared at the soon-to-be-dead ex-Watcher.

He gave them a smug smile and was quietly pleased with the reactions he’d garnered. “You two used to be a lot more fun.” They merely stared angrily. “And you call me stuffy. Fine, relax and close your eyes. You don’t have to hold hands, by the way.”

Neither of them let go.

Once Cordy heard the blah blah whatever language chant start, she loosened her grip on Angel’s hand and entwined her fingers with his. She fell asleep to the tender caress of his thumb running lazy patterns over her palm.

Her scent and heady tang of fear told him he was where he needed to be. It was pitch black hampering him in human form. He morphed into his demon and immediately picked up swift but lumbering movement to his right. Pitching his body forward, he ran to intercept Cordy’s attacker. The high-pitched scream of her in pain distracted him for a moment. He battled whether to find her or continue on his present course to reach the beast first. A low snarl closer than her scream settled that for him.

Racing over thick, slick, leaf-covered forest floor he imagined his disadvantage to the four-footed, clawed demon. Dread began to seep into his thoughts and wind its way to his gut. If he slipped, if he fell, he could be too late. He couldn’t allow it.

He veered left and jumped between two thick roots toward Cordy’s scream. Still moving forward but always toward her, he dodged spiked branches, rotting logs, and sturdy oaks all the while listening and watching for his prey. The squash of wet leaves in a quick rhythm to his right and irregular, labored pants to his left convinced him he was in the demon’s path. He stopped and searched the darkness for that shimmering coat and foggy breath to bear down on him.

He watched and listened for what seemed like eternity. Suddenly he heard her cry out his name and the forest shuddered with the beast’s roar behind him. Shocked that it could have maneuvered past him unnoticed, he hesitated before launching toward Cordy’s voice. Willing his body to move faster than ever before, the velvety back of the upright beast appeared yards ahead. He watched in sickening horror as the clawed hand rose in a backward arc and began its downward hack.

He soared toward the demon screaming, “No.” He heard Cordelia’s plaintive plea of, “Angel,” just before the sharp hooks silenced her.

Angel landed on its back. It bucked and reached behind to ensnare Angel and thrust him off. Too concerned about Cordy, he didn’t waste time dealing torture and mayhem. Grabbing its chin in one hand and the top of its head in the other, he twisted his head vehemently and snapped its neck.

Climbing off George’s limp carcass, he raced to Cordy and cradled her still face between his useless hands. “God, no,” he said as his eyes filled with tears, and he noticed blood seeping from four marks on the back of his left hand. He looked at her face once more. Their world suddenly began vibrating and she slipped from his grasp.

The Rains – Day 13

One little word overlooked and abandoned in haste. Two men who loved her more than life had failed her. Three times marked, forever cursed.

He heard Wesley enter but didn’t turn. He stared at the crescent scratches on his hand left by her bloody nails. They were almost gone, but he didn’t want them to go. He needed the scars. He needed to be marked by her.

“Has there been any change?” Wesley quietly asked.

Angel didn’t answer. He just stared at her once beautiful hazel eyes, now stark and wide in blank terror. She was breathing. She was alive. But she was dead inside. He had let her die inside. Now, she was trapped in a vision, and he knew which one it was.

“Did Gunn…?” Angel was too afraid to hear the answer.

Wesley didn’t want to give it. “No. He was…late.”

The two men watched her with little hope. Her mouth moved almost imperceptibly.

“Wesley, you said…”

“I said it *should* if there were no complications.” Complications like his incompetence. “We can only wait, hope and keep looking for an answer.”

He placed a hand on Angel’s shoulder and gave a comforting squeeze. For once, he shared in the vampire’s broody guilt. His own shoulders slumped as he left Angel’s room and shut the door.

There was so much Angel wanted to say to her. So much he felt that he’d been waiting for the right moment to say. A moment that he now realized he’d been blessed with a million times and now might never have again. Maybe this wasn’t the right time or the right way, but he couldn’t stop himself.

Gingerly he stretched out his body next to hers. Wrapping his arm around her waist he pulled her close. For a while he simply memorized her profile that he would now forever associate with the sound of the rain beating against his window.

Picking up her waif-like hand, he brushed his lips over each of her trembling fingers. They were cold and frail. He clutched them to his protective chest wishing he could as easily envelope her entire body there for safekeeping.

A hot tear trailed down his cheek as her lips twitched in relentless agony. Leaning forward, his mouth barely a breath away from her skin, he softly whispered his promise and plea. “I’ll never leave you. I promise. Hang on to me, Cor. Please don’t ever let go.”

Remembering the other promises he’d made to her in the past few days, it sounded hollow even to him.

The writhing cesspool that kept her trapped and separated from his tender reassuring voice grew deeper and wider with every blink. Her eyes itched to close and be soothed in lubricating moisture, but to rest them would mean being buried under a flood of wiggling cold death.

The smooth skin that had once covered her, now shivered and crawled away at the thought and left her flayed. The churning acid in her gut rose to scar her throat and nibble at the meat in her skull.

Before this personal hell, she had been someone. Three someones. A woman, a friend, and a seer. But that was long ago. Before this place…this time…this eternity…left her with two choices. Live in hell or die. And living in hell meant this endless crying out in misery would never stop. Not until her throat dried, her tongue swelled and she died choking on that word…the only word she could remember…the one word.

Snakes …


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