BEN MOANED AND OPENED his eyes. He clamped them shut again as he sat upright, cradling his head in both hands until the dizziness subsided. He opened his eyes, squinting as the meager light filtered in. After several minutes, he could discern shapes.
He pulled himself to his knees, pausing as another wave of vertigo coursed through his brain.
Ben stood, placing his hands on his knees for support. In each direction were contrasting shades of blue. As his vision adjusted to the new surroundings, he was able to distinguish that the darker shades resembled trees. These were not the trees that one would ordinarily expect, but distorted abominations. Their broad bases grew tightly together. The wrinkled bark swirled in random patterns, until ending at the first course of limbs, which hung close to the ground. The branches grew in tiers that twisted in a spider web-like fashion toward a darkened azure sky.
Something akin to bats, but larger, darted in and out of the menagerie of limbs. Ben couldn’t distinguish details, just the ragged silhouettes as they fluttered by.
He was standing on a path of sorts. From the little he could determine, one way disappeared into darkness; the other led toward a pinhead-sized light.
Ben felt the alluring pull of darkness, beckoning him to follow. It repeated over and over its promise of reward if he would take the first step beginning the journey.
The small point of light also called to him, yet promised nothing, save for help along the way and peace once he reached his destination.
Ben looked into the darkness, hesitated and then took his first step toward the light. One of the flying creatures dipped low, opening a small gash in his forehead.
“So that’s how it’s gonna be.” He swatted at the aberration as it dived a second time, knocking it to the ground. As the creature tried to right itself, Ben brought his foot down hard, twisting until mud oozed up the side of his shoe. The miniature beast shrieked, its shrill cry muffled into a gurgle and ultimately silence as its head sunk beneath the murky goo.
Ben raised his foot, bent over, and reached down. The limp form made a sucking sound as he pulled it from its muddy tomb. He brushed caked-on debris from its body, turning it over several times to examine the lifeless corpse. Its wings hung straight down beside its body, gently wafting each time a light, stagnant breeze pushed its way through.
The creature had a curved beak, similar to an eagle, but with rows of random jagged teeth. The forehead swept back, ending at a dome at the crown of the skull. Black, lifeless eyes grotesquely protruded from either side
of its head, just below close-cropped, rounded ears. Its wings were blue, a nearly transparent membrane that stretched between black arm bones. The bottom edge of each wing was so ragged it appeared they were haphazardly torn from tissue paper.
Overlapping, triangular scales covered its chest, and stiff, thick fur its back. Ben noticed a single talon hung from the lower thorax, with no legs to speak of.
That’s why they’re forever moving. They have no way to perch. He lifted the animal by its wing tips, letting the body dangle. The span was approximately two feet.
Ben loosed his hold, allowing the creature to hang by one wing. He curled his lip in disgust and released his final grip. Before the leathery wing could clear his fingertips, the lifeless head screeched, wrenched upward, clamping its serrated beak onto the soft tissue between Ben’s right thumb and index finger.
With the same hand Ben made a fist, squeezing tight around the thing’s neck. With his free hand he grabbed its torso, twisted and pulled, removing the head. Black fluid spewed from the body as it writhed on the ground in silent agony.
The beak remained attached to his hand, its eyes wide and still afire with whatever demented life inhabited the disembodied aberration. The fluid leaking from the severed head seemed to crawl around Ben’s hand and into the wound, opened by the creature’s mouth.
“Ahh!” Ben tried to pry the beak open with no success. His hand seared as though doused with acid. A muffled cackle emanated from the closed mouth. To quell the pain, he grabbed the oozing neck and pulled, removing a sizable portion of his own flesh as he did so.
Ben dropped to his knees. He pulled handfuls of muck from the ground and rubbed it into the burning lesion. Wisps of smoke curled upward as he removed the last of the caustic blood. He bared his teeth, stood and stomped the cackling head deep into the mud.
Ben watched as several bubbles pushed through the mud over the buried head and then stopped. He kicked the decapitated body high in the air and out of sight into the woods on the other side of the path. He stood there, eyes ablaze, staring into a fevered nothing for several minutes until his breathing slowed and his muscles relaxed. Ben took a deep breath, sighed and sat down exhausted.