“Hurry up, dear,” her mother called from up ahead.
“I’m coming,” she grumbled, hiking her backpack higher upon her shoulders. With purposeful stomps she made her way to her parents. They were pointing at a rare bird on a branch too far away for her to see.
“Here, use the binoculars,” her father offered at her complaint.
She lifted them to her eyes, and searched for the bird. It took a while, and when she finally focused on the branch, the animal was gone.
“Better luck next time,” her mother laid a lightly calloused hand on her shoulder.
“Yeah,” she muttered in reply, scuffing her shoes against the ground as she walked. She watched in satisfaction as some of the pebbles fell down the steep edge, past tree trunks, ferns, and swaying leaves, until finally they disappeared from sight.
Further up the trail narrowed and the forest grew denser, the trees larger, branches lower. She caught up once again to her parents, kicking every rock she could find into the foliage.
A particularly strong hit had a rock flying higher and further than she had planned. She watched it arc into the leaves and was about to continue on when she heard a squeal.
It was not like anything she had heard before. Ethereal, it echoed in tones she could never hope to replicate. It was pained and angry, black ichor spilled upon the sun.
She glanced ahead, but her parents were fiddling with the binoculars again. Another rare bird, she supposed. She walked slowly, following the path of the rock. She had to duck under some branches while others stung her cheeks. Still she continued until light began to filter through the leaves.
Pushing aside the branch, she found herself stepping into another pathway. This one was rough, with rocks of all size scattered. It wound dreamily around trees, a meandering river void of water.
And there, in all its angered glory, was a creature she could barely stand to view. Its body was lithe, its arching neck too long, long legs too thin. Its head was gently angular, topped by large ears. Eyes like burning gold were highlighted against its black coat.
And most noticeably was the lightly drooping horn on its forehead, twice as long as its head. Narrow, it tapered even more to form a crooked point so thin it was only visible when the light reflected. It was brown at the end, fading to a faint pearl at the base.
It was staring at her, searing her as she met its gaze. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see something oozing from its neck. Black, it dripped, nearly invisible. A small pool was growing on the rocks below, and with a cringe she recognized the one she had kicked.
The creature snorted, smoke emerging from its flared nostrils. Her lungs strained but not a muscle could she move to even take a breath. A whimper balled itself in her throat, clawing in a vain attempt to escape.
Then the horned beast took a step forward. Slowly it lifted its leg, so spindly that she could see each muscle contract, see the skeletal joints straining against the skin. And then the hoof hit the ground with a sound like bones shattering.
It was this that broke her free of its gaze. With a soft cry she scrambled backwards, unheeding of the branches that whipped her head and pulled her hair. Her hands grasped whatever they could reach to keep her upright, to keep her moving. Her legs buckled, so she shoved herself with her arms, away from the sharp hooves, the lowered horn, the eyes like hell’s fires.
The creature was picking up speed, its hooves crashing towards her faster and faster. Lips pulled back to reveal sharp incisors. As it got closer, she could see more clearly the black that dripped from its neck, thick and sluggish. Steaming as it hit the ground. The horn that shed brown flakes and hell-fire’s smoke lowered until it was aimed at her heart.
Its mouth opened, and it screamed. Inhuman, the notes screeched like metal upon metal and wailed against her ears, the sound of an angel dying.
She crumpled to the ground, her hands clamped over her ears, though in vain, for its scream reverberated inside her mind. Something hot and wet began to drip from her ears, and she pulled her hands away with growing horror as she saw the cruor that stained her fingers.
Then it was in front of her, a towering shadow that blocked the midday sun. His horn pressed against her shirt, exuding a lingering scent fire and brimstone. She sobbed as it slowly pushed forward, the needle-thin tip piercing her skin. Its breath smoked across her face, acrid, ruinous.
Her fingers dug into the dirt. It was still slightly damp from the morning dew. Hysteria bubbled at the thought that her body, too, was soon to nurture this very ground.
The monster paused, then slowly withdrew its horn and lifted its head. It stared beyond the trees for a moment, then menaced a glance in her direction, before retreating.
She watched it go, her heart refusing to calm. Only when the sound of its hooves faded away did she allow a wail to break through her lips. Her ears were still ringing, but her hearing was beginning to return. Something familiar sounded in the distance, and it took a few moments for her to realize that it was her name being called.
Her parents, she knew from the familiar harried tone. Closer and closer they came, until they were kneeling beside her, lifting her gently.
“That was quite a fall,” her father inspected her head. “Lucky there’s no bump. You did scrape your ear, though.”
“Are you feeling alright, dear? You look deathly pale. Are you hurt anywhere?” Her mother fretted.
She blinked, moving her head to glance at one parent, then the other. They stared expectantly, worry and relief vying for dominance on their faces. She curled her legs underneath her body and slowly stood. She wobbled slightly at the sudden head rush, but smiled. “I’m fine,” she said despite her trembling.
“Still, I think it best if we get you home. Just in case.” Her mother wrapped an arm around her shoulders and began leading her back towards the main path.
She nodded absently as she snuck a look behind her. The dense foliage gave no sign of animal life. But small drops of black sleezed down leaves and rocks, a dark path that led somewhere she knew she would see again one day.
All the way to her heart she could feel the throbbing cut on her chest burn.