It was dark. Oh, so very dark… The warm embrace of the sun illuminated his senses, giving life to this abysmal place. The chilling breeze countered the sun’s greeting as it grazed the surface of his naked body, riddling him in goosebumps, proving to him that he was indeed alive. The chirping of small birds from a nearby distance reverberated across what felt like a field of plush grass beneath him, moistened by morning dew.
“Hm…”, hummed Azrael, as he sensed his environment blindly with eyes closed.
He was awakening.
He opened his eyes ever slowly, gradually coming to from the flood of blinding light. There he lay, in an open field of tall grass. His immense body outlining the plains like a cookie cutter carving into plump dough.
His body was lax, eventually resurging with warm, thick blood. He heaved his breaths in silence as if he was finally able to breathe again.
Azrael laid still and admired the overwhelmingly vast sky, a portrait with hues of true blue. Within the crevice of his peripheral vision, he could identify fluffy clouds rolling in lazily along the sky’s ocean floor. From the bottom corners of his eyes, still gazing forward, mesmerized by the serene simplicity of the sky above him, he could make out a grand, white wall that seemingly formed around him like an open dome.
“Where...,” thought Azrael, too soothed to bother mouthing it under his breath, “where am I…?”
He had been here before, this paradise.
But when, and why?
He could not move from his post. Rather, he did not want to. The dew soaked grass softened his rigid and calloused body. His arms were positioned about him, seemingly deliberate. His right arm bent so his hand could lay peacefully atop his sculpted bosom. His chest felt pressed with weight but he paid it no mind. His left arm lay further away from his body with an open palm. His fingers were slightly curled as if it were expecting to hold onto something.
It was surreal, so quiet and blissful.
Slowly leaning his head towards his left side, he whispered, “Elpída, my love, where are --.”
He was silenced by lust. There she was, still as breathtaking as ever, sound asleep, modestly flaunting her envious beauty. Her skin was like polished porcelain and her fine threads of hair of sleek onyx sprawled wildly about beneath her head. He smiled contently at the face of beauty.
But, he felt hollow. His hands were hauntingly empty. This paradise was unnervingly peaceful.
With gusts of wind whistling across the vast sky, he retracted his admiring gaze from his love and averted his attention back towards the blue sky. From the right, he saw a flock of monstrously large, orange birds flying in a V-shaped formation. Across from them, from his left side, he noticed thin, black birds, shaped like piercing arrows soaring through the sky, mirroring the formation of its avian counterpart. The two schools of birds, gliding towards one another with unwavering resolve to move out of each other’s way, converged into a storm of orange and black wings. This amalgamation of beasts, a wondrously baffling display of unity, was masked by the blinding glare of the intense sun.
His left hand twitched and, soon enough, he was reminded of its emptiness. But he could no longer be distracted by this bizarre performance. He swayed his left arm to and fro aimlessly in search of Elpída’s delicate hand, but to no avail. His eyes were fixated on the sky and its performers.
Upon the darkening, fiery stage, the puddle of distinct avians morphed into a majestic, yet eerie phoenix.
The brim of its wings were emblazoned in a harsh neon orange hue, like the heart of a wild, crackling flame. It's body, though, was a flickering conflagration of wicked black that made even the most opaque nights look like broad daylight.
Finally, the creature descended. Center stage, it emerged with a thunderous eruption that shook even the heavens. It shrieked and announced its presence as if to mock mankind with its mere existence, its grandeur.
The phoenix spread its gargantuan wings outwards, causing a mighty updraft that made the land beneath it shiver. The trees moaned and the grass hissed. Its orange exterior was further accentuated by its translucent, flaring body of searing black flames.
Instinctively, Azrael leaped forth and regained his footing. He rose in an effort to shield Elpída with his immense body, wherever she was beside him. He looked back down beside the grass where he last saw his beloved.
There she was, somehow still resting peacefully amidst this oncoming calamity of seemingly impending doom. Her head lay still, undulating lazily at the mercy of the gales. But, it was just her dismembered head. Her arms that he had sought before lay together elsewhere, just yonder north of where Azrael now stood. Her torso was just a couple of feet beside her head. Her legs, east of him, were bent backwards and intertwined to such a gruesome degree that even a master contortionist would be in awe.
The skin of her limbs had inconsistent, yet deep cuts, as if hacked by a blind lumberjack flaying vigorously at work. Azrael, baffled and on the verge of vomiting his now dwindling sanity, was sapped of his breath. His body flinched and his right hand relinquished something that landed with a heavy thud.
The wrathful winds whipped like a chilling snap to his back and arms, briefly jerking Azrael back to his senses. The air became far more frigid as Azrael came to a realization.
He looked down to identify the heavy object. He could only hope that assumptions were just that, an elaborate construct of sound logistics for false pretenses. With a bloodied edge and a pastely handle from what appeared to be dried blood, it was a metal axe that had landed right beside him. His clenched his hands, suddenly realizing how coarse they felt from the crusty, crimson blood. His arms and backside were stained in the same substance. His lavish hair was painted in blood. It was her blood, Elpída’s blood.
Now, he realized the true meaning of fear.
The grand phoenix began to melt, like a boiling pot of black lava sizzling from above. The droplets descended, and, upon their landing, the ground too was marred, erupting into wretched flames.
At a loss for words and desperate to find solace in what seemed like paradise mere seconds ago, he scrambled about and tried piecing Elpída together. His tears felt no bounds and his heart felt like it was already dying, racing into a stagnant beat. What more could he do now in this nightmare to commit such sacrilege?
“This… this is not her…,” whimpered the lonesome husband.
She was but a grotesque, yet beautiful set, like a disembodied mannequin. The flames drew ever near. He felt the hope in his soul being siphoned from him by this sadistic dream. He fell to his knees beside her, gazing at his murderous act of love. He knew what this meant. Could he do it?
The stage was set. The finalé had come.
The sky beast was no more, melting into its last bits. With another sudden, rapturous blast of thunder, the sky had shattered like a traceable crack down a mirror. It incrementally worsened, becoming a distortion in reality. The seams of his world were becoming undone, like a crisp piece of paper being torn in half.
Imprisoned in a shadowy circle of flames, his sight became overshadowed: not from the abysmal flames, but from harrowing grief. He reached for her hand one last time,wherever it lay. The Gods forbid it as the jagged lines from the crumbling dimension came into existence, zipping between him and the few inches he had left to find what scarce solace there was, the semblance of comfort that was her supple hand, the happiness that was her tender love and grace.
By the Gods, he could not have her, at least not now, not the way things would soon transpire.
And so, he awakens in the forest. His hands were empty but he knew where to look. Inches from Azrael was his trusty axe. An ominous aura emanated from this inanimate weapon. It seemed to thirst for a reluctant wielder, in search for its destined prey. The time had come for him to live the dream.