They shot him.

They'd shot at him, too, but only the last three bullets hit. Pain blossoms in his chest and in the upper part of his left leg. Blood flows freely from the spot on his eyebrow where the third bullet grazed him.

He falls. The leaves, cool and still damp a layer down from the rain the day before yesterday, cushion the fall, and he goes rolling down the hill. The leaves fall with him, over him, like a mini-avalanche of red, brown, and orange, and blanket him at the bottom. He hears people shouting for him, and says nothing, feeling the blood pumping out of him with every beat of his heart.

The voices soon pass, as do footsteps and, eventually, the sound of a truck, and he remains still.

So this is it, he thinks. After all that, this is how I die. He feels cheated. Not because he is dying, but because he is dying here of all places, under a pile of leaves, on the outskirts of some forest where nobody would ever bother looking.

Above him, he sees tall trees through the empty spaces between the leaves. He ought to move, ought to try and stem the flow of blood, but he knows it's no use. His head is already hazy. His hands are cold, and he cannot feel his feet. The only thing he can feel is the pain in his chest that makes it hard to breathe. He's lost too much blood already.

Must've hit an artery, he thinks.

He coughs and flecks of blood splatter the underside of the leaves nearest his mouth. He sighs, but that only causes him to cough more. Minutes tick by, and he mercifully bleeds out before he can choke to death on his own blood. It is a near thing, though, and though he never closes his eyes, the world still goes dark.

* * * * *

They creep silently from the forest, from the shadows. They are tall, far taller than any man. They are thin, with spindly arms thick around as branches and covered in a coarse material more like dry tar than skin and black as pitch. Their fingers are long and slim, with extra joints and sharp claws at the end. Voluminous gray robes hang loosely around them, hiding their bodies from the faint light trickling through the trees. Their necks are long and snakelike, and each of their heads is hidden by the aged skulls of animals-- unless the skulls are their heads. There is a bird skull, two wolf skulls, and an horned skull of some cow or bull. They approach the body from all sides.

The cattle-skulled creature crouches down and examines the corpse's face. It looks to the other, still standing creatures. They look back. The air between them hums slightly with otherwise silent communication. Then, as one, they turn away and head deeper into the forest. The cattle-skulled one hefts up the human corpse and carries it after the others.

They travel a while before reaching a clearing not quite in the center of the woods. The long grass has been cleared away in a dirt circle about ten feet in diameter, and there are woven and wooden baskets and buckets there.

Cattle Skull gently places the body down and removes its blood-soaked coat while the others set about gathering dirt, twigs, and leaves inside the buckets and baskets. When they finish, they return to the center of the cleaning. They all kneel, surrounding the body, placing their baskets and buckets beside them or in their laps. Cattle Skull sits on the side, the two wolves at the head and feet, and Bird Skull directly across from it.

The bird-skulled one looks to its comrades for confirmation, then gently runs a talon down the front of the man's shirt. The cloth slices open without any resistance. Bird Skull does it again, this time splitting the skin and cutting open the man's torso. Again, there is no resistance.

Slowly, carefully, they remove the organs and entrails, piling them up beside them. They break open the rib cage to get to the heart and lungs. They pull out the rope of intestines like someone removing loose thread from a piece of clothing. When they've pried out as much as they can, one of the wolf skulled ones begins pouring in the buckets of dirt, the other: leaves. Cattle Skull holds the corpse's head, and Bird Skull touches the mass of organs and innards. They catch fire immediately and burn with a deep red flame.

They stuff the hollow cavity as full as they can and when they're out of leaves and dirt, one of the wolf-skulled creatures takes the glowing needle and thread and stitches the skin back together, the others pressing the sides so that the edges meet.

Before they're done, he wakes up.

He coughs and tries to turn, to curl up on his side, but Cattle Skull and Bird Skull hold him still. His eyes look around wildly, incomprehension slowly turning to fear. He glances down and sees the Wolf Skulls sewing him back together. He sees the pile of burning entrails resting beside him. He sees the edges of a few leaves sticking out between the stitches on his chest, and he opens his mouth to scream. A skeletal hand covers his mouth quickly, and while it doesn't stop him, it does muffle the sound.

They work fast, finishing the last bit and cutting the thread off. The wound begins to heal; it doesn't vanish completely, and there will be serious scarring, but at least he'll be able to get up and walk around without fear of tearing himself open. That's all they're really worried about.

The others quickly gather things. They stack up the baskets and buckets, wind up the thread, and dust off their robes while Cattle Skull holds the panicking human down. They do not want him to hurt himself. When they are done cleaning up, the three stand in the shadows beneath a tall tree and beckon Cattle Skull to them. Cattle Skull releases the human, who immediately turns on his side and begins to retch and cough. Cattle Skull and the others watch intently.

Did it take? Has something gone wrong?

Eventually he stops coughing. He looks up, watery-eyed at the figures standing around him.

"What did you do to me?" he says, hugging himself. He can feel sharp claws cutting him open and hear the noise of his ribs being cracked like an echo. He can feel phantom hands still inside him, taking things out and putting things in. He tries to sit up and cannot.

The others gesture for Cattle-Skull to hurry, but Cattle-Skull hesitates. It crouches down beside the man.

"What do you want from me?" he says.

Cattle-Skull says nothing. It tentatively raises a hand. The man winces away. Cattle Skull pats the top of the man's blood-crusted hair.

"What?" the man croaks, eyes flying open.

Cattle Skull does it again, then hurriedly gets up to join the others.

He watches them go, but doesn't see them go. One second they are there, gathered in the shade of a tree, and the next they are gone, melted away into nothing. He looks down at himself and presses his hands against his stomach. It doesn't feel like leaves. He presses his hands against his chest. He can feel his rib cage and the beating of his heart, though he is certain he saw them burning on the pile.

Shakily, he gets to his feet.

There's no one else around. The forest is eerily still. All he can hear is the blood rushing through his ears and the sound of his breathing-- both artificially amplified by the resounding silence.

He takes his first few uncertain steps forward, then a few more. He leaves the clearing behind.

Here's a doodle of it

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