Dale walked along one of the rickety bridges right above a beast’s den. His tan Beasts for Adoption uniform was soaked and plastered to his skin. A patch on his shirt with a flying dragon had the letters “BFA” imprinted over it. New beads of sweat continued to trickle down his forehead as the sun beat down. The mailbag attached to his hip spilled the tiniest amount of tiny green glowing crystals as he struggled to keep his footing on an uneven plank. He grabbed the ropes on both sides and regained his balance.
The beast below, its face upturned, opened its mouth and let the crystals fall in to the gaping void. Once it was clear that it would not be getting anymore freebies, it snapped its jaw shut. The black scales on its back took turns reflecting the sun like a disco ball as the thing circled its own den, the shackles on its legs rattling every step of the way. Its paws snapped the scattered bones of its previous meals. The fur on its neck and face began to stand in anticipation, turning from matted tangles to spiky quills. Its eyes… its blazing red eyes leered not at the bag of treats, but at Dale himself. The creature flared its nostrils in spasms at the smell of sweet and salty sweat pouring off the man. Absolutely delicious.
Just don’t look down, Dale thought. Not for a second. At any of them. Or else they win. Or else they will know.
Dale approached the edge of the crisscrossed labyrinth of bridges. There was a sealed box suspended on a wooden pole. Dale unlocked and opened it and was greeted with a spray of green mist that he covered his eyes from. The whole box was stuffed to the brim with green crystals. The beasts in their dens began roaring and chanting and clawing and rattling in their dens. The entire Beasts for Adoption complex trembled like an earthquake and Dale fell to the ground. Crystals from the gaping box shook their way out and vibrated across the bridges in all directions. Some fell through the cracks between the wooden planks and others hopped all the way past the edge of the complex into the abyss beyond.
“Quiet! All of you!” Dale yelled. But his voice was mostly drowned out by the pandemonium beneath him. Dale got up and scrambled to another wooden pole a short distance away. This one had a large golden bell that he snatched and shook furiously. As Dale shook it, it gave seemingly no sound at all. However, the beasts in their dens instantly ceased their clamor. Some gave a faint throaty whine and then all was silent. Dale peered over the edge of the circular den closest to him. A lime green monster with ten legs cowered in the corner. Its spiky tail coiled around its body and trembled. The lids of its giant eyes were tightly shut. “There, there, Fluffy,” Dale said. The creature half opened one eye to reveal a flaming red iris surrounded by a jagged pupil. “I only ring the bell when I have to. You made me do it. I didn’t want to do it, but you made me.” Fluffy glared at Dale. “Here. Have some shnops. They’re good for you.” Dale sprinkled some of the green crystals into the den. Some of them hit Fluffy in the head and made a dull tink sound. Fluffy had two wings pressed firmly to its back. It swung them uselessly back and forth against the thick netting that binded them.
“Shnops for everybody! Very delicious!” Dale said as he made his rounds to each and every one of the twenty dens. As he sprinkled the same amount over every edge, each creature responded differently. Some were still shell shocked from the sound of the bell and therefore had little interest in their supper, and others licked up every drop with their various forked and curled tongues. “Hello, Lucy.” Dale whispered over the final edge of the final den. A little teal dragon-like creature lay quietly in the shadow. As it craned its neck, the sunlight touched two bronze horns that curled upward like a goat’s. “Luce? What’s that you got there?” Dale could barely make out the silhouette of a small object jammed between Lucy’s teeth.
Lucy stepped forward into the sunlight to reveal a human finger in her mouth.
Dale immediately fell backward as his heart pounded furiously within his chest. Falling to the ground, he felt so dizzy, he thought he would be sick. “W-w-w…” No coherent word could come out. What is going on? Where did she get that? Dale looked around in paranoia, expecting to find more things out of the ordinary. But there was nothing. At least not from this perspective.
He couldn’t bring himself to look back down into that den. He wanted so desperately to get out of there. To be free from this retched job once in for all. All he had to was walk out the front door. Easy. Simple. What was stopping him? A sense of duty? Someone else could surly take on this responsibility. Loyalty to the beasts? Please. The only thing between him and their next meal was a couple of rusty shackles and a ten foot hole.
Just take a few deep breaths. It will all be fine. Go talk to the super intendant and report what you found. It’ll all be taken care of and you can go on business as usual. Dale got up and dusted himself off. The sun beat down so relentlessly that the distant horizon looked wavy and cooked. Not a cloud in the sky.
Dale resealed the box containing the green crystals. Its glow-stick aura immediately ceased with the snapping of the latch. Dale went to reach for the bell, but his hand fell limp.
The bell was gone.
Without thinking, Dale sprinted for the door. He rattled, twisted and turned the knob in every direction. Locked. Dale pummeled all of his weight on the door, but nothing happened except for a dull thud and a sore shoulder. He could hear something else, too. Something was rattling on the other side with every thrust he gave. Had someone chained the door shut?
Now completely panicked, Dale ran around like a decapitated chicken. The perimeter of the complex was a series of tightly woven and narrowly spaced ropes horizontally suspended by support beams which stood in various intervals. The whole rope wall reached to about one hundred feet. Fight or flight. I choose flight. Flight. Flight! Adrenaline, check. Heightened senses, check. I want to live! I will scale this wall if it’s the last thing I do!
Dale grabbed one of the ropes. The one that was directly above the one he grabbed dug into his hand like an Indian burn. He jammed his foot into a gap near the bottom and it felt like a vice grip was squeezing the life out of it. The process was unbearable. Only ten feet up, Dale could barely feel his hands and feet. Each time he jammed his hand into the next opening between the ropes, he could feel his skin being peeled off. A trail of blood skidded across the ruthless surface of the ropes. After fifteen feet, he had to stop and lean there with his four limbs wedged in the ropes.
A shadow covered the sun for a split second. Huh? What was that? Probably just my imagination. But I haven’t lost that much blood yet, have I? Dale looked up and saw a shadowed figure swoop across the sun. What is that? Dale waited a moment and stood motionless, afraid to look up again. Finally, he couldn’t help himself. He looked up.
Dale dislodged his foot from the ropes and jammed it in about five rungs higher. Now a very big shadow passed right above Dale, leaving him in the dark for a full three seconds. A high pitched roar echoed through the air. Oh, my God. No.
As Dale looked forward into the cloudy abyss on the other side, his field of vision turned completely green. Fluffy, its bat-like wings spread high and mighty stared Dale in the eyes from the other side of the rope wall. Their faces were inches from each other.
“Oh. Hello, Fluffy.”
Fluffy emitted a spray from its nostrils that hit Dale like a dirty steam bath.
Mrs. Robinson, a plump middle aged woman, walked up a broad, stone staircase with the superintendent. The woman’s bright pink dress and high heels stood in stark contrast to the superintendent’s dark blue Beasts for Adoption uniform. The patch on his uniform showed a flying dragon with the letters “BFA” over it. The sun reflected off his black, slicked back hair like a halo. “Thank you again for choosing Beasts for Adoption, Mrs. Robinson,” said the superintendent. “I know you will be highly satisfied with whatever you choose.”
“I just can’t wait to have my little snuggler,” said Mrs. Robinson. "He will be like a family member!” Her voice was high pitched and excited.
“There it is.” The superintendent pointed to the outline of the Beasts for Adoption complex, faded in the clouds. They walked on.
“How many beasts are there to choose from?”
“At this location, we have twenty beasts to choose from. All are very unique in size, appetite, temperament…” The superintendent’s words were cut off by a high pitched roar emitted from somewhere deep in the clouds.
“Do you think they know we’re coming?”
The superintendent looked up in all directions.
“What is wrong, sir?”
“Nothing. Let’s proceed.” A short time later, they approached the door. “Huh.”
“What is it?”
“There are chains on this door. How peculiar.” The superintendent pulled out his giant ring of keys. He tried one key that didn’t fit. Then another. Then another. Finally, after attempting to unlock the chains on the door with twelve different keys, the thirteenth key worked. Click. The chains clattered to the stone ground. “Are you ready, Mrs. Robinson, for a world filled with the most magnificent creatures you have ever laid eyes on?”
“Yes, I am! The suspense is killing me, sir!”
“Then let us wait no longer. Behold, the den!”
The superintendent swung open the door. Mrs. Robinson and the superintendent both gasped and stood gaping at the scene in front of them.
Every single beast was out of its den. Some of them teetered along the bridges. Others climbed along the rope wall, their claws allowing them to hang suspended like a bat.
One-by-one, the beasts turned their attention to the two new guests.