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Crash! I kept still in the bed, processing the sound I had just heard.
“Did one of the windows just break?” I thought to myself, half awake.
When the familiar scream of a young girl ripped through the silence, I knew I wasn’t hearing things. I threw the covers from my bed and vaulted onto the wooden floor. I ran the short distance to Natalie’s room. Father was already there, holding an oil lamp aloft to illuminate the darkness. The window was completely shattered and broken glass littered the floor. Natalie’s bed was empty.
I bolted back down the hall to my room, where I slipped on a pair of worn leather boots and pulled a fur coat on over my nightshirt. Father moved past me down the hall wearing his own coat and carrying the lamp. I followed him through the back door and into the pitch-black darkness beyond. The night was moonless and completely dark. The abductions were becoming increasingly common over the past few days, but I had dared to hope that no one from our family would be the next victim. I picked up the maul that I used for chopping wood, but hoped I wouldn’t need it. I sprinted after the bobbing yellow light as it grew smaller and smaller in the inky blackness of the night. The pine trees towered in front of me like sentinels, warning me of the danger that lay ahead. I took a deep breath, looked back at our tiny log cabin and trudged into the forest. My sister screamed in the distance, renewing my sense of urgency.
This couldn’t be happening. This shouldn’t be happening. We had moved here to start a new, peaceful life together. Mother had died not even a year ago from disease. The sight of her grayish-blue skin and drawn face were still vivid in my imagination. She was so weak that she couldn’t even open her mouth to say goodbye. Not long after the funeral, father lost his job and we were forced to move out here, to this remote village at the foot of a tiny mountain, so that he could work as a lumberjack. Natalie and I didn’t want to leave at first, but we realized that only pain and sadness could be gained from staying behind. We decided that this tiny village would be the foundation for our new life together. And now, after our family had barely survived being pushed to its limit, this happens.
Another shrill screech echoed through the woods, but it was abruptly silenced. The screams were becoming less frequent, and no matter how fast I moved, I knew that it would be too late.
Her final scream ruptured the night air, choked with tears and pain. Father and I entered a small clearing gasping for air after our sprint up the mountain. We located Natalie lying face up in the center of the clearing. We ran to her, calling her name, hoping that she would reply in the same desperate tone, but she stayed silent. My father dropped to his knees next to her and gasped tearfully. I stood dumbstruck behind my grief-stricken father as I stared down at the body. We were too late.
Her nightgown had been ripped away around her midriff. A large pentagram had been carved into her stomach, centered on a rusted iron spike that had been driven through her belly, pinning her petite body to the ground. Her skin was covered in thousands of tiny X-shaped cuts. The blood from the cuts had stained her once white nightgown a motley, dark pink. Her golden-blonde hair was covered in dirt and stuck to her face with sweat. Her eyes were wide and so completely blood-shot that the whites had turned the color of blood. There was no doubt in my mind, she was dead.
Only hours earlier, she was giggling and running around behind the cabin, playing tag with me after we had finished our chores. She was so carefree. I had thought that for the first time since mother passed away, she was truly happy. I should’ve taken her seriously when she told me that a skeleton was watching from the woods. I couldn’t see what she was talking about, so I told her it was just her imagination.
“I guess you’re right,” she conceded. “You’ll protect me anyway, right Max?”
“Of course I will. I’ll always protect you,” I promised.
A tear streamed down my cheek.
Father repeated her name over and over. He whimpered and shakily extended his hand towards her face and yelled in panic.
Natalie had grabbed his wrist. Her dead eyes were locked with his as she opened her mouth inhumanly wide. The muscles and tendons in her jaw popped and cracked as she brought his hand nearer to her mouth. Her teeth were jagged needles, like someone had taken a file and ground them into crude points.
“Max! Help me!” he bellowed.
I dropped the maul and pulled on his arm, but it was futile. She was unbelievably strong. His hand was only inches from her gaping maw and drawing closer.
I decided that there was no other choice. I let go of father’s arm and picked up the maul.
“I’m sorry Natalie,” I apologized as I brought the sharp end of the maul down on her neck.
The tool smoothly severed her spinal column with an audible pop. She choked in pain and finally let go of father’s wrist. She writhed on the ground for some time before laying still. Father picked himself up and ran into the forest. He had totally lost it. The sight of his own daughter attempting to eat his hand in one bite was too much for him. He had forgotten the oil lamp in his haste, and more importantly, his son. I cried for him to come back, but was deaf with fear. I ripped the maul from Natalie’s throat in a shower of gore and dropped it by my feet.
With tears streaming down my face, I picked up the oil lamp and started to make my way towards the edge of the forest.
“Who the hell did this?” I choked.
Just as I was preparing to leave the clearing, I heard a sound that froze the blood in my veins. A high-pitched groan followed by the shluck of a spike being pulled from a body. It was followed by the clatter of that same spike being tossed in the dirt.
I spun around to find that Natalie had gotten uneasily to her feet. Her head lulled forward, held on only by strips of her neck. She stumbled over to the maul and picked it up one-handed. Her head flopped uncontrollably to the side and rested on her shoulder. We stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity, her undead red eyes vs. my puffy blue ones. I lost the will to fight and turned to run into the woods, when father lumbered towards me from the darkness.
“Father, run! She isn’t dead, she-“
He tripped into the light cast by the oil lamp. His skin was covered in tiny X-shaped cuts and his coat and nightshirt had been ripped away. A pentagram, slightly smaller than Natalie's, had been carved into his muscled chest and a rusty nail hammered in the center. His eyes were completely red and utterly emotionless.
I was trapped. Before I could react, I heard a sickening snap from one of my legs. I fell to the ground in agony and dropped the lantern. Natalie stood over me with the maul clutched in her hand. She had broken my leg. I howled and cried for help.
Father grabbed me roughly by the collar of my coat and dragged me back into the clearing. In the fading lantern-light, I could see the forms of other monsters limping from the woods. I recognized some of them as neighbors that had disappeared. Some were missing arms or legs, some were missing their heads entirely. However, my eyes were drawn to a pale, skinny man that walked in their midst. His skin was vacuum-sealed around his bones, so much so that It seemed like it would rip at any moment. He had a halo of rusted nails hammered into his bald head. I could practically see the darkness radiating from his body.
Father and Natalie pinned me to the ground. Monsters surrounded me, grinning down with grotesquely large smiles and razor sharp teeth. The monsters at my head parted and the skeleton man loomed over me. The symbol that had been carved into Natalie and father was carved around his left eye. His eyes were completely black, as black as the moonless night and infinitely deep. He took a knife that one of the monsters had offered him and began carving the same demonic symbol into my forehead. I wriggled in pain and pleaded for them to let me go, but that only seemed to make them smile even bigger. The skeleton man finished carving the symbol and gave the knife back to its owner. Another monster offered him a hammer. The skeleton man took the tool in his spindly hand and wrenched a rusted nail from his head. He placed the tip of the bloodied nail in the center of the pentagram on my forehead and raised the hammer to strike it.
“Who are you?” I gasped, tears streaming down my face.
“We are the Scratches,” he replied in a raspy whisper.
And brought the hammer down.