The Culling – Part 2
This is the conclusion to Clever’s short story, The Culling. If you haven’t read Part 1, you can find it here.
I have my theory, but I know the other villagers will need more before they agree to fight back against the monsters. I need more information to come up with a sound plan. The creatures caught me off guard before and were able to knock me out before I learned anything. This time I resolve to be a better spy.
I go straight for my tree this time. The monsters seem to come out late at night, and they caught me by the houses, so I don’t think they’ve discovered my hiding spot. I sit in the tree, not daring to move, watching the sliver of a moon rise in the night sky. I hear rustling and the crunch of snow not far off, and hold my breath.
Last night I made the mistake of rushing down from the tree in my haste to catch the monsters. Tonight I wait and listen, searching for any sign of movement in the darkness. Goosebumps creep up my arms as I watch lanky shadows stalk from the woods to my right.
They appear humanoid, but hunch forward with their long arms nearly dragging along the ground. As I look closer, I realize it’s not their arms that are long, but the large claws extending from their fingertips. And something is off about their skin. It looks to have a greenish tinge and reflects too much of the moonlight. No, these are definitely not humans.
It’s only once the monsters move out of sight between the houses that I climb down. I stay in the treeline this time, moving until I can just spot the creatures again. I peek around a large tree trunk, hoping they can’t hear the pounding of my heart. I watch as all six of the creatures walk through the wall of one of the houses.
I blink, uncertain what to do now.
Although I want to stay in the woods, I can’t see anything from here. But I also can’t walk through walls. I crouch and make a dash for the house. I move to the closest window and peek through a crack in the curtains. No sign of them. I move around the corner to the next window, and this time I spot movement.
I close one eye and focus on what I can see through the sliver of the window. One of the monsters sneaks up to a bed and leans over someone sleeping. Eyes flash open and just as a look of pure terror crosses the man’s face, the creature opens his mouth. The person in the bed falls back, eyes closing again. I remember the breath of wind on my face last night before I woke up in the snow. Is this what they did to me?
The monster lifts one claw and places it against the man’s thumb. It drags the claw from knuckle to knuckle. Blood wells up and the creature hisses, recoiling from the sleeping man. All the monsters hiss and back away, turning toward the wall along the back of the house. I don’t stay to see the creatures disappear through the back of the house into the woods. I scramble across the side of the house and press myself into the front wall.
I stay this way until my breathing slows and I don’t hear anymore sounds of movement in the woods. I walk back through the center of town and think about what I’ve seen. It seems clear now that blood is harmful to the monsters, or at least some people’s blood. The blood of the marked. My blood. That must be why they leave the marked alone. They go around testing people’s blood until they find…what exactly? Blood that doesn’t hurt them? I still don’t know why, or what they do to the people whose blood they like. I shudder.
When I arrive back home, I lay awake thinking about what I’ve learned and what to do with that knowledge. By the time the man who was marked last night begins his trek through town, I have a plan.
I stand in the town square as people huddle together against the cold and fear. Families group together, and those who are unmarked choose each other’s company over the families who are safe. In the light of day, I can see that the man now marked safe is Walter, who tends the fields just outside of town. When he has finished showing his mark, I step forward.
“I saw the monsters last night,” I say.
A few people chuckle, but quickly fall silent when my face stays serious.
“I saw them walk through the walls into Walter’s home, and I looked through the window as they marked him,” I continue.
“You had a nightmare,” someone shouts.
I turn to Walter. “I watched you wake and start to scream, but the creature put you to sleep. When you woke up, you felt disoriented. You probably had a flash of memory of a green monster breathing onto your face, but whenever you tried to focus on it the memory faded. At least, that’s how I felt after I had been marked. The only reason I can remember what they look like is because I spied on them last night.”
Townspeople start to murmur, and some turn to leave, but the people who were marked are now focused intently on me. That’s fine, the marked are the ones I need.
“I know their weakness.”
The crowd stills.
“These monsters made a mistake. They left a mark on everyone who is capable of stopping them.” I hold up my hand.
People look between each other. Those who are marked stare at their thumbs. I wait until the eyes settle on me again.
“The blood of the marked can hurt them. That’s why they leave us here. I watched as they recoiled from the blood on Walter’s finger. They hissed and fled his house as soon as the blood welled up.” I direct my attention to the largest group of marked families. “We have the power to stop them in our very veins.”
I let that statement settle, watch the shift in posture as people begin to feel something we haven’t in a long time. Hope.
“I can’t do it alone. There were six monsters last night. I’d like to have more of us than them. Who is willing to join me in protecting our town?”
Tomas and Walter step forward at almost the same time. Some men marked in the last Culling volunteer next. The seamstress joins us, and after a moment a couple of other women step up. Soon, at least one person from every marked family is with us, about 20 people in all.
For the first time, the unmarked look at us with something other than resentment and jealousy in their eyes. They look at us like we are heroes.
We meet at dusk in the center of town. People are bundled up and stamp their feet against the cold. Nervousness and an anxious energy fill the chill air. We split into two groups, so we make sure the monsters don’t slip in unnoticed. We agree on a bird call to whistle when we spot the creatures. I spent the day making knives, and I hand out one to anyone who is unarmed before we go our separate ways.
I take my group to my previous spot. A couple of us climb into the trees to serve as lookouts, while the rest huddle against tree trunks. For most of the night all I hear is the others’ breathing around me and the occasional sounds of them shifting position. And then a bird call whistles through the quiet.
I slide down from the tree, and we begin running toward the sound. I dart my eyes in search of movement, as we circle the outside of town. I hear the call again, and turn my head to see Tomas give a wave from the treeline. He points past him toward some houses, and I nod for everyone to move forward.
We step from the woods and walk towards the monsters standing between two houses. My hands shake, but I grip the knife my father made me in my hand for reassurance. These monsters are scared of us, I remind myself.
One of the creatures rushes for us, claws kicking up snow as it digs into the ground. I lift my knife to my palm and slice it open as the monster lunges. I’m knocked to the ground, but I shove my bloody palm against the creature’s chest. It lets out a high pitched scream and scrambles backward.
A couple of townspeople cut their own hands and hold them out to the monster, as I push myself up. The creature cowers, and it’s skin where I touched it blisters up like a severe burn. The metallic scent of blood fills the air, as the other villagers are emboldened by the wound and cut their own palms. We surround the monsters with outstretched arms.
“Do not hurt usss. We will go,” one of the monsters hisses out.
I’m taken aback for a moment at the realization that they can speak. Some of the townspeople lower their arms.
“We can’t allow you to hurt anyone else, not at our village or any other,” I say.
“Pleassse,” the creature begs, “we were onccce human like you.”
I blink, not expecting this turn of events. The people behind me gasp and murmur.
The monster must take this as a sign of encouragement, because it takes a small step forward.
“We were cursssed.”
“Why?” I ask.
The monster shifts its feet. “We were raidersss. We brought about much bloodssshed. And then we came to the wrong village. A witch who lived there sssaw the ssslaughter and curssed usss. ‘Blood will bring you both life and death.’ Sssince then, we have needed blood to sssurvive, but sssome blood was toxic to usss. Mossst of usss died out jussst trying to drink blood to live, until we figured out thisss method of tesssting.”
“So you were cursed for a good reason, and you continue to shed blood in order to preserve your own lives? You learned nothing from this curse then,” I say. “We will let you leave, but only because I don’t want any of my friends to get hurt killing you.”
The monsters sigh and turn to go.
“BUT,” I call after them, “we will spread the word about what happened here far and wide. All the humans will know your weakness. The people you have marked will serve as protectors over their towns.”
The monsters turn back, hissing, but they listen.
“So you know that word has spread, we will tell each village to mark their entrance with a handprint in blood from the marked. Then, you will know not to bother them. And just in case you manage to find a way to survive the years ahead,” I continue, “the marked will tell our descendants about the power in their veins. Our ancestors will serve as protectors for generations to come.”
The creatures look ready to rip our heads off, but their nostrils flare at the scent of our blood. We step aside, and they flee back into the woods. We cheer and hug each other before marching back to the center of town. Villagers hear the noise and wake to join us. There is loud chatter as we share the tale of what happened, and those who were with us show off their palms.
We make a parade to the entrance of town, the heroes of the night carried upon shoulders the whole way. Each of the protectors places their palm against the front gate one-by-one amid cheers and whistles, leaving their own mark behind. Then, those who can travel saddle their horses and head into the fading night to spread the word far and wide about the power we had inside of us all along.
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Thanks so much for reading!
-Clever & WTF