“Tell me a story, Grandma!” Johnny pleaded as the older woman shuffled along beside him, the faint light flickering within the lantern lighting the path for them as they marched on through the woods. A fresh layer of hard snow had fallen and crunched beneath their feet as they followed the old posts that marked the railing for this forgotten path.
“Not now Johnny, lest they hear you,” Grandma smiled down at him over her spectacles, holding his hand tight as they slowly made their way along the sinuous path.
“They are the Umbrals, Johnny; creatures not of this world, nor of any other. Made from our own fears, they stalk the woods at night in search of prey.”
Johnny blanched at that. “These woods? Then why do you live in them?”
Grandma laughed, patting her bosom. “I’ve got a stout heart and keen eyes. So long as I’m not afraid of them, they will not come for me.”
“But what about me? I’m afraid of them!” Johnny cried, looking over his shoulder as if he expected something to be crawling up his back.
“Don’t be silly Johnny, the Umbrals only eat naughty little children, and you’re a good boy,” Grandma assured him, pulling him closer to her. “Now just be silent and enjoy the walk home m’dear. In the morning, you can walk home on your own.”
“If you’re sure…” Johnny hesitantly replied. He heard a crack of wood in the distance, causing his head to jerk in that direction. “What was that?”
“Nothing,” Grandma said, a little quickly. Wrapping her arm around Johnny’s shoulders as she hobbled along, she picked up speed, forcing him to keep pace with her. “We need to get going, or we’ll catch our death of cold out here.”
“Oh, you’ll catch your death out here all right!” A high, windy voice fluted overhead. Looking up, Johnny saw nothing but a low hanging tree. But Grandma stood transfixed, staring up as if studying something fascinating, yet terrifying at the same time.
“No… no, you can’t have me! I’m not afraid of you!” She all but shouted, clutching Johnny painfully on his shoulder, pulling him close to her as she backed away slowly. Her breath now coming in short gasps, puffs of fog billowing from her face like smoke from a furnace, she looked around as a bush rustled, snow falling from the branches.
“Ah, but you have fear… that’s all we care about!” Another voice, this one sounding both whimsical and deadly at the same time, sounded from behind.
Johnny looked, and could only see open air in the road behind them, along with their tracks… as well as a third set of footprints. Smaller than Johnny’s tiny boots, these footprints sank into the snow deeper than his of Grandma’s did, with icy layers formed around the each footprint. The shape was circular, like that of a hoof, and had three points.
Johnny had never seen anything like it.
Suddenly Johnny felt something grab and throw him to the side, tossing him into a snowy bush with a cry of pain. Grandma cried out, but not for Johnny; she was crying, as Johnny could see (not easily, while lying upside down in a bush) claw marks scratching into her heavy clothing. She swung the lantern as if it were a knife, crying out as something slammed into her other shoulder, a loud popping noise and the slump of her arm showing that it had been dislocated.
The glass of the lantern cracked as something slapped it, causing it to flip out of her hand and land in the snow, as something unseen bodily tackled Grandma from behind. The skin of her forearm split open, several needle fine incisions sinking into her arm and shaking, tearing the withered meat from her bones in a gory display, spraying the area with her blood. Some hovered in midair, spattered against a leering face with a bestial snout, and two horns jutting from its forehead. One arm, bathed in steaming red blood, showed the long, two fingered claws the creature possessed.
A long scratch slashed across her cheek as another bite into her arm dragged her to her knees. She fell even lower as something kicked up from the snow behind her, landing on her back, four long red gashes appearing in her smock as if knives were simply cutting into her. Johnny stared helplessly as the lantern, now several feet away, was opened before the snow was shoveled into it, plunging everything into a thick cloud of darkness.
Grandma screamed as three silhouettes, all horned and bearing arms ending in two claws, began to tear into her mercilessly, striking at non-vital spots, sprays of blood arcing out in wide patterns, decorating the snow in long streaks. Johnny felt a warm splatter on his face and chin, the smell of blood overpowering at this point.
And then the claws sank into his shoulders, hauling him from the bush in a single awful tug. Standing before him, perhaps two feet high was a hoofed creature with horns jutting from its head, long pointy eyes bulging from their sockets as cat-like ears rotated atop the skull. A lipless mouth showed rows of stubby, sharp teeth.
“What about the boy?” It hissed, tracing the side of Johnny’s face lovingly with a bloody talon. “Is he fair game?”
One creature barked back, its mouth clearly full of… something. “He’s plenty afraid, but not a sinner like the old woman. He goes free.”
The creature standing over Johnny stepped back, giving Johnny space as it turned and clopped over to the twitching, moaning form of Grandma, slashing into her flank with a vicious swipe.
Johnny didn’t know what to say. So he ran. He ran as far as he could, running away from the haunted hills of Worley Woods, away from his family and away from his friends. Years later, in the priesthood, Johnny would think of that day and of his poor Grandmother. Whatever she had done to deserve such a fate, may God have mercy on her soul.