All they saw was the skull.
About thirty feet away, it was nestled in the nook of an old oak and bathed in a sliver of moonlight that somehow managed to slice a hole through the cold, dark forest.
Jake looked at the skull, then at Dylan, and shrugged.
They could barely see their hands in front of their faces, but the closer they walked toward the skull, the more of themselves were visible, so they continued.
The past two years had been hell. The running, the hiding, the traveling only under the cover of darkness had taken a toll on the brothers. Plus, they hadn’t seen another human being – at least one who didn’t eat people – in over two years. Their hope dwindled.
As they walked, Jake thought he heard something and turned back to make sure the coast was clear behind them. After a moment, he turned forward again and he saw Dylan’s hands were almost wrapped around the skull.
“Dylan!” he whisper-yelled.
Dylan blinked as if in a trance, then gasped, recoiled, and in doing so stepped on a stray branch that snapped loudly, cutting through the vacant air.
Several panicked heartbeats passed and the woods remained quiet. They were safe.
There was no wind that night, so every crackle from breaking sticks underfoot could be a death sentence.
Jake couldn’t remember the last time either of them slipped up like that; they were always so careful. They had to be, because if they weren’t those cannibal fucks would hear them. And quickly after that they’d be dead just like everyone else.
Jake mouthed, “Sorry,” and frowned. They shared a brief glance and then their eyes drifted down at the skull.
It looked human, but it was massive.
Dylan cupped his own head, held his hands to the shape, and compared it side-by-side. The skull was at least double the size of his own.
Jake’s eyes widened in fear. He mouthed, “We should go,” right as the skull began to glow.
Drawing their attention again, they watched as the light faded, then returned, throbbing, like a heartbeat.
Dylan moved his fingers nearer and felt the unmistakable sensation of heat that brought life to his frigid fingertips.
Then the smell hit him.
It was like a mountainside the day after a rain. Sweet, fragrant, and pure. It smelled like spring, so relaxing and seductive. And it made them feel safe – something he never thought he’d ever experience again.
Looking at the skull made him feel wide awake. Alive. Powerful.
He had to touch it. Just to see what it was like. Just for a second, that’s all.
Why was he debating this? The skull was warm, he was freezing. He was exhausted, it made him chipper. He was in darkness, it provided light.
As he weighed the pros and cons, it dawned on Jake that it was not moonlight that shone on the skull. The skull was producing the light.
Dylan’s arms stretched forward.
“DYLAN, NO!” Jake yelled.
He wrapped his hands around the skull.
“Dylan what the fuck are you doing?!” Jake questioned, but he did not reply.
Jake’s head snapped back as the sound of a distant horn cut through the dead air and sent a goosebump shockwave across his body.
They heard him yell. And they were coming.
“We have to go! Now!” Jake pleaded.
Dylan stared blankly at Jake, and with his thick wool beanie acting as a cushion, he raised the skull and slid down it over his own.
His head tilted back and his eyes closed as energetic magma poured into his brain.
Suddenly, Dylan’s eyes shot open. His pupils were gone, and all that remained was his sclera that glowed with hot, white light.
The power, the force, whatever it was, started to glide down from his head to his toes. He felt like a god.
Dylan turned to a nearby tree, clenched his hand into a fist, cocked his arm back, and drove through it.
The tree exploded at the connection point and thousands of splinters erupted from it like buckshot, causing Jake to raise his arms to duck and shield himself.
The top of the tree crashed to the floor as the final shards finished raining down. All was silent until it was broken by nearby howls from the bastards. They were gaining ground.
Dylan looked at Jake, then smiled.
“This is how we can beat those fuckers, Jake! Did you fucking see that?! That was fucking amazing!” Dylan said, his voice a colossal, deep megaphone.
Jake stared at him in disbelief.
Confused, Dylan looked at his clenched fists, then lifted up his jacket and shirt to see his stomach. His skin color had turned into a fusion of iridescent black, purple, and red that swirled around like an ocean in a storm.
For a split second he was granted a moment of clarity and had the first balanced thought since he first saw the skull:
What the fuck WAS he doing?
There was a giant skull in the middle of the woods and it was glowing and warm and sweet-smelling and it made him feel like he drank a jug of jet fuel and he just destroyed a tree and his skin was a lava lamp he was wearing the skull on his on his fucking head.
Without warning, his skin began to sizzle and boil, causing him to groan in pain.
“Arrrggh! Help me taking this FUCKING. THING! OFF!” he yelled to Jake.
Jake joined him and together they heaved. Nothing.
The howls were closer now. They’d be on them soon.
Sweating and groaning, they pushed against the skull with all of their strength.
“AH!” Jake yelled as his hands instinctively wrenched away from the skull.
“What the hell is happening?” Dylan asked.
Jake just stared at him.
Along the base of the skull had risen spiked daggers of bone.
With his right hand, Dylan pulled out a small mirror he kept in his jacket and looked at his reflection and saw the prongs. They looked like shark teeth.
The spikes erupted further outward, but he was too late to pull away his right hand, and one of the sharp ends cut through the palm.
“FUCKING HELP ME!” Dylan shouted at Jake, whose face had frozen in terror. Jake stepped backward.
Raising the mirror again, Dylan looked at himself and saw that his skin was now smoking. Then he saw the prongs had begun to curve inward and his heart dropped. They were about to go into his head.
He dropped the mirror as blinding pain tore into him and sent him to his knees, blood pouring down from where the jagged bones drilled through his own.
He was in agony. He gripped the center of two prongs and pushed but there was nothing he could do but scream.
Another lightning bolt of pain cut into him, and through blood-covered eyes Dylan barely just made out the figure of Jake as he ran away and faded into the night.
Laying on his side, he noticed the mirror had landed sideways, and he could see himself once more.
Dylan watched as the CRACK coincided with the teeth as they retracted and in his last thought he understood what was happening.
The skull was eating him.
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