A jack-o’-lantern grinned from the porch, its eyes glowing with orange candlelight. No one remembered carving it, but there it sat, spreading Halloween cheer as night fell and revelers came out.

Susan and Jerry stood on their porch, decked out in their holiday best. For Susan, that meant hours of meticulous research and craftsmanship had been poured into her screen-accurate costume. For Jerry, it meant dumping some fake blood on dirty clothes and calling it a day. Susan tried not to let it bother her. Jerry just wasn’t a Halloween guy. He was far more into Christmas lights and Thanksgiving turkey.

But for Susan, Halloween was everything — the best of all the holidays, with feasting and gift-giving (well, candy-giving) and drinking all wrapped up in cosplay and creepiness. It was the ultimate holiday, and she loved every minute of it.

Usually.

“How many damn pumpkins do we need?” Jerry said, his waving hand taking in the gourd-bedecked porch. There was a smirk on his face, but Susan wasn’t amused.

“There’s only four.”

“Five.”

She glanced around, her gaze sliding over the impish jack-o’-lantern at the top of the stairs. She didn’t quite remember putting it there, but she jerked her shoulders. “Five, then. What’s the big deal? The kids love them.”

“If you say so,” Jerry said, flopping down into his camp chair. Susan suppressed a sigh of irritation as he cracked open a beer and emptied a bag of candy into a bucket.

She forgot her annoyance as the kids came flooding up the sidewalks. There were dozens of them, wide-eyed and excited, dressed in a rainbow of costumes — superheroes and villains, monsters and magicians, witches and ghosts and zombies. Half of them were already pumped up on sugar, and the rest were running on pure adrenaline as a night of candy-coated childhood celebration began.

This was Susan’s favorite part of Halloween — the kids and parents and friends wandering the street, making the neighborhood merry with laughter and shouts, filling the night with color and light.

What could beat this?

“Outta beer. I’ll be right back.”

Jerry ducked inside the house, leaving Susan to deal with droves of children alone.

“At least grab some more candy!” she shouted. “Asshole,” she added quietly.

“You said a swear,” the princess in front of her said, her little face solemn.

“Our little secret,” Susan said, slipping the girl an extra candy bar. The girl grinned and ran back toward the sidewalk. She bumped into a pint-sized sheriff on the way, and a brief scuffle broke out. It ended with a broken tiara and a tearful, bloody-nosed lawman who could only be soothed by the last handful of candy. Grumpy parents hauled their trick-or-treaters away and mumbled darkly about the lack of safety.

The jack-o’-lantern’s eyes glowed brighter.

Jerry finally returned, collapsing into his chair with a six-pack and a candied apple. Susan had spent all weekend making the treats, and the bastard didn’t even have the decency to bring her one while she refereed fights and passed out sugar bombs to packs of unruly kids.

“Did you at least get the candy?”

Jerry blinked. “You’ve got a full bucket.”

“It’s gone now!”

“How much are you giving them?”

Susan glared and stomped inside. “Lazy jackass.”

She grabbed two more bags and swung through the kitchen. She poured two fingers of her favorite whiskey — she usually saved it for after the trick-or-treating — and downed it in a single gulp.

There was a queue of kids lined up on the lawn by the time she got back, all of the little buggers grimly determined to wait for the candy so they could be sure to get something from every house on the block. Greedy brats. Jerry was laughing with a friend — the parent of a blue dinosaur — and Susan clenched her teeth as she ripped open a bag.

Candy spilled everywhere. The little goblins pounced, cheerfully ignoring her pleas to take just one piece.

“Yeah, right,” a witch cackled.

“Whatever you say,” a frog prince croaked.

“Ha ha ha!” a Joker chuckled.

They scooped up handfuls of chocolaty goodness and ran.

“Fucking monsters,” Susan muttered.

A diminutive Captain America caught her this time. He looked at her with wide, reproachful eyes. She bought his silence with two Snickers.

The night crawled endlessly on. Jerry drank and laughed while Susan labored, cleaning up spills, breaking up tussles, herding lost kids and endlessly refilling the candy bucket. She felt her anger begin to boil and bubble. She glared and snapped. The kids began to shy away, coming timidly up the walk while their parents waited anxiously at the front gate. Something somewhere inside her — the little part of her that still loved Halloween — whispered that something was wrong. Why was she so upset, so angry? Sick kids, a few bumps and bruises — these things always happened on Halloween. It came with the fun.

She glared at Jerry. Just look at him, relaxing while she did all the work, not a care in the wide world as he lounged around in his pathetic costume and got hopelessly drunk. Of course something was wrong. She was dating a damn freeloading moron.

Finally, the last of the trick-or-treaters trotted away — Susan was pretty sure the sneak had come around at least three times. It was nearing midnight, and she’d never been so ready for Halloween to be over.

Jerry belched and stood up to stretch.

“Fun night.”

“Shithead.”

He blinked. “What?”

“I’m standing here, cleaning up vomit and God knows what else after dealing with goddamn demons all night, and all you can say is ‘fun night’?”

“Yeah? It wasn’t so bad. Just like any other year.”

“Five fights, three sick kids, four lost kids, and two punks who tried to smash our decorations? There’s nothing normal about that!” Susan said. She was shouting. She couldn’t help it. Her favorite holiday had been twisted into shambles, and she couldn’t contain her seething anger anymore. “And all you do is sit there and laugh and drink while I do all the work!”

“You love this stuff.”

She didn’t remember reaching for knife — Where had it come from? Hadn’t she put it up after carving the pumpkins? — but suddenly it was in her hand, and Jerry was backing away, his eyes wide as he stumbled.

She pounced.

The jack-o’-lantern looked on, its eyes burning merrily in the night.

There were two bodies when the police arrived, and only four pumpkins on the porch.


The coyotes were laughing until they saw the shadow pass. Then they went quiet and slipped away to the river. The shadow was hunting. They wouldn’t get in its way.

The shadow swept through the night, searching and seeking. It couldn’t see, not in the normal way, but it could sense the creatures around it — tall and small, round and thin, quick and slow. It sought something specific tonight, something special to slay.

The night was busy, and the shadow bypassed many possibilities. Nothing ordinary would do tonight. It didn’t want the young or the foolish or the old or the weak. The shadow had taken plenty of them before — terrified teenagers and senile seniors. Easy hunts. Easy prey. That’s not what the shadow wanted tonight. It wanted a fight. It wanted a struggle. It wanted the glorious taste of triumph well earned.

It wanted something with the strength and daring of youth, but the cunning and cleverness that came with age. Brawn mattered little if the shadow’s prey didn’t know how to use its brain.

The shadow hunted, flitting through the darkness with barely a whisper of sound. No one saw it. How could you see a shadow in the dark? But they felt it pass. The humans hunched their shoulders and ducked their heads and moved away, seeking the safety of the light.

The shadow started to despair. Maybe it wouldn’t find its perfect prey tonight. Maybe it would have to bide its time, wait another night, another week to find its fight. Or maybe the shadow would settle for something less — for something quick and easy to slake its thirst and hold it over for a little while.

Then it found her.

She was alone, and that was unwise in the night. But the shadow sensed something in her — strength and cunning and cool, calm confidence.

The shadow moved close. It felt her sense it. Her muscles tensed, her back straightened, and her breath caught in her throat.

But she didn’t run.

She turned to face the shadow.

“I thought you’d come tonight. It’s been a while since your last. We found him by the river, the soul sucked right out of him. The coyotes had been at the body. It was you, wasn’t it? Had to be. And now you’ve come again. Do you plan to kill me?”

The shadow didn’t speak. It growled low, a menacing hum throbbing through the darkness. The woman wasn’t afraid. She didn’t move.

“I thought so.”

When her eyes glowed red, the shadow felt the first flutters of fear. It realized its blunder. It hadn’t picked out prey — it had fallen into another hunter’s trap.

The shadow fled.

“Running won’t do much good,” the woman whispered in the shadow’s ear. “I have you now.”

When the shadow whipped around, she wasn’t there. Fear turned to dread in its gut, and it flew as fast as it could. The shadow didn’t have a heart that could pound with terror, but its being trembled and moaned, knowing its end was at hand.

It sliced through the darkness back to the cover of its woods. The river was nearby. The coyotes were gone, hiding from it — or hiding from her. The shadow didn’t know who the beasts feared more.

It rushed through the trees. There was no sign of her behind it. She wouldn’t find it now, not on its own territory. The shadow knew every rock and branch and blade of grass. It could outrun her. It could hide. The shadow knew a place, a cave, barely a crevice in the rocks — she’d never find him —

“You put on a good chase. I’ll give you that.”

The shadow spun around wildly, but it didn’t spot the woman — just darkness and trees.

“Go ahead. Keep running. I’ll be there when you stop.”

Her eyes glowed crimson through the gloom, and the shadow backed away. It considered pleading, begging. It knew it wouldn’t do any good.

“Time for the end. Are you ready? Or do you have some fight in you?”

The shadow growled, so low and deep the trees around them quivered. The woman laughed. The shadow shivered.

Her eyes were blazing now. She was closer, and it could sense her. She was tall, strong, and pulsing with power. The shadow couldn’t stop the whimper that slipped from its throat.

“I’ll make it fast,” she promised.

Death was here. Knowing it was close goaded the shadow to action. It lunged for her — one last, desperate attempt to save itself. Scarlet light speared out of her eyes, slicing through him, ripping him apart with shimmering pain.

She kept her word. She made it quick.

The shadow fell in a sizzling heap to the ground. The woman considered the corpse — what there was of it. Best to burn it. The coyotes wouldn’t touch it, and even dead, its magic gone, the shadow’s remains were dangerous.

With a few murmured words, flames consumed the corpse. The woman’s eyes faded from red to greenish-gray, and she watched until the fire died and the shadow’s ash was blown away.

One down, she thought. But there were plenty of horrors out there for her to hunt.

Whistling, she walked into the night.

Illustration by Blain Hefner.


She was going to die. There was no avoiding it now, no more fighting it.

She sat alone, in a one-room cabin, watching a flickering fire slowly die. When its light went out and its warmth vanished, the frost elves would take her. She couldn’t stop them now.

She could hear them, moving just outside the cabin. They sounded like frozen rain rattling against a windowpane. She shivered and clutched the hilt of her broken blade. Her hands shook. Her head pounded. Her legs were frozen from a dozen nips – sharp little bites from the elves she hadn’t been able to escape.

The cold storm had come early. She hadn’t been prepared. She’d been caught out in it, and the frost elves had come, lured down from their lofty mountains by the plummeting cold and the promise of fresh game.

She fought. It was the only thing she could do. She ran blindly through the white blur of the world, her long knife drawn and ready. She knew they were there. She knew they were hunting her – they hunted whatever was in their path, with no regard for the size or ferocity of their prey.

They always triumphed in the end.

She saw the first one coming. She stopped and cut it down as it leapt at her face. Blue stained the falling snow and turned it to ice under her feet. She slipped, stood and fled.

Where there was one, there were more.

They came, singly at first, pouncing on her from the left or right, quick little white-blue devils hidden in the blowing snow. Their claws were sharp and cold as icicles, and stung when they hit their mark. Their blood was frost, so cold it burned when it touched her skin.

And no matter how many she slaughtered, they kept coming – in pairs, in packs. Their icy wrath would not cease. They came and came as she fought and ran through the furious blizzard.

The first bite nearly brought her to her knees. An elf latched onto her calf, and its sharp teeth sank deep. She screamed, and the sound was swallowed up by the wind. Tears coursed down her cheeks and froze as she stabbed the creature in the neck. It fell away, dead, but others took its place. She lashed out with her knife, but with the next blow the blade shattered, made brittle and fragile by the cold.

She hobbled along. She had to be close to the cabin by now, close to refuge, to safety. She clung to that hope as she stumbled through the piling snow, the frost elves snapping at her heels.

The cabin’s sturdy, blocky shape loomed out of the snow. On a cry of relief she threw herself forward. The elves nipped – one at her ankle, one at her shoulder. She tossed one away, grabbed the other by its neck and strangled it. She collapsed through the cabin door and kicked it closed.

Her legs were clumsy and stiff as she barricaded the door. The elves pounded against the walls, rattling the little cabin. They knew their prey was inside. They wanted her.

She crawled to the hearth. Trembling, she lit the fire. She huddled over its warmth, soaking it in.

She glanced at the woodpile, and her heart fell.

There was not enough fuel to last through the coming night.

Darkness came quickly, and the storm howled on. She could hear the elves clattering against the windows and walls. As soon as the flame was dead, they would come. Her knife was broken, nearly useless. She couldn’t run – her legs were numb from the frost elves’ nips. And there was nowhere to run, no safety to be found in the storm.

She was going to die.

She could see them as they crept into the dark corners of the cabin. Their eyes glowed blue like frostbitten stars – dozens of them, crawling and scuffling inside. The flame flickered. She got shakily to her feet. She clutched her broken blade and bared her teeth.

She wouldn’t go without a fight.

“Come on, then, you devils, and let’s be done with it.”

The flame died. As darkness filled her vision, she felt their icy breath leeching her warmth away as the frost elves swarmed her. The bone-breaking cold overcame her, and the elves took her.

Illustration by Blain Hefner.

© 2023 by NOMAD ON THE ROAD. Proudly created with Wix.com

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