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.