The harvest moon hung low in the sky, a soft spotlight illuminating the naked trees. The crooked boughs cast sharp shadows that stretched across the forest floor at odd angles, a jagged maze of darkness littered with patches of blue-lit clarity. There was a chill in the air but not cold enough to stop the choir of crickets from performing their symphony. The air smelled sweet.
Jarl kept to the trails of darkness, stepping softly and avoiding the light. A distant howl raised the hairs on his neck. He swallowed the urge to return the call. An aroma lingered on the nascent breeze, the smell of tilled earth and prey; cold sweat on soft skin. Human. Jarl tried not to disturb the carpet of leaves, letting the patches of moss cushion his paws as his nose followed the scent to its source. Soon he heard the sound of spade against dirt; smelled the subtle musk of unearthed roots. The prey drew hard breaths as Jarl approached downwind, halting once the prey was in sight.
A young woman, alone, knelt in a pool of moonlight. Spade in hand, she pried the mandrake from the ground and set it in her handbasket. She pushed loose dirt back into the hole. It seemed the prey was trying to be quiet, but Jarl thought she was clumsy and careless. The sounds she made disturbed the night, her toil made her sweat even in the cold, and the moon made her shadow stretch at least double her height. The prey focused only on her chore, ignorant of the dangers that dwelled in the dark.
Jarl's lip curled with hunger and disgust. Humans did not know how prey should behave. He could have killed her before she even knew he was there. Jarl tensed as the prey wrapped her scarf over her shoulder and stood up. He felt like running tonight. A wolf eager to hunt, not slaughter sheep. He rose on his hind paws, letting his arms hang at his side, claws catching the moonlight like a razor's edge. He gave a single, ragged growl.
The prey tensed and turned his way, basket in one hand and spade in the other. Her eyes, now wide, searched the dark frantically. Jarl stepped into the light, fur bristling and teeth bared. His eyes met hers. He snarled, and she ran.
Jarl leapt from the shadows, diving to all fours he gave chase. The prey broke into a sprint, faster than he had anticipated. His heartbeat hastened, his blood ran hot, and an unbidden bark escaped his muzzle. It was not hard to keep pace with the prey; as his pulse pounded he ran faster, while his meal slowed from her initial burst of speed. Leaves crackled and twigs snapped underfoot, trees rushed by like dark hands reaching to blot out the moon. The prey wove between the trees as her pace slowed, as though that would shake his pursuit. Jarl felt more alive than ever.
The prey zigged and zagged, and though Jarl lost sight of her once or twice, he closed the gap. He never noticed the crickets had stopped chirping. He caught glimpses of the prey between the trees but never lost her scent. Though he grew closer and she got slower, the prey was still a step and a half ahead. Jarl nipped at her heels, catching a scrap of dress but never a taste of flesh. He felt his own pace slowing, heard his own heart pounding in his head.
Rounding another tree, Jarl caught a flash of motion in two opposite directions. Instinctively he followed his nose, just in time to see the girl dart behind another tree. He kept pace, bounding past her discarded basket, unaware the moon had dimmed. The trees were much thicker here, their gnarled boughs crackling overhead as the wind rose and fell.
Jarl saw a sliver of moonlight illuminate a figure among the trees, but heard the prey yelp from a different direction. Still in the fervor of the hunt, he gave pursuit. Past her discarded spade, and then a missing shoe, he chased the sound of a sharp crash and rounded a tree in time to lay eyes upon the prey.
She was limping now. Panting, the prey fell to her knees. Jarl stalked closer, a low growl rose in his throat. His eyes met hers again, this time wide with fright and teary from exertion. But her eyes weren't looking at him. The fur rose on Jarl's neck. He looked away without thought, but a terse scream brought his mind back to the hunt. She was gone. Jarl sniffed the air, but her scent slowly stagnated. He listened but heard nothing. No wind, no crickets, no movement in the woods. It was darker than he remembered. His eyes snapped to a hint of movement on the peripheral, but only caught a glimpse as it slipped behind a tree. He padded closer, ignoring his own instinct to flee and sate his appetite elsewhere.
Jarl thought he saw the figure, but it was never quite there when he looked its way. Fleeting, like a fragment of a dream. Behind him the figure lurked. Tall and lanky, with skin as pale as the moon, a face devoid of features, and limbs that faded into nothing beyond the knees and elbows. It never moved, but was always right where he wasn't looking. The last thing Jarl saw was a flash of that pale face, its smooth surface a glimpse of otherworldly infinities, its blank features a vision of oblivion. It grabbed hold and dragged him away, into the cracks between all realities, and began to feast.
Renderosity's 2017 Halloween Contest was sponsored by Smith Micro, Wacom, Marmoset, Smith Micro Software, Boris FX, Escape Motions, Imagineer, Photoshop Cafe, Filter Forge, Reallusion, ArtRage, Strata, Blacksmith 3D, TheBest3D.com, Filter Forge, Photoshop Cafe, Renderosity, RPublishing and Auto FX.