Steff froze and his eyes widened. He stared at Lord Giar as a breeze dodged past the thick trunks of the deep wood and rustled the leaves above. Giar crouched beside a dying fire and stoked the blaze with a stick. Flames grew but darkness swallowed their light only a few feet from the pair. Giar’s conversation remained casual, but the elder Elf’s free hand caused Steff’s alarm and fixed his attention.
Giar held the hand close to his body, just visible inside the folds of his cloak. He manipulated it rapidly, creating complex signals. Signals used by the spies of his country to communicate silently.
“We made excellent time today, son,” spoke Giar calmly as his fingers danced. He leveled a penetrating gaze at Steff. “The real test will come on the plains to the north. We have many leagues ahead of us.”
Steff ignored his father’s words. He squinted through the darkness at the hand as it twitched within the cloak. Steff struggled to decipher the code. Giar only recently passed its secrets to the young man.
“...something ... in wood. Remain calm ... “
“The horses could use a rub down and some water. Do you have any oats in your pack?” continued Lord Giar as he dropped the stick into the flames and motioned to the tethered horses.
The fire greedily consumed the fresh fuel, flaring for a moment more. Steff glanced to a few small bundles stacked beside the horses at the edge of the forest clearing. The young Elf’s longbow and quiver lay beside the packs. Steff turned back as his father continued.
“Our mounts earned a few sweet oats and some water before we turn in,” stated Giar.
His hand continued to flicker.
“.... retrieve your bow ...”
“Yes, father,” replied Steff nervously. The boy grimaced and fought to remain composed. “I’ll see what we have.”
He rose from the fireside and calmly walked to the bundles. Steff rummaged through the first pack, well aware it contained no oats. He discarded the bundle directly atop his bow and quiver then checked the second.
“I can’t find them. The light is too low,” said Steff. “I’ll bring them closer to the fire.”
Steff dropped the second atop the first then scooped the bundles, bow and quiver from the ground. He slowly walked back toward the fire. The horses whinnied and grew restless.
“I may have forgotten to include the oats in our provisions,” stated Lord Giar. “The horses can feast on grasses once we reach the plains in the morning. What do we have for a meal?”
Steff knelt and laid the bundles beside the fire. One hand locked on the bow beneath the burlap, the other wrapped around the shaft of an arrow within the quiver. One of the horses stamped and threw its head. The other strained on its tether. Steff stared at his father’s gesticulating hand.
“... in the wood ... behind me. Malveel ...”
Steff sucked in a deep breath. His eyes darted upward. His father smiled pleasantly at the young man, but Steff noted tension in Giar’s stance. The Elf lord’s hand inched toward the dagger sheathed at his side.
“The horses,” blurted Steff. Panic edged into his voice. “We could ... I could try again. Perhaps we could find something ....”
“No,” frowned Giar as he spoke in a firm voice. “There is no going back. The horses are exhausted. I must deal with our problem. Remember this lesson when you return to Luxlor. We must properly prepare for all contingencies. Our people must learn from our mistake. The Grey Elves need to prepare the next time they journey from Luxlor.”
Steff struggled to keep his concealed hands steady. The burlap trembled as he slowly drew an arrow from the hidden quiver and notched it upon his bowstring. The horses grew more agitated. Steff gazed wide-eyed at his father. Giar leaned toward his son.
“I love you, lad,” whispered Giar. “Will you do as I say?”
Steff nodded in agreement. A loving smile crossed Lord Giar’s face. His hand wrapped about the hilt of his dagger. The Elf lord drew in a deep breath. His eyes pierced Steff with their intensity.
“RUN!” cried Giar.
The Elf lord spun toward the tree line. A long, pointed dagger whipped from beneath his cloak and hurtled into the night. Something monstrous and black burst from the darkness. Tree limbs snapped. Red eyes, filled with molten flame, bore down on them.
Steff leapt to his feet, drew the arrow back and hastily took aim. A terrifying roar drowned out the high pitched twang of his bowstring. The shaft whistled past his father. It ricocheted off the beast with a loud CRACK! The creature’s eyes flared and crimson fire poured forth.
Giar danced to his left, avoiding the deluge of liquid flame. The Elf lord’s head snapped back toward his son. His wild eyes locked on those of Steff as he ripped a short sword from its scabbard.
“RUN!” he bellowed again.
Steff obeyed. He wheeled and dashed into the darkness of the Nagur Wood. He vaulted fallen timber and plunged through thickets. Branches slapped his face and thorns tore his flesh. The Elf lad was uncertain of his direction or the location of the path. His lungs burned as he ran on and on. The screams of Lord Giar carried through the wood. Tears welled in Steff’s eyes. How could he abandon his father?
His duty was to the kingdom. Giar’s orders were clear. Steff must return and warn his people of the Malveel threat. Luxlor was in danger.
A faint cry pierced the stillness of the wood then abruptly silenced. Surely there was no hope for one man against a Malveel lord.
Steff stopped, dropped to his knees and sobbed.
“Not much of a chase,” growled the darkness around him.
Steff’s head snapped up and he frantically searched the wood. He flung the bow to the ground and snatched his own dagger from its sheath, holding it awkwardly before him.
“Sh- show yourself,” stammered the Elf.
A pair of red orbs flared to life a dozen yards in front of him. They hovered before Steff then slowly circled through the wood.
“My brother, Methra, leaves me the tiny one,” croaked the voice. “I hoped for a bit of sport from our chase, but you disappoint me, Elf.”
The orbs vanished into the darkness and silence enveloped the wood. Steff’s eyes darted about, snapping toward any movement, perceived or imagined. He lifted his blade higher.
“What ... what do you want?” stuttered Steff.
“We seek the Seraphim!” snarled the voice from directly behind the Elf boy.
Steff whirled on the sound. The orbs were closer. The boy staggered backward, trying to put distance between himself and the hate filled eyes. He could hear the Malveel’s hoarse breath rasping between jagged fangs.
“The power of the new Seraph draws us. It is close,” continued the Malveel. Contempt filled its voice. “You are not the Seraph.”
The orbs disappeared once more. Steff spun this way and that, slashing the darkness with his dagger. Panic overwhelmed him.
“Do not .... do not test me, Malveel!” cried the Elf in desperation. “My powers are .... you cannot stand against the New Seraph!”
Silence hung in the wood. Steff slowly turned, trying in vain to penetrate the gloom. Seconds dragged on. He saw nothing and heard only the light breeze as it buffeted the leaves in the canopy above. His heart slowed and his despair grew. Steff’s shoulders drooped and gradually his blade dipped toward the forest floor.
“You ... you dare not taste my power,” called the boy feebly into the void. Perhaps the Malveel feared this being they hunted. “The new Seraph ... I ... I hold your doom.”
“Hardly,” sneered the creature in Steff’s right ear.
The boy spun. Blazing eyes and glistening fangs hovered inches from his face.