Greetings, Tellest fans! This year, I decided to try my hand at a more frightening Halloween story with a little more of a monstrous flavor. Of course, what is often the case with me is my stories decide to get a little…away from me. I had 30 days to play with this story and it kept growing, and growing and growing. It’s not done yet, but I’m hoping to find some free time between trick-or-treaters tonight in order to wrap it up. This is the longest short story I’ve ever done, falling just shy of Mageborn’s word count.
For now, you can see how far the story has progressed—consider it a sneak peek before you get the whole story (hopefully by the end of the night). You can also check out the art we had commissioned for the story, in a link you’ll see at the end of the tale, and the bottom of this page. I hope you enjoy this story. It’s been a lot of fun righting it! Without further adieu, here’s Searchlight:
A tale by Michael DeAngelo
The door to the building creaked open, but the most recent arrival wasn’t prepared for the wind to rip it from their hand. The howling wind filled the place, sending the flames atop the candles wavering, struggling not to be cast from their wicks. Despite that, a new light filled the entryway, producing a silhouette of the visitor.
All those in the tavern heard the twin lanterns outside of the building as they swung back and forth in the blustery weather. For a brief moment, several of those patrons questioned whether or not the soft light that came in was a dusting of snow.
When the arrival stepped inside and forced the door shut, the notion of winter arriving too soon was cast aside. Though a frigid chill lingered in the air, those travelers were hopeful that autumn would remain with them for a while longer.
The latest visitor to the tavern turned around then, and brought a gloved hand to their hood. It was only then that the others in the area noticed the horns sticking out of the garment. They set to work pulling the hood up, freeing those angled points from the holes that were fashioned for them.
When the hood dropped behind them, the guest noticed the subtle shift in the room. She wasn’t a typical customer, she mused. As she scanned the rest of the room, she was sure that it wasn’t just because she was a female, either.
“You’ve never seen a minotaur before?” she grumbled at the nearest patron who eyed her up. Her voice was rich in timbre, almost sultry. But her words also seemed to do a poor job at veiling a threat.
He dared to persist with his gaze, though he allowed his gaze to drift elsewhere on her person.
She wasted no time pulling her weapon out from within her cloak. With a quick jab, her staff slammed against the floor with a loud crack, sending the man jumping up in his chair.
Several of the other men in the tavern couldn’t contain their laughter then. Their fellow traveler’s flinch earned him some teasing, but he took in stride, especially when the minotaur sent a wink his way.
With her willingness to defend herself apparent, she strode across the floor, her aim at the stool before the bar. It was straight across from the door, almost like it was waiting for her. More likely everyone knew that when the outside air pierced through the building, it landed right there, but she was happy to fantasize about fate. She swept her cloak and her tail aside as she fell into that hard wooden seat. While she waited for the barkeep to arrive there, she let her staff lean against the counter.
“All our single rooms upstairs are full up,” the bartender warned. “You’re free to stay down here with the rest of the louts, though I’m not sure that’s the kind of company you want to keep.”
“I don’t mind,” she replied. “I may not stay long, though. It all depends on how tired these legs are.”
“Can I get you a drink to help revitalize you?” the man asked.
“That depends on what you have,” the minotaur said. “I’m not looking to blur my vision too badly before I move on.”
“Whatever she wants, put it on my tab, Tobias,” a fellow in one of the dark corners of that room slurred.
The bartender placed his hands against the counter and forced out a weary sigh. “You don’t have a tab, and my name isn’t Tobias,” he muttered.
Bearing a one-sided grin, the minotaur leaned forward. “Whatever he’s having, I don’t want it,” she teased.
“I’ve got something light I could pass your way,” the bartender assured. He stepped away, heading down to the other end of the bar.
Alone there except for the tired patrons beside her that were more concerned with nursing their drinks than conversation, the minotaur stared ahead. A grimy mirror across from her displayed a weathered visage. Her dirty blond hair was a bit disheveled—she was certainly in need of a bath. Through the smudges in the glass, she saw the splotches of color on her tough skin as well. Any who didn’t know her might have thought those marks were grime from her travels, and indeed, she even moved to rub them off for a moment before she chortled at the concept.
How long had it been since she had seen her reflection, she wondered.
She wasn’t left to muse for long before the barkeep returned with a shallow glass. He only poured a few fingers worth of booze into it after he placed it down before her.
The minotaur looked up and arched her eyebrow. “I said I wanted a gentle drink. I didn’t say anything about not being thirsty.”
He could tell by her tone that she was at once both serious and jovial. The bartender smiled and uncapped his bottle once again, pouring more of that amber liquid into the glass until she tapped her knuckles against the bar.
“That small amount would have been free,” he joked. “This’ll be five copper.”
She fumbled at her hip for a moment before she plucked a pouch from her side. A moment later, it sat upon the counter, leaning to one side. The minotaur worked at untying the cord, but with her gloves upon her hands, she found it difficult. While she worked at removing her gloves, she heard a small commotion by her side.
“If you don’t mind, would you take my spot over in the corner?” someone garbled.
The minotaur half expected to see a slobbering fellow ready to tip over. Instead, when she passed a glance that way, she was surprised to see a handsome elf that looked much too presentable for the likes of that place. His clothes were neatly pressed, his long brown hair fell in the right place, and he wore a charming smile that seemed open to the room, and not just her. The only indication that the elf was inebriated was his narrowing eyes.
He didn’t say anything as he took his place beside her, and didn’t steal a glance to his side to view her. When she lifted her gaze back to that mirror, she met his eyes there in the reflection.
The elf nodded to her, but turned his attention to the bartender when he came back around. “I’m ready for another one,” he said.
“I think you’ve had enough for tonight,” the barkeep insisted. “There’s no sense giving you enough to have you spill your guts on the floor. That’s a waste of good alcohol.”
“Nonsense,” the fellow returned. “I’m an elf. I’ve got the constitution for it.” He reached out and tapped his hand against the counter. When he pulled his hand back, a gold coin was sitting close by the bartender. “That tab I was talking about. Maybe this can open one for me.”
The bartender looked at it as though it was a trick, but the elf seemed solemn as their eyes met. The patron gave him a nod, and he took that as permission, sweeping it up and sliding that coin into the pocket of his patron. He leaned against the bar again, catching his breath as he reflected on that kindly gesture.
“Don’t pass out from joy just yet, barkeep,” the minotaur said. “I’m hoping you can point me in the right direction before the night is up.”
The man behind the counter took a deep, steadying breath before leaning forward. “You’re still planning on going out into that cold? Shouldn’t you wait for daylight?”
“Should and will are two very different concepts,” she ribbed. Sitting a little taller in her seat then, she placed one hand atop the other on the counter. “It’s been a long road. I know I must be close now. I just…need to get there.”
The bartender tilted his head to the side and arched his eyebrow. “Where are you headed?”
“Searchlight,” the minotaur said. “It’s a city by the coast that’s—”
“I know the place,” the elf next to her said. When she looked at him, an excessively long blink assured her he was still under the effects of the alcohol he’d already imbibed. She chortled as the barkeep poured another glass of the amber liquid in front of him. “Searchlight is a welcoming place to anyone, of any race.”
“Have you been there?” she asked.
He shrugged before taking that glass of whisky and gulping it down. “I’ve stopped there a few times over the years.”
“If Searchlight is where you’re going, you really should wait until daybreak,” the bartender said. When she looked back at him with concern, he nodded and looked to the folks in his establishment. “I’ve been getting more than a few rumors of odd things occurring around that place. Mostly happens at night.”
“Ghost stories?” the minotaur asked. “Really? That’s what you’re trying to frighten me with?”
“I used to have several customers that were here every few nights. The tavern’s a good place to rest for a hunter that isn’t ready to go all the way back to the city. They haven’t been here for weeks though. One of my other regulars says they went missing a ways back.”
“Tell them about the red circles, Lheric,” one of the other customers in the shadows said.
“You tell ‘em about it,” the bartender grumbled. When nobody piped up, he sighed and leaned closer to the minotaur. “People have been saying that the woods between here and the city are haunted. Those that have been lucky enough to get through it safely have spoken about a fiery ring that shows up between the trees.”
“Demons!” one of the drunks shouted.
She scoffed at the notion. “The gods wouldn’t allow demons to run rampant in the wilderness of Ravane. If you were telling me it was gnolls, I might believe it.” She finished her drink, and slid from the stool. When she arrived at her feet, she was surprised to see the elf already there behind her. “And what do you think you’re doing?”
He shrugged again, tapping the scimitars that hung from his belt. “Now that I know there’s trouble, I know where to go.”
“I don’t need anyone traveling with me.”
“Suit yourself. We’ll travel separately, but together, in the same direction.”
Stifling a growl, she reached back and retrieved her staff. “Thank you for your knowledge,” she said to the man behind the counter.
“If you really can’t be swayed, do yourself a favor,” Lheric insisted. “Stay on the road. The way through the forest is quicker, but it’s too dangerous, especially at night.”
The elf clicked his tongue. “Through the woods it is.” He was at the door before anyone expected, and as he swept it open, that harsh wind filled the tavern once more. He waited there for the minotaur to pass, and joined her outside a moment later, bowing to those other travelers inside before pulling the door shut.
His unexpected companion blew out an agitated sigh, and she watched her breath turn to steam in the air in front of her. The minotaur turned back to the building and lifted her hood over her head once more, pulling it into place so that the horns could fit through the holes.
“I didn’t get your name,” the elf said once she turned around.
“I didn’t give it.”
He threw up his hands, conceding to that point. “If that’s how you prefer it, I understand. I went a long time without telling people my name when I first met them as well. Sometimes that secrecy feels…safe.”
“It’s Korrin,” she said as she shook her head. “I’ve got no secrets worth hiding.” The minotaur was already on the move before she finished her statement, heading toward the road that crossed in front of the tavern.
The elf remained there for a few moments while she put distance between them. “I’m Icarus,” he said.
Korrin continued moving along, wrapping her cloak tighter around her. She stopped at the area where the path from the tavern met the road, and looked down both directions, forgetting momentarily which way she came from.
“That’s the way to Searchlight,” the elf said as he reached her side. “We can take the road for around an hour before it curves away from the forest.”
“What are you doing?” the minotaur asked. “I already told you I don’t need a traveling companion. Your insistence only serves to make me feel uneasy.”
“You might not need an escort through the woods. But I could certainly use someone like you around.” As those words reached her, Korrin’s eyes grew wide and incensed. Icarus, without looking at her, went on. “You certainly look like you could handle yourself. I’d rather surrender my shame and admit that it’s safer to travel with someone competent beside me.”
The minotaur’s features softened then, and she bowed her head. “I wasn’t planning on going through the woods. The bartender said to take the road.”
Icarus shook his head, freeing himself of the last clinging grasp of the alcohol. He blinked a few times, his focus returning to Korrin at his side. “I’ll let you determine what’s best. The road is a much longer journey than the path through the trees. We’ll likely have to stop before fatigue claims us.
“Then again,” he went on, “the woods have also been a place of ill repute. Long ago, bandits used to protect their hideout there. They’d venture to the road on nights much like this, and waylay travelers on their way to the town. Searchlight was always a place for lost souls, but back in those days, they were like misfits. Everyone traveled alone. They were easy targets.”
Korrin was silent for a time, digesting his words though the cold bite of the night wind was still surrounding them. Icarus didn’t seem affected by that chill. Perhaps all that whisky left him feeling warmer than he was.
“Everything I’m saying to you makes me sound like I’m one of those bandits,” the elf said. “I’m not doing much to earn your trust, I’m sure.”
“You are doing a poor job of that, it’s true,” Korrin replied. “We could stay here until daybreak.”
“The Royal Oak is a cozy establishment,” Icarus said, turning back to look at the tavern. “It’s almost as welcoming as Searchlight itself. And I would recommend that action. But…”
“What is it?” the minotaur replied with a snort.
“If there’s trouble there, I won’t have it wait until later. Searchlight has been good to me over the years as well. It’s my first time back this way for some time. I know the way better than most, and I have the means to get there quicker than anyone in that tavern there. I could come back this way in the morning and meet you on the road.”
“I’ll be fine,” Korrin said. “I’ve had sleepless nights before. But I won’t stand here a moment longer than I have to. Are you ready to leave, or not?”
Icarus swept his arm out, inviting her to lead the way.
For a long while, the pair was quiet. The sound of his boots and her hooves clapping against the stone road was understated against the breeze that persisted even as they traveled southwest. That mournful gale had them both looking inward, numb to the path ahead.
“What’s waiting for you in Searchlight?” Icarus asked, breaking the quiet after a few moments.
“I need a place to call my own,” Korrin replied. “As you said back at the Oak, Searchlight is known for being welcoming to all races.” A few moments passed, and when the elf didn’t offer another statement in return, she cast a glance in his direction. “What about you? What will be bringing you back there?”
A weary grin separated his lips. “You’re not the only person I’ll have brought there to find a new home. You will be the first minotaur though.”
“There aren’t any others like me there?”
“Oh, I feel as though you might be one of a kind,” Icarus replied. “As to whether or not there are other members of your race, I couldn’t say for sure. It’s been a few years since the last time I’ve been there. I haven’t always been the one to bring folks there, so I’m sure the city has grown somewhat, but after all this time, I don’t much more than you.”
Korrin hummed to herself. “Now you have me second-guessing myself.”
“Why is that?”
“How can I believe Searchlight is a wonderful place if you haven’t found the will to stay there?”
Icarus let a quiet chortle escape into the night. “Believe me, if I was the settling-down-in-one-place kind of person, Searchlight would be the city for me. But it’s been…many years since I’ve put down roots. Instead, I go back every once and again to see how they’re progressing.”
“And?” the minotaur wondered.
“You’ll be very happy there, I’m sure,” he said. “If you don’t mind though, I’d ask you a question. I know what you’re heading toward, but what is it you’re leaving behind?”
Korrin bowed her head. “If I’m the first one of my kind to make it to Searchlight, I can add that to being the last one of my family—at all.”
“My apologies,” Icarus said. “I didn’t mean to bring up unhappy thoughts.”
“It’s not all bad,” the minotaur replied. “My father was a brave sort, and he managed to break a long-running curse that plagued our family. It was his courage that’s made this pilgrimage possible at all.”
“You should be proud of that,” the elf spoke. “Have some pride in yourself as well, of course. It’s not every day that someone leaves everything they’re familiar with to forge a new path.”
She produced a noise that sounded as though it was caught halfway between a chortle and a scoff. “When the road is crumbling beneath your feet, it’s best to look for a new path anyway, I suppose.”
“That’s an optimistic way of looking at things,” Icarus teased. “Well, I’ll not keep you from that path. Once this road bends west, we can enter the forest. From there, it’s a relatively straight path that will take us to Searchlight.”
“And how can you be so sure, after all these years?”
“I have my means,” he assured. “And they’re better than any map.”
Korrin narrowed her eyes. “You keep your secrets. Just make sure they don’t put us in any trouble.”
“Of course not,” Icarus said. “What could go wrong?”
* * *
He could hear her snort a few feet behind him as he leapt over the fallen log in their path. Though he wore sturdier armor than she did, Icarus was more comfortable in his attire, and he hopped over obstacles without any issues. Korrin was forced to lift her cloak—a mistake she hadn’t made after a few snags once they disappeared within those trees.
“This is wrong,” the minotaur grumbled. “Are you sure we’re not lost?”
“I’m certain,” he replied. “I am almost completely convinced.”
He heard her hasty steps then, and turned about just in time to see her reach his side.
“Almost?” she asked. “Are we walking in circles here?”
Icarus threw up his hands to placate her. “Easy. There’s nothing to be worried about. I’ve kept us on a straight path, I’m sure of it.”
“How can you tell in this darkness?” Korrin pressed. “We should make camp. For all we know, we’ve been going east instead of south.”
The elf folded his arms over his chest. “Now listen here. I may have been intoxicated when you met me, but that time has come and gone. I’ve been on this planet since before your family line was a part of Tellest. I’m one with this world, and it’s one with me.”
“So how certain are you that we’re going in the right direction?” Korrin asked.
The minotaur waved her hands in the air and spun about, exasperated with her companion’s revelation.
“I can find out for sure,” Icarus insisted. “You know why Searchlight was given its name, right?”
Korrin sighed and sat down on that fallen log that the elf hurdled earlier. “Let me guess: you’re going to tell me.”
Icarus harrumphed and turned up his nose, looking in the direction in which he assumed the city lay. “Long ago, when Ravane was far harsher than it was now, a lighthouse was built near the rocky coast. Back then, it served as a warning to ships that were nearing the shore. Dangerous crags and hidden reefs waited in the water, and there wasn’t a safe way to approach land.
“By the time some brave folks with some interesting talents cleared the hazards and built a pier, the lighthouse had fallen into disrepair,” he went on. “But with magic returning to this world, a lens and a lantern weren’t needed. The first wizard who settled in the town placed an undying flame upon that tower. It no longer stood out as a warning, but as a welcome. When that beacon came about, it was when the city first earned its namesake. And it’s just beyond this forest. All I have to do is rise above the canopy to see it, and I can verify we’ve been headed in the right direction.”
Korrin crossed her arms over her chest. “You’d best get to climbing,” she said.
“That won’t be necessary,” Icarus replied. “It’s time you learn a little more about me.” As he finished speaking, he spread his arms out wide. The darkness of that forest was chased away by a surprising luminescence, and the minotaur covered her eyes and looked away. When she adjusted to that brightness, she peered back to her companion, surprised to see the ethereal wings that lifted from his back. “I take it you’ve not known many elves,” he asked when he saw her surprised gaze.
“You’re the first,” she muttered.
“We elves each have some gift that Tellest bestowed upon us. Some of us were greedy with them though, and all of the elves were punished because of that. These wings… I could depend on them long ago. Now they only serve me for a short while before fading away—a painful reminder of a time before many of the people of Tellest would remember.
“A short while is all I’ll need though,” he went on. “That magic flame in the distance will reach up higher than the trees, or at least it will feel like it once I rise high enough. Wait here for a moment. I’ll return as soon as I collect our bearings.”
Korrin nodded, and when those ghostly wings beat, and Icarus rose the first few feet into the air, she stepped back. Though they were magic, and seemed as though they were situated in another world, she felt the breeze that they produced with every wave.
Icarus was more than competent with that power at his beck and call, and as he rose into the air, he retained his stability. Just before he passed through the dense canopy, he offered his companion a knowing grin.
Free of the forest, Icarus was reminded of the chill in the air they felt earlier. That height did him no favors, and he thought to grasp his arms and force some friction onto his skin.
The elf didn’t allow the cold to distract him though. He lifted higher and higher until he confirmed the direction they needed to go. He should have never doubted his talents as a tracker, he mused, for the distant flame of the tall tower was before him. It would be a long journey yet to take them there, but he was satisfied with their course.
His ethereal wings undulated in the cool breeze, lifting him somewhat higher as he looked down to the canopy once more for a clear descent. Before he ventured too far, though, his sharp eyes caught sight of something else in the forest. A flicker of red seemed to shimmer in the dark of night, not too distant from where he and Korrin had paused. No longer concerned with the elegance of his drop, he made his way back through the boughs of the trees.
“Well?” the minotaur asked when she saw him enter the clearing once more.
Icarus brought a finger to his lips, his wings illuminating that warning enough for Korrin to understand that he had concerns. He landed with a soft thud, and willed those wings away as he chose a path toward his companion, avoiding the crisp leaves that littered the forest floor.
“We’re going the right way,” he insisted, his words barely a whisper. “But I saw something else besides the beacon from Searchlight. There’s someone else in these woods, and they’re not far from here.”
“More travelers, perhaps?” Korrin returned in as soft a voice as she could.
“Maybe. It could be bandits though.”
The minotaur shook her head. “Perfect.”
Icarus drew his scimitars from their scabbards, and turned them over in his hands, verifying that they didn’t catch any of the light from the stars overhead beyond the trees. “Whether or not they’re dangerous, I have to venture toward them. If they are merely travelers, perhaps we could make our way to Searchlight together. But if they’re bandits, the city will no doubt want to be aware of them.
“This has the chance to be dangerous,” he continued. “I have the means for a hasty egress, but you don’t. If you want to head toward the road, it’s that way over there,” he said, pointing to the west.
“If there are bandits, they should fear me,” Korrin said with a grin. “I don’t know that I can be quiet as silent as you. I’m not as fleet of foot.”
“I’ll lead the way,” Icarus said. “Just follow in my footsteps. I’ve learned how to muffle my movements a bit better than most over the past few hundred years.”
The minotaur nodded, and that was all the agreement the elf needed. He spun about, taking a gentle step over the fallen log. His movements seemed strange and wild, almost like an exotic dance. Korrin said nothing, but arched her eyebrow as she observed his irregular shifts.
Before long, they both found a cadence they could adhere to. Korrin produced her own weapon, leaning on her staff when Icarus’s twists and turns seemed too agile for her to replicate. She let a scowl cross her face a few times when she stepped atop clumps of autumn leaves, but her traveling companion didn’t seem to care.
As they went along, the elf raised his hand, slowing their journey. He leaned against a large oak with a split trunk, and beckoned her over to him.
“Why have we stopped?” she whispered.
“I’m not certain,” he replied. “I’m sure this was about the area that I saw the light. Perhaps whoever made camp stamped out their fire, but I would think we would still see some embers.”
“Perhaps it wasn’t a traditional fire,” Korrin said. “Searchlight is known for taking on all kinds of people, isn’t it? Maybe a sorcerer, coming into their powers, is using a light to guide their way.”
“That’s an optimistic way of looking at things,” Icarus said. As he made his way forward though, he hummed to himself, and bent low to look at the area. “Whatever it was, it certainly left its mark.”
“What do you mean?” the minotaur asked. She stepped closer toward her companion, and looked at the ground as he did. In that darkness, she couldn’t deduce what he had, and he gave her a subtle nod of understanding. He summoned those ethereal wings to his back again, letting the light they produce cast out onto the ground. “This was no fire,” Korrin spoke.
The ground was grey and lifeless, as though the grass had been deprived of light and water for months. No leaves were present in the area either, crumbled to dust and left scattered on the ground until a breeze sent them in a swirl. Even the nearest tree seemed partially decayed on one side, while the rest seemed unaffected by whatever darkness tainted the area.
“What happened here?” Korrin asked.
“And how did we just end up missing it?” Icarus replied. He stood up and looked southward. “Do you recall Tobias back at the tavern telling us about people who had gone missing?”
“Lheric,” the minotaur corrected. She shook her head, and pulled her hood back, looking about in the forest. “I dismissed his warnings as folklore or fairytales, but it seems he might have been telling us about what really happened.”
“But it’s worse than we feared,” the elf said. “We’re closer to Searchlight than I’d care to admit to have such odd happenings causing such darkness.”
“We need to hurry,” Korrin said.
“We need to warn the city,” Icarus agreed.
* * *
The sun was rising in the east, casting a hazy image over the southern sea. Both of the travelers breathed a sigh of relief when they exited the forest. While there were no additional signs of that curious activity, neither the elf nor the minotaur could feign disappointment.
“Whatever it was, it remained confined to that single area,” Icarus said. “It might take some time, but I’m sure I could find my way back there in time. Perhaps daylight will help me learn some new information about what happened there.”
“What you saw leeched the life out of the forest there,” Korrin replied. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to head back in there?”
The elf shrugged at that notion. “I’d rather venture into danger and be prepared than be caught by it unaware.”
“At least get to Searchlight first, and see what they have to say about it. It could be that they already have some inkling as to what happened, and can shed some light on what’s going on.”
Icarus sighed, and took a step away from the forest. “You’re right. Sometimes, I allow my eagerness to take me too far too fast. It’s a habit that I earned a long while ago, and that I’ve had some difficulty trying to purge.”
They were silent for a time, before Korrin chortled.
“What’s that about?” the elf wondered.
“Last night, I couldn’t be sure whether or not your accompanying me into the forest was a ploy on trying to kill me. It seems I needed to worry about you killing yourself.”
Icarus flashed his eyebrows at the thought. “I admonish myself quite a lot, but I’ve never willingly thought to end it all.”
“I suppose you wouldn’t after all this time,” Korrin teased. “If you are ageless though, perhaps you’re looking for a way to stop and rest.”
With a wry grin stretching his lips, Icarus continued forward. “That’s enough of that. Let’s get you to Searchlight so I can see what the villagers there know. After that, I’ll take another trip out to the forest to see if there’s more that I can learn about what we saw. Either way, it won’t be long now.” He pointed just over the hilly outcropping before them. “Look there and you might see something you wouldn’t expect.”
The minotaur pursued after him, and then followed his gaze. Just over the peak of that angled stone, on the horizon, she could see flames reaching toward the sky. As they neared the end of that rocky terrain, the beacon tower that Searchlight was known for came into view.
“I told you I’d get you here,” Icarus said.
“You did,” Korrin replied. “And here I am no worse for wear.”
The elf waved her on, and together, they began their descent down those hills.
* * *
Those buildings stretched out further than Icarus expected, and what was once a weathered dirt path was lined in stone that led far beyond the limits of the city. Even hearing his boots tap against the brickwork beneath him had him tilting his head like a curious child.
“Have things changed so much?” Korrin asked as she observed his reactions.
“A lot can transpire in five years,” he mused. “I shouldn’t be so surprised. When I first happened upon Searchlight, it was only a dozen people or so. Five years later they had their first tavern established—a nice draw for any of the traders that could drop their anchor at the harbor. Now…I’m fairly sure I smell a baker’s shop. What else could any town need?” he said with a wink.
“You won me over when you mentioned a tavern.”
A smile formed on his face once more. He led her onward, taking in the sights as they went. “They’ll have better ale than that tepid whisky they were serving at the Royal Oak.”
As they drew further into the city, the pair could hear a commotion beyond the first sets of buildings.
“That’s a little early for arguing that loud, isn’t it?” Korrin wondered.
Icarus didn’t offer a reply to that. He only hurried his pace, walking around the building that they had talked about in passing. The tavern, a two-story building that faced north and welcomed travelers on the road, looked abandoned, long planks of wood nailed into place before the doors at the front of the building. The sign dangled from its place, fallen off one of the hooks at some point.
While the elf moved along, the minotaur drew to a halt, tilting her head to read the sign. “The Red Harpy. Doesn’t look like it is open though,” she muttered. When she realized that her companion had already made his way past the row of trees that bordered the road further south and around the tavern’s east side. “Icarus?” Korrin understood he had no intentions of stopping, and she raced to reach him.
She fell in line behind him though, when she saw the emotions abound in the town square. Citizens cried and argued and shoved one another aside. If Korrin hadn’t been aware of Searchlight’s reputation, she would have assumed a great war had been waged there, and it was down to the last members of a few scattered races. The majority of those squabbling townsfolk were humans, but the minotaur couldn’t dismiss her intrigue at seeing a pair of dwarves, a kobold, and—
Icarus reached out to her when her hand instinctively moved toward her staff. Her eyes landed on the lone gnoll in the scuffle, and the elf knew it.
“He’s one of them,” Icarus whispered to his companion. “It may not seem it now, because tensions are high, but he actually cares a great deal for them. He’s one of the reasons I wanted to accompany you here.” He could feel her shivering at the surprise of seeing one of his people there.
“How did you know?” she whispered.
“How did I know he would be here?” he mused. “Or how did I know you’d be troubled by seeing him?”
She let the question linger there in the air for some time. When it went unanswered, Icarus stepped forward, leaving her behind.
“That’s enough!” the elf boomed. The arguing didn’t stop, but it grew quiet, and some of those who were there separated. When several of them realized who was approaching them, the mood changed at once.
“It’s Icarus!” a younger human woman on the outside of the mob cried.
That finally silenced the rest, except for the lone kobold of the group, who pulled on the gnoll’s tunic.
“Settle down, xxx,” another voice rose up from the back. That seemed to placate him, and he remained behind while the other citizens swarmed their unexpected guest.
Though Korrin had grown accustomed to the grins and smiles that her companion often displayed on their travels, she was surprised by the mirth apparent with him when those villagers arrived before him. They didn’t wait their turn to wrap him in a loving embrace; if he had not prepared for that affectionate flock with a wide stance, they surely would have knocked him to the ground.
“How long has it been?” one of the gnomes asked.
“We were beginning to worry you’d never come back,” a dwarven clandaughter spoke.
“The sand that’s poured from the glass is enough to create an entire desert,” a tall, dreadlocked orc said as he drew near. He offered his hand in a more peaceable manner, though the minotaur who watched from afar could still see the respect and admiration gleaming in his eyes. “It’s been half a decade, friend. Searchlight was beginning to miss its old guardian.”
Icarus threw his hands out wide to placate the crowd when they separated from him. “There’s a big world out there. And not all of it is as lucky as Searchlight. You’ve learned to live as a family. There’s still much conflict elsewhere.”
As the elf went on about his journeys beyond the city, the country, and even Ravane, Korrin kept her focus shifting among the people. Even hearing about the city, it was incredible to see such different people living in unity. Once-warring races tolerated one another—even encouraged one another, and built a small haven that felt open to everyone.
The minotaur’s gaze swept beyond the crowd then, and she watched as the kobold, a tall canine-like being, made his way further away from the crowd. He wasn’t dejected after being scolded, though. He went to stand beside another resident of the city.
Korrin was just as surprised to see them.
In the grass just beyond the stone that made up the town square, an elf stood and watched as his neighbors swelled around the returning champion. That elf, a shorter, narrower fellow, leaned against a staff of his own. Despite the fatigue and weakness he seemed plagued by, he too wore a bright smile at the sight of an old friend.
To his side, another strange resident, statuesque in their appearance, whispered to the elf, and pointed to the companion Icarus traveled with. That centaur that spotted the minotaur stood tall, and moved to cut the distance between them.
Korrin could not help but feel a tingling in her spine then. She bowed her head as though she were a timid child.
She did not have to face that stranger alone. Icarus was there the next moment, his hand resting against her back.
“You’ve brought us another wanderer,” the centaur said to the returning elf. “Has this one traveled the world with you?” he wondered.
Icarus grinned as he looked up at the horseman. “I fear she wouldn’t have the patience to put up with me for that long.” He reached out and grabbed the centaur’s wrist, pulling it down into a hearty shake.
After those initial reconciliations, Icarus took a step back and arched his eyebrow, folding his arms over his chest. “Alright, now,” he said. “While I’m happy to see you all, let’s not forget that when I arrived, the lot of you looked like you were ready to do battle with one another. I brought Korrin here with promises of harmony, and you’ve all nearly scared her away.”
“Not scared,” the minotaur said from afar. “I’m just a little confused!”
Icarus waved that notion away, and turned his attention back to the villagers that he had known all that time before. “Well?” he asked. “What caused you to cause such a commotion that we could hear you from the woods?”
That mirth was soon lost to the people of Searchlight. Pressed for answers, the dwarves bowed their heads, the humans looked away, and the orc opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t produce any words.
The elven visitor’s shoulders drooped, and he looked at his centaur friend, then. “I know I’m ageless, but I’d rather not stand out here all day. What happened here Ullabor?”
That centaur made a slow turn then, a gentle push ushering the other citizens away from the recently returned champion. He swung up alongside Icarus, and pointed to the other elf, which remained on the grass outside of the square, the kobold still at his side. “Perhaps you should speak with Sarendal,” Ullabor said. “He’s the one that knows the most, and he could likely keep an even temper, unlike everyone else.”
Icarus nodded, and waved his newest companion over to him, while the centaur turned to the other Searchlight townsfolk. He spoke about giving the returning elf time, and that they would rejoin him later, once things were figured out.
Korrin arrived beside her traveling companion just as he reached the other elf, the kobold just at his side.
“It’s been a long while, Callatuil,” the elf from Searchlight said.
Icarus winced at hearing his surname—something not spoken to him for quite some time. There were not many who knew his history, but Sarendal was among the few. “It seems I’ve arrived just in time, my old friend. But what’s transpired in Searchlight? Every time I ask, it seems I receive nothing but queer gazes and nervous replies.”
“You arrived too late,” Sarendal replied. “Not all of the people of this town have made it through these last five years unscathed.”
“What do you mean?” Icarus wondered.
The other elf was silent for a moment, passing a glance to the minotaur at Icarus’s side. “We should go and speak somewhere a little less open,” Sarendal insisted.
“Korrin is looking for a place to call home,” Icarus pressed. “And she’s the sort who would be more than willing to fight for it. Anything that you need to say to me, you can say before her as well.” He looked to the minotaur and gave her a confident nod. “As for where we could go and speak, I am a bit parched. I noticed the Red Harpy’s been all boarded up though. Don’t tell me there’s no ale at all in this city.”
Sarendal shook his head. “We’ve no lack of ale, but we may be out of people willing to pour it. Garel and Sonya have boarded themselves up within, and no amount of coercing has convinced them to come out.”
“Well, we don’t need them to come out,” Icarus replied. “The whole point of going to a tavern is to take a break inside.” He didn’t wait to hear anything further from his old friend before he spun about, and began back up that road that led them to the square.
Korrin was quick to follow him, but Sarendal looked to the kobold at his side, who merely shrugged before falling into line.
“My manners,” the elf from Searchlight said. “This fellow here is Moonfeather.”
“Moonfeather?” Icarus asked, turning to the side as he proceeded on. “That’s an unusual name, isn’t it?” As they walked along, he scrutinized the canine-like being closer. Shaggy grey and white fur was adorned with plumage from a rather large bird, and a trio of golden discs hung from his neck on a leather cord.
The kobold knew he was being studied, and closed the distance between the two of them. “It’s not so unusual where I’m from.” Moonfeather was a bit shorter than the others in the quartet that walked back toward the tavern. He only reached the bottom of Icarus’s chin, but he stood as though he was the tallest one there. “Sarendal has spoken of you over the past few months as though you were more myth than mortal.”
A grin overtook the elf as he considered that. “Well, mortality is a concept that’s rather peculiar for someone like me. Time is either cruel or forgiving, and after all these centuries, I can’t say for sure which one it is.”
“Centuries?” Moonfeather repeated as they reached the front of the building.
“Icarus…” Sarendal said.
The returning elf heard the gentle warning in that tone, and he turned to his friend, tilting his head to the side. “You haven’t told them?”
“There are only few that I’ve trusted or cursed with that knowledge,” Sarendal replied. “Moonfeather has only been with us for a short while. I don’t want to burden him with events that occurred far beyond his birth.”
“Well, we’ll have to remedy that, won’t we?” he said with a wink, directed at Korrin.
The minotaur couldn’t shake the feeling that so much had happened in so short a time. Though she had thought Searchlight would prove to be a quiet haven, it proved anything but.
Icarus seemed right at home with that pace, not pausing once before he rapped on that boarded up front door to the only tavern in the city.
“Garel!” the elf called out. “What are you doing in there? You can’t go and hold all of the ale in the city hostage!”
For a while, the inn remained quiet. Icarus leaned toward the building, but he couldn’t hear anything transpiring within. While he listened for activity below, however, a creak resounded from the second floor.
“Sarendal?” a man’s voice rang out from above. “Whose voice was that just now?”
Down below, the returning elf stepped away from the entry doors. He looked up, holding his hands at his brow to shield his eyes from the rising sun.
“Icarus?” the man above said.
“Hello Garel,” he replied. “Would you mind letting us in? We fancy a drink.”
* * *
“You know that it’s still morning, don’t you?” the man asked.
Icarus leaned back in his seat and folded his arms over his chest. “And what does that have to do with anything?”
Garel shrugged and set out the sole glass he brought, filling it to the brim with that golden ale, foam dripping past the rim by the time he’d finished.
“I don’t know how you knew to be here, but I’m glad you’ve come,” the innkeeper said. “Despite everything that’s happening out there, if there’s one thing Searchlight can depend on, it’s the elf known as Icarus Calla—”
“Alright then, what’s going on here?” the venerated elf interrupted. “We’re getting nowhere tiptoeing around the question, so let’s just rush right toward the answers. Sarendal, what has the people of Searchlight up in arms?”
The other elf sighed, and leaned further on the table. “Well primarily, the people of Searchlight are far fewer.”
“And for many reasons,” Garel added.
“People have one missing, Icarus,” Sarendal said. “It all started several months ago. We had an orc woodcutter who has had some problems with the other folks in the city. He couldn’t even get along with Urak. He left one day and never came back. We all just thought he’d had enough, and decided that Searchlight wasn’t the place for him.”
Icarus looked to Korrin, who already had her own suspicions. The two remained quiet, for it seemed the other elf still had more of a tale to tell.
“My soul burns at the thought of what we did to him,” Sarendal confessed. “We all thought that he was just too broken—too stubborn and mean-spirited to find a place here that he could call home. But after what followed, I know we were wrong. We could have been kinder to him. We could have made sure he was not alone.
“We didn’t learn the error of our ways until later,” he went on. “A few of the city’s children went out to play in the woods. One of them hid a little too well, and the other two younglings couldn’t find her.”
“That’s why we’ve boarded up the inn,” Garel called out from the bar. “I’ll not take any risks while I’ve got Sonya.”
“What about the little girl?” Icarus asked. “Did anyone find her?”
Sarendal shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not. And if you saw the tears that rimmed Tursik’s eyes, you’ll understand that wasn’t the end of it either. Tressi went out to the woods to see if she could track the little girl down.”
“She never came back either,” Moonfeather revealed. “Tursik has been out there each day, looking for her or signs of Caelin’s little girl.”
“People were leaving even before Tressi went missing,” Sarendal revealed. “When no one felt safe in Searchlight anymore, it was like a mass exodus, the likes of which I haven’t seen since…”
Icarus reached across the table and grabbed his friend’s hand. He gave it a light squeeze, and nodded, aware of the history the elf contended with.
He turned to the kobold though, the unfamiliar resident of the city less distracted by the pains of the past.
“You said that Tursik has been out there searching for his wife?” Icarus asked.
“That’s right,” Moonfeather replied. “It’s been a week though, and he hasn’t found anything.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Sarendal clarified.
Icarus and Korrin turned to the other elf, curiosity aglow in their eyes.
“Tursik couldn’t find any sign of his wife, true,” Sarendal said. “But he did find something odd out in the forest. Someone must have been making camp out in the woods, and their fire raged uncontrollably. The ground was all grey like ash, as though flames had—”
“We’ve seen what you spoke of,” Icarus said. “When I was trying to orient us on our travels here last night, I took to the air. I saw what I think you described down below, but when we searched for whoever might have been in the woods, we found no sign of them.”
“It’s stranger than that, though,” Korrin pressed. “We found the same grey, lifeless place you described. But there was no sign of a campfire at all. It hadn’t been long enough since Icarus dropped from the sky. We would have seen something. There weren’t even embers.”
A sigh erupted from across the room, and they saw Garel leaning on the counter of the bar. “You’re not doing much to instill confidence in me. Perhaps I should go back to barring up the tavern.”
As he spoke, Korrin noticed a shadow in the room, pouring in from an adjacent room. She leaned over in her seat, trying to get a better look at who cast it, before she noticed the plumage that pushed past the doorway nearby. A clawed hand wrapped around the corner of that entranceway, and the minotaur reached for her staff.
Korrin laughed at her nervous response when she saw the small child in the light of the lanterns.
“Papa?” the harpy youngling called out.
Garel threw his dishrag down and made his way out from behind the counter. “What are you doing lovely?” he asked. He scooped the child up, and wrapped his arm under her rump, cradling her against his chest. “I thought I told you to wait in your room.”
She shrugged, and wrapped her arms around the man’s shoulders, laying her head against his neck.
The minotaur couldn’t take her eyes off the harpy child. She’d seen some of them in her travels across Ravane, but she knew the rumors of their kind. Deadly and unpredictable, they were known to make trouble for quite a few of the other races of the continent.
“Well, are you going to say hello, Sonya?” Garel asked.
The harpy youngling lifted her head and looked out among the people at that table. She grinned a little at the sight of Sarendal and Moonfeather, but when she saw the two unfamiliar faces, she tucked her face back into the nook of the man’s neck. He chortled to himself and brought up his hand, stroking her hair as his arm fought through the downy feathers across her body.
“It’s alright,” Icarus said. “She was still young when you first arrived here. I don’t expect her to remember an age-old elf.”
“She’s this way with everyone,” Garel said. He kissed the harpy on the crown of her head before looking back at his friends. “When she first met Moonfeather, she wouldn’t make eye contact for a week.”
As the old friends spoke and jested, the other elf looked at the table, concern etched on his face. That look wasn’t lost to the two anthropomorphic folk at his table.
“What is it Sarendal?” Moonfeather asked.
For a time, he remained quiet, only narrowing his eyes and shaking his head. “It may be nothing. But if I’m right—”
Once more, the elf was interrupted, that time by the quick opening of the door to the establishment. Garel hopped back and twisted away, eliciting a frightened yelp from his adopted daughter.
As the light poured into the Red Harpy, all eyes fell upon the orc who stood in the doorway. He swept one of his dreadlocks out of his eyes, and took in a deep breath to collect himself.
“What is it, Urak?” Moonfeather asked, rising from his seat.
The orc wiped a bead of sweat from his brow and stomped inside the building. “Tursik was just attacked while he was scouring the woods.”
“Attacked?” the kobold echoed. He moved around the table quicker than anyone thought possible, but Urak had his hands up to placate the shaman.
“Hold still,” the orc said. “Whatever was out there, it isn’t there anymore. Ullabor is with him, and is treating his wounds.”
“Tursik wouldn’t have wanted to come back,” Moonfeather insisted. “If he found the people responsible for the disappearing citizens…”
“That’s just it,” Urak said. “He didn’t find…whatever they were. They found him. One moment it was just him in the woods, and the next, he swore he could detect the scent of brimstone. When he turned about, they were there. He couldn’t do anything before they lunged for him. He said he wrestled them off, and when he went to retaliate, they were gone.”
Moonfeather lowered the orcs hands and gave him a plaintive nod. “It won’t be long before someone else decides to go out there and look. You saw everyone this morning. Everyone is up in arms, and that’s a very dangerous thing. Let an experienced tracker go out there and find where these disappearing people are getting off to.”
“You could use someone to watch your back.”
Neither Urak nor Moonfeather could hide their surprise when that unfamiliar voice rang out. They looked over at the table to see Korrin standing there, her chair pushed off to the side.
“I know you haven’t known me long, but if I intend to make a home here, I have to earn my keep, don’t I? There’s no sense in holding it off any longer just because I’m new to the city. If these things do show up out of nowhere, an extra pair of eyes could be useful.”
An appreciative grin made its way to the orc’s face, and he peered up over the kobold to see his recently-returned friend. “What say you, Icarus? Are we permitted to take your new companion out to test her mettle?”
The elf held up his hands then. “It’s not my decision to make. But if Korrin believes she’d be of value to you, I’ll not deny her.”
Urak chortled then. “And if Icarus has faith in you, I do as well.”
Together, the trio exited the building, closing the door behind them.
In that relative silence, Icarus reached across the table and grabbed his friend by the wrist again. “What is wrong? I haven’t seen you this pale for a century or more.”
Sarendal nodded. “It’s been a long time indeed since I’ve felt a feeling like this.” He looked up, gazing toward his age-old companion with apprehension apparent on his face. “I feel a pull to another world, Icarus.”
* * *
The two elves stood atop the tower, strengthened by its people over decades. Sarendal reached up, stoking the eternal flame with fire summoned from the aether. Flames danced on his fingers even after the spell was complete, and they only scattered away when he waved his hand. Wisps of smoke were all that was left, and the elven sage looked on at them as though he could see through them to another life—one that he lived long ago.
“I was here when I first saw them,” the elf said. “Those lights I told you about in the woods? I had just finished brightening the beacon, just as I did now.”
“And you saw what?” Icarus asked. “Flames beyond the trees?”
Sarendal shrugged. “At the time, I don’t know what I think I saw; a trick of my eyes, perhaps? With the fire atop this tower so fierce, would it have been a surprise to see flashes of it as I turned away.”
“But you don’t believe that anymore, do you?” his friend asked.
“No,” the sage replied. “Now that we’ve lost those we care about, I’m beginning to think it was something else entirely.” He looked at Icarus, his eyes going wider as he continued thinking about it. “Do you recall when we first met?”
“I remember bits and pieces,” Icarus said with that teasing demeanor he was known for. “You realize that was more than two thousand years ago, don’t you?”
“I thought it was closer to three,” Sarendal said. “When you first met me, you had a hard time understanding why I wouldn’t speak about my powers—the power that my people used. After all this time, I’m still the only one of my sect that I know about.”
“The world is quite large,” the other elf said. “I’m sure we’ll find someone from your group eventually.”
“I don’t know that we would,” Sarendal said. “I think they may be lost forever. You need to be told what I couldn’t tell you all those years ago. You need to know about what the Wispveil Elves were able to do, and why I’ve never tapped those powers, even after all this time.
“Back in those days,” he said, “before the Fall, the Wispveil Elves were nomadic people. They traveled Tellest from one end to the other, and never needed to be wary of shelter. We always traveled with some, in a manner of speaking. My people were able to summon a portal to another world, Icarus, and though that world was harsh and unforgiving, it was also a means to protect us from danger, from hazardous weather, and to help us remain secret.
“When mankind was banished from Tellest, and magic failed us, the world was in turmoil,” Sarendal continued.
“I know,” Icarus whispered, nodding as he considered his role in that terrible event.
“My people did what they were taught to do—what they considered a basic instinct. One by one, they summoned those portals that we used for protection, and withdrew into the other realm. But with magic unreliable…” Sarendar let go of a harsh sigh, and gripped the northern railing of the tower. “Those portals that my people—my friends and my family—used to flee the dangers of Tellest never opened again from the other side. That was the last I’d ever seen of the Wispveil Elves. I knew early on that I couldn’t follow them to that dark place. Even though the world we called home was falling apart around us, there was no way to get back, and I wouldn’t risk losing that chance. There was still hope here.”
“If after all this time, the elves you used to know have found the means to return to Tellest, perhaps there is hope for them as well.”
“Perhaps,” Sarendal replied. His voice was full of hope, but Icarus could see the fear on his friend’s face. “It’s been thousands of years. Imagine being lost in the darkness for that long. How much does that sort of thing change a person?”
Icarus placed his hand on the other elf’s shoulder. “If all goes well, we’ll find out soon enough.”
* * *
“These are the directions that Tursik gave me,” Urak said. “It was hard to get anything out of him while he was cursing.”
Moonfeather lifted his hand to stay his friend’s worry. “This is plenty,” he said. “I’ve picked up on his trail. Now we just have to follow it until we arrive at the place where he said he encountered his attacker.”
“If they appeared out of nowhere, what are the chances we would find them when we arrive there?” the third of their group asked.
The orc and the kobold turned to regard their fellow investigator. Korrin wore a determined gaze, and they knew that she wasn’t as cynical as her comment was left to sound. Still, there was an uneasy truth to her thought.
“We’ll do the best we can with what we discover,” the shaman replied. “We owe it to Tursik and to Tressi.”
For a while longer, the trio pushed forward into the woods, scattering the fallen leaves and pushing aside manageable foliage to verify the gnoll’s earlier taken path. The going was slow, however, and Urak’s disappointment in that search was beginning to show.
“There has to be some way that we can move this along,” the orc said. “Before long, the sun will set, and we’ll not be able to track anything. I don’t enjoy the thought of having to come back out here in the morning to start our search anew.”
“Let the tracker determine what’s best for the tracking,” Korrin insisted. When the orc spun about to face her, she could see the indignant look he tried to conceal. She wasn’t meant to be intimidated by his frustration. Instead, she stood taller, and placed her fist against her hip. “You and I would better spend our time if we talked about what we already know.”
As those words lingered in the air, Urak’s featured softened a bit, and he blew out a weary sigh. “What would you have me tell you?”
“The way I understand it, the gnoll is the first person in Searchlight to get a glimpse of the attacker. Did he say anything about what he saw, or what he felt in the forest when their encounter began?”
Urak shrugged as he considered her questions. “Well, he did say that he smelled brimstone,” he reminded. “But he didn’t get a good look at the person who attacked him.”
“But it was a person, and not some beast?” Korrin clarified.
The orc ran his fingers through his beard and nodded. “He didn’t mention much, but he did say he grabbed a handful of white hair—not fur, hair. I couldn’t get much more out of him while Ullabor was caring for his injuries. Between Tursik’s pain and his anger for having to return empty-handed, trying to pry any useful answers from him was like trying to draw water from a rock.”
Korrin hummed to herself, and gestured ahead when she realized Moonfeather had continued his search. Together, she and the orc made their way after the kobold shaman. “Even if we weren’t able to get any answers from the gnoll through his words, maybe he left us other clues. You said that the centaur was healing his injuries. Did you see what those injuries were?”
Urak stood straighter as he contemplated that question. “Well, he had scratches across his arms. You know, he did say something. I mentioned that he looked like he’d been attacked by a wolf or a bear or some other animal. He was the one that insisted it was a person.
“But there was more,” the orc went on. “He had those slash marks, but it also looked like he’d been burned, but without fire. There were no scorch marks on his skin or fur, but his injuries still looked…withered in some places.”
“Withered?” Korrin mumbled in reply.
They both heard a whistle from further ahead then, and when they turned to see their companion, Moonfeather was waving them over.
“What have you found?” Urak asked when they drew close.
“This is where the tracks end,” the kobold said. “But more importantly, I’m seeing signs of struggle here. You see the ground. These steps weren’t deliberate. It was more like shuffling sideways. Whatever attacked Tursik, it happened here.”
“I’ve got something over here, too,” Korrin said. She leaned on her staff and bent low, holding her hand over the ground as though she was cautious not to touch it. “When Icarus and I came through the forest last night, we saw another spot like this. You couldn’t see much in the darkness, but now…”
“What are you doing?” Urak asked when he noticed her odd stance.
“She’s testing to see if it’s still warm,” Moonfeather said. He arrived before her, stopping just beyond the perimeter of that grey, lifeless void where the forest was once strong. “But this isn’t brought about by fire. This would have all burned away by now. It’s almost as if it—”
“Burned from within,” Korrin suggested. “When is a burn not a burn? It would explain why Tursik’s injuries appeared the way they did.”
“How does something like this happen?” Urak asked. “It has to be some sort of magician, doesn’t it?”
Moonfeather crouched low, breathing in the odd scents of the forest. “Tellest has plenty of people with odd abilities. We know some ourselves. Sarendal has had thousands of years to practice the arcane arts—”
“You can’t think he’d do something like this,” the orc protested.
“Of course not. He was with us in the tavern when you told us of the attack. But someone very powerful had the means to do something like this. It isn’t something you’d see a novice…” His words sputtered to a stop, and he looked about then.
“What is it?” Urak whispered.
Moonfeather sniffed a few times, trying to identify the acrid aroma that suddenly overwhelmed him. “Brimstone,” he replied. When he looked up at his companions, he noticed that only one of them looked at him then. Korrin looked to the side, behind the orc, and the kobold could see the red reflection in her eye. He stood, and looked in that direction as well. “By the gods…” he muttered.
Urak spun around too, then, and realized what garnered the attention of those he traveled with. A faded red ring of energy seemed to rip through the air in between several of the trees just beyond where they stood. Ribbons of light flowed as though they were caught in the wind, but they formed a circle that was steady and unwavering. That dusky red color was present across the circle, but a new image was there across its face, hiding the rest of the forest behind it.
Unable to stave off his curiosity, Moonfeather inched forward.
“Don’t,” Korrin warned.
The kobold already had his hand raised in an effort to placate his companion. He couldn’t be denied his study, and as he shifted to the side, removing the trees as obstacles before him, he understood that the image within the ring displayed another land altogether. It rippled slightly, but he could see the landscape on the other side of that pulsing power. A craggy mountainous region was there, barren of life, but not of magic, he knew. Islands floated in the ominous sky, and a molten green liquid bubbled as it flowed in the distance.
“This is a portal to another world,” Moonfeather muttered.
“That’s what smells so awful,” Urak said.
The minotaur said nothing, but she clutched hold of her staff, hard enough to hear the wood protest. She looked about, trying to see if any more of those rings appeared in the forest, but could not locate anything. The woods grew quiet, except for the subtle hum that she realized the portal produced.
Moonfeather hunched low, and leaned against the nearest tree, observing the portal with narrowed eyes. Those swaying ribbons of energy nearest to the ground reached out like tendrils then, their energy dancing along the floor of the forest. The kobold watched as those nearest fallen leaves dried up and crumbled to dust, and clumps of grass turned faded and lifeless.
The investigators heard the shuffling of leaves to their side, and looked away from the portal. At first, they saw nothing, and wondered if the phenomenon’s reach was farther than they realized. A squirrel took to the trees a few moments later, putting distance between it and that pulsing red energy.
They couldn’t ignore the sound of rapid footsteps behind them, then. Korrin spun about, but couldn’t bring her staff to bear before a sturdy shoulder drove into her. She hit the ground at once, the air knocked from her lungs. As she contested with the stars that fought their way to her vision, she watched the mysterious figure cut across the forest to her allies.
Korrin tried to warn Urak, but she could only croak out some wordless sound. A clawed hand went up, and swept out, slashing across the orc’s green skin.
Urak could not be silenced. His cry echoed out in the forest, loud enough that his other ally was aware that there was trouble. Still, knowing that he was not alone did little to stave off the pain that chewed at his arm. That unseen attacker moved away from him, toward the turning kobold.
It was Moonfeather that garnered the clearest view of the aggressor. The kobold shaman watched as long, greasy strands of white hair whipped between the trees. That unkempt mane didn’t hide the attacker’s other features though. Sharp-pointed ears poked out from the foe’s hair, and a pair of glowing yellow eyes pierced through like magic. That monstrous being was shorter than any of the residents of Searchlight, but lean muscle left him looking sinewy and savage. He looked animalistic in his rags and tattered cloth wrappings, and that frightened the shaman more than anything.
He knew there would be no reasoning with the fellow.
Moonfeather reached for the wand tucked in his belt, but it was already too late. The monster was quicker than he could have imagined, and when he lifted that clawed hand, the kobold knew he couldn’t cast a spell in time to stop that rush.
His foe didn’t slash at him as he did the orc, though. That hand wrapped around Moonfeather’s forearm, and the creature opened its mouth and unleashed a terrifying hiss that displayed its inch-long fangs.
The shaman pulled away on reflex alone, but that fearsome opponent held fast. Worse, that tight grip only seemed to grow tighter, until Moonfeather thought that he would squeeze hard enough to crush his bone. A stinging pain resonated up his arm, and the kobold yelped. Still, the monster would not relent.
A loud crack resonated in the woods, and the yellow-eyed, stringy-haired attacker stumbled to the side, snarling as he regained his bearings. When he turned about, Korrin was there, her staff held aloft. The minotaur seethed, letting a snort escape through her nostrils as she dared her opponent to come after her once more.
He didn’t seem poised to disappoint her. Without missing a beat, he charged toward her, ready to eviscerate her with those razor-sharp claws.
His bloodlust left him blind to the shaman’s magic. Moonfeather thrust out his wand—just a small wooden implement that entwined around a rounded emerald, but one that was surging with magical energy then. A small circle of flames, reminiscent of the portal, but brighter and more crimson than magenta, danced around the emerald. The kobold shaman sent it spiraling out toward their savage foe, and for the first time, the trio from Searchlight saw apprehension in the creature’s eyes. It stretched low to the ground, dodging that spiraling projectile. When it rose, though, it no longer continued its charge. It spun about, racing back toward the portal that brought it to the woods.
“Don’t let him escape!” Korrin cried.
It was too late, though. That monstrous foe stepped into the portal, and at once, it looked as though he’d passed beyond a waterfall. The gateway rippled for a few moments before that creature looked back and stretched out its arm. Even across that distance and across the realms, the minotaur watched as the creature’s hand glowed yellow for a moment. Before she could reach the portal, it collapsed on itself, fading from existence in the woods.
Without the subtle hum of the portal in the forest, it became eerily quiet. None of the three residents of Searchlight could ignore the pain they felt, but when Korrin looked to Moonfeather, she realized that he was worse off than any of them. All of the fur on his arm was scorched away where the monster grasped him, leaving blistered scars in their place.
In that quiet, without his adrenaline pumping through his veins, the kobold collapsed to the ground.
Korrin rubbed her nose as she crossed the distance to that weary and wounded ally. She passed a glance to the other injured member of their troupe then, making certain that Urak was not worse off than he seemed. Sure enough, the orc stood strong, wincing as he considered his injured arm.
“Come on,” the minotaur spoke as she hoisted Moonfeather off the ground. “The sooner we return to town, the sooner you two can be looked at.”
* * *
The trip out there was long, of course, but the journey back was laborious and slow, and before long the sun no longer hung in the sky. The cool breeze that passed between the trees stung against Urak’s wound, and the darkened canopy lulled Moonfeather closer to slumber.
“I can’t carry you alone,” Korrin grumbled. “Don’t you dare fall asleep just yet.” She looked to her other companion and cleared her throat. “A little help?”
It took a moment for Urak to realize she spoke to him. “This wound is beginning to itch,” he said. “Whatever that thing was, it’s left me with an infection.”
“What was it?” Korrin muttered as the orc took the brunt of the shaman’s weight. “It looked like a man and a monster, all at the same time.”
“If you’ve never seen them before, I’m sure you wouldn’t know it. That thing was a goblin. But it was unlike any goblin I’ve ever seen.”
They both heard their friend rasp, and they took a break to prop him up against the nearest tree. “Not a goblin,” Moonfeather whispered. “That was something else. And it wasn’t from this world.” As he spoke, he fell against the tree, and dropped to the ground, landing on his rump as his tail tucked to his side.
“That had to be the thing that took the other townsfolk,” Korrin speculated.
Urak nodded. “And it explains why it’s been so difficult to track them, and why we haven’t seen any bodies.”
“It could also mean they’re still alive,” Moonfeather said. His weariness was apparent, his eyes glazed over and narrowing.
“Stay with us,” Korrin said. “We’re not far from the city now. We can’t be dragging you through the dirt in order to get you home.”
The shaman said nothing though, already bowing his head as he lost his fight with that beckon to sleep.
Shaking her head, the minotaur fell to her knee beside him, and lifted his arm. “This injury is just like that place in the forest,” she said. “When it touched you, it burned him from the inside out. It’s like whatever that thing was, it placed a flame inside Moonfeather’s skin.”
“I feel quite the same,” Urak said. He struggled against the urge to scratch his wound. “It warms my blood. It’s enough to want to tear back into it.”
“Don’t do that,” Korrin insisted. “You’ll just spread whatever infection is already there. Come on,” she said, plucking the sleeping kobold off the ground. She heaved him over her shoulder and pointed to the tree with her chin. “You can carry my staff. When I grow too tired to carry him, you can take him the rest of the way. It won’t be long now.”
Neither of them had time to contemplate that before another light filled the forest. Korrin nearly dropped the kobold to the ground as she lunged for her staff, but when she noticed the color of that luminescence, she gave pause.
“I’ve been looking for you for the last forty minutes,” the recent arrival said.
“Icarus!” Urak exclaimed.
The elf could sense the urgency and relief in his friend’s voice. Rather than purge those ethereal wings, he kept them at the ready and wide at his sides as he stepped forward. Even in the fading sunlight, he could see the wound on the orc’s arm—and the kobold draped over Korrin’s shoulder.
“What happened here?” he asked.
“We met the attacker,” the minotaur divulged.
Urak nodded when Icarus looked to him for confirmation. “She speaks the truth. Something caught between mortal and monster emerged from a portal and attacked us. It was quick and it was unexpected, and we all had injuries to show for it.”
“Will Moonfeather survive?”
“I can’t imagine his pain,” Korrin replied. “He’ll live, but he may flee to slumber more often than not in the next few days. And perhaps he should. The injury does not seem as though it would be quick to heal.”
“As long as it does,” the elf conceded. He approached the minotaur, and took her burden for her, lifting the kobold onto his shoulder instead. His wings faded as he felt the full weight of Moonfeather’s weary body. “What did you do with the body?” he asked as he resumed their walk back toward the town.
“The body?” Korrin repeated.
“Yes, the body,” Icarus said. “When you defeated the attacker, did you—?”
When he glanced back, his allies wore dejected looks. “There was no body,” Urak confessed. “It fled before we had a chance to subdue it.”
“Then it may come back,” Icarus declared. “If it was powerful enough to injure you all like so, and it took Tursik’s wife, Searchlight may be in a dire situation. We should get you all back to Searchlight so Ullabor can take a look at you.”
Korrin drew closer to him, and placed her hand on Moonfeather’s head. He was muttering with every step that the elf took, and his eyes fluttered as though he was dreaming. “His head is warm,” the minotaur said. “Whatever happened to him, I think he’s going to develop a fever. Let’s keep moving while we talk about moving.”
Icarus couldn’t help but share a grin as his most recent companion took up the lead, and aimed the group toward Searchlight.
* * *
As they slipped through the trees, they could see the moon high above. The kobold on Icarus’s shoulder had long before stopped his muttering, and he hung limp. The other trip knew that time was fleeting, and the elf’s pace never wavered.
Free of the forest, Urak couldn’t shield away his discomfort. He growled and tore into his wound, scratching the dried blood away and releasing a new wave of heat to pulse through his arm.
“Stop that,” Korrin demanded. “You’re going to end up losing the arm with the way that you set upon it.” She walked up beside Icarus and steered him toward Urak then. “Here, you take Moonfeather the rest of the way.”
“I’m alright,” the elf said.
The minotaur’s narrowed eyes made it clear that the shift was not for his comfort. As he conceded, she helped to move the unconscious kobold onto the orc’s shoulder. “Get him to the healer,” she ordered. “And get your arm checked before you chew it off.”
Gnashing his teeth together, Urak returned a nod. With Moonfeather gripped with his strong arm, he moved down the hill, past the rocks that overlooked the city.
Alone with the elf, Korrin finally let a weary sigh shake her frame. Without realizing it, she too headed closer to the town, though her feet led her to that rocky point instead of down the slope. As she rose up, she could see the fiery beacon atop Searchlight’s tower.
“They’re going to be very lucky to have you,” Icarus said. “Either that, or exhausted in a few weeks.”
She shot him an agitated glance, but it softened in time. When he returned a grin of his own, she nodded before she bent low to sit on the edge of that rocky outcropping.
“We should get going down there as well, you know,” the elf said. “You’ve been traveling all day, and by luck alone, it seems you fared better than the others. Some rest would do you good.”
“Whatever that thing was, it’s still out there,” Korrin reminded. “I don’t know that there is any safety to anyone who would dare to go into those woods. But if we can be ready for it—if we can surprise it instead of the other way around…”
Icarus folded his arms over his chest. “I didn’t live through the millennia by heaving myself into danger, you know. If three of you barely survived, what makes you think the pair of us could do any better?”
With a shrug, Korrin pulled her hood up over her head, tucking it over her horns. “I know what it does now. I know how it fights.”
“So you’ve told me,” Icarus said. “But how do we use that to our advantage when we don’t know when or where the next portal is going to open? How can we get into the mind of a monster like that—especially when we can’t see it?”
Korrin turned about, looking into the forest. “It wasn’t a monster, exactly,” she said. “It had frightening features, but there was something more there, beneath the surface. It was far displaced from the mortals like you and I, as though it was stretched out of place and twisted in others. Urak said it was a goblin, and I’m inclined to believe him. Moonfeather though… He was sure it was something else.”
“He’s been spending a lot of time with Sarendal,” Icarus said. “He’s been gaining some enlightenment through all his studies, and there’s perhaps no better teacher than the elven sage of Searchlight. My only hope is that all Sarendal’s lessons aren’t lost to the shaman. The monster’s attack left Moonfeather much worse for wear.”
“We need to make sure that…” Korrin’s words trailed off then, and when Icarus turned to regard that sudden silence, he saw her reaching for him without aim.
The elf pivoted on his heel, and followed her gaze, surprised to see that same light he’d seen the night before in the forest. That ring of otherworldly radiance was present less than a hundred feet beyond the trees.
Just seeing it had Korrin sniffing the air. She nodded, confirming the brimstone scent, though she said nothing to Icarus to explain that to him. The minotaur clutched her staff, taking a single step forward toward the forest.
“Don’t,” Icarus whispered.
She looked to him then, determination etched in her face. “You were prepared to dive headlong into a camp of bandits yesterday. We can subdue one monster,” she said, forcing a grin.
“Monsters are unpredictable,” he whispered. She didn’t heed his words of warning though, skulking into the woods. “Then again, so are you,” he grumbled. With no other choice, he tugged the scimitars from the scabbards on his hips, holding them low to the ground as he disappeared from beyond the moonlight.
As the pair made their way past the first rows of trees, that scent of brimstone tickled the elf’s nose. He squared his jaw, trying to get a sense of it. It wasn’t sulfur, he realized, but that acrid odor was similar. Whatever it was, Icarus couldn’t place it anywhere in over three thousand years of memories.
“It’s like it’s a different world,” he muttered.
Korrin didn’t acknowledge him, drawing up close to the nearest tree and placing her hand against it. While she leaned toward that tall oak, she peered around it, scrutinizing those darkened parts of the forest for the fiend that she knew would have emerged from the distant realm.
Mimicking her movements, Icarus kept to the trees as well. He thought to ascend toward the canopy, but he knew his ethereal wings would leave him perceptible in that near-darkness. If the minotaur believed their only chance was to maintain a stealthy approach, he didn’t dare to put that plan at risk.
As he crept from tree to tree, he drew closer to that portal, and knew that it was like nothing he’d ever seen on Tellest. Icarus had spent time traveling upon each of the continents, and those craggy mountains and the unnatural sky was alien to him.
So, too, was the sight of that stark white hair and ashy skin that stalked through the forest, looking for its next prisoner or victim. It wasn’t far from Korrin, and the minotaur could sense it, it seemed. She still had a tight grasp on her staff, holding it just out of sight of the fiend. It looked toward Icarus for just a second, and those glowing yellow eyes seemed to pierce through the trees and the darkness.
Icarus felt his heart tremble. He’d seen much—dealt with much—during his time, but he couldn’t dismiss that terrifying look. He also couldn’t discount the familiarity there.
Looking away from those trees to the south, the monster wasn’t ready for Korrin to leap from her cover. The minotaur held that staff high, and swung it across, hard and swift enough for it to announce its momentum through the cutting of the wind.
The creature held up its sturdy arms, but it wasn’t enough to soften the blow from that staff. A thunderous crack echoed in the forest as Korrin’s weapons slammed against the monster’s arms and the crown of its head. It snarled as it stumbled backward, but it didn’t plan on staying down long. It skittered back to its feet and held those burly arms at its side, displaying the claws on its hands in the faded light.
Before it could cross the distance to the minotaur, Icarus moved from his concealment as well. No longer worried about an ambush gone sour, he summoned those wings to his back. The luminescence carried throughout the forest, and highlighted their foe far greater than the stringent moonlight.
Though the beast was surprised and taken aback by the sudden appearance of a second warrior, Icarus was just as surprised. He couldn’t discount the features he saw then. It was more than familiarity; it was familial connection. Somehow, he was sure of it: the monster was some distant kin.
Once more, Korrin took advantage of the distraction. She swung her staff as hard as she could, and she caught the monster on the back of its head. That smack reported as a sickening thud, and the monster tumbled to the ground with a grunt instead of a snarl.
“We should have headed back to the city to grab some rope,” Korrin said as she drew closer to the fallen beast. She prodded the monster with the tip of her staff, knocking it to the side. It blinked away its stupor, those glowing yellow eyes disappearing and reappearing several times. “I don’t know that I trust either of us to haul this…this thing back to Searchlight unrestrained.”
“Don’t worry,” Icarus replied. “We’ll find—”
Korrin didn’t need to guess at what interrupted her friend. Icarus was tackled to the ground, and the monster that did it was clear as the elf’s ethereal wings undulated in the air. She would have recognized that stringy white hair and those corded muscles anywhere.
Yet, the monster she struck out at remained sprawled out on the forest floor.
There was another.
Icarus moved at once. Though the second monster fell atop him, he was already twisting as he landed. He used that momentum to continue his tumble, sending the beast up and over. With agility the likes of which Korrin had never seen, Icarus kicked up off the ground, spinning halfway around as he landed on his feet, no doubt aided by those otherworldly wings. His scimitars came out wide, reflecting the light from his ethereal appendages.
The sight of those blades did nothing to stay the second monster. It charged in, as though caution was something it and its kin had never mastered.
With deft movements and fearlessness of his own, Icarus met that charge, sending his swords forth. He spun a pirouette with one, and crossed over with the other, dancing out of the way as the creature passed by. A soft thud sounded, but it was followed by a muted clap as well.
Icarus knew that one of his blades had tasted blood. He wasn’t sure what stopped the other until he spun about, and lifted his wings. The monster held a jagged dagger in its hand, the material crude but deadly nonetheless. It was no fine craftsmanship, but Icarus knew it had done its job well enough. In any case, it withheld the slash of one of his scimitars, and they were as sturdy as any weapon he’d seen throughout his exploits across Tellest.
He couldn’t reflect on his foe’s surprising addition to the fight. A yelp to his side caught his attention, and when he spun about, Korrin whipped about. He learned at once that it was not of her accord.
As she twisted, a third creature showed, tugging her to the side by her cloak.
“Korrin!” the elf cried.
His worry would have been better suited for himself. The grounded, injured monster let its would-be prey know that it wasn’t without some fight of its own then, lunging forth and wrapping its clawed hand around Icarus’s leg. With one ferocious tug, it ripped Icarus from his feet.
That landing was painful, but his wings slowed his descent. The monster’s claws dug into his boot, but they didn’t pierce his skin within.
Twisting about, Icarus brought his hand high and jabbed his scimitar into the creature’s arm. It howled out in pain, its screech echoing in the forest. That coerced it into relinquishing its hold.
By the time the elf climbed to his feet, Korrin was already gone from her spot near the trees. Only her cloak remained behind, tattered around the spot that her horns once tucked into.
Icarus looked at that glowing clearing and understood where she had gone. The monsters dragged her back, overpowering her with ease. The minotaur tried to scream, but one of those monsters clasped its hand over her face. In only a moment, the pair of monsters pulled Korrin through the portal.
His heart pounded. Icarus knew that once that portal closed, there was likely no way to liberate his companion. While the creature to his side snarled and writhed, the elf made a choice.
In one fluid motion, Icarus spun about. He drew his blade from the monster’s forearm, spilling out a fountain of crimson blood that covered the leaves beneath him. He cut across with his other sword as well, piercing the already injured creature’s leg. Hobbled, it would have no means to prevent Icarus from giving chase.
The elf charged forth, his ethereal wings lifting him into the air and out of sight of the portal. Before he drew too far away though, he dove in a spiral, driving through that gateway, to the unknown land the monsters called home.
* * *
He didn’t expect the sudden onrush of heat. Before he could commit to beating those wings to lift him higher into the air, the thermal difference of that alien world lifted him far beyond the ground.
Icarus raced toward that strange sky faster than he imagined, but it wasn’t without its benefits. Those two monsters dragging Korrin weren’t even aware of the elf’s presence, though the minotaur saw and held onto hope.
Looking up, Icarus saw the awkward-colored sky. Like a dirt path on Tellest, it presented in alternating shades of tan and brown. There were no stars that shone through, no moon or sun to speak of. But those lower clouds caught the light from the surface and reflected it. As Icarus gazed to the world below, he saw those rivers of green liquid, bubbling and churning. Even from there, he knew that the molten rock was like Tellest’s lava, and that given time, it would cut a path through the rest of the barren, grey landscape.
That high up in the atmosphere, the elf ceased rising out of control. He remained steady simply by holding his wings aloft. Still, Icarus knew that he couldn’t maintain that power for long. In time, his wings would fade, and he doubted the thermals could keep him safe in the sky.
A lifted gaze showed him something just as strange as they sky and the green liquid then. Just before him, he bore witness to the awkward sight of a floating landmass. He set those ethereal wings in motion, lifting higher as he cut across the air. Before long, he arrived at the floating rock in the sky—one of many, he realized as he took the time to better scrutinize the alien world—and he set to putting his feet upon that unfamiliar ground.
Icarus half-expected that levitating hunk of stone to wobble as he landed, but the island remained in place, unmoving. The surface of that hovering platform was strange though. It looked more like leather than dirt or stone, and when he stepped upon it, it felt as though the center of the airborne island squished this way and that. Swallowing away his discomfort, the elf extinguished his wings as he tried to find a proper balance.
He shook his head. Any unfamiliarity or discomfort didn’t matter. Far below, the monsters carried their prisoner forth, and there was no telling what kind of danger Korrin was in. Icarus crept to the side of his perch, kneeling along the edge. With his keen eyes, he watched as those fiends chose a path further up the sharp rock face. He gnashed his teeth together as he watched them strike Korrin whenever she struggled.
After watching those strange beings move along for some time, the elf knew he needed to make his way to the next platform. He summoned those wings again, using them to venture across the sky to a closer hovering vantage.
The acrid scent of that roiling green liquid was powerful. Far below, a pair of rocky hills spilled the deadly molten stone into rivers that formed a natural border around a small valley. It was there that a large number of those monstrous creatures could be seen, huddled around more collections of the green liquid that seemed to be collected and held in the center of that area.
More importantly, Icarus saw that the creatures were not without some measure of intelligence. Crude huts were there, fashioned with some kind of leather that looked not unlike the surface of the floating island he stood upon. He couldn’t see what those huts were made of, but other structures—a crude altar and some rudimentary storage on the side of the village—were made of that same sharp stone that was in abundance all over that world. Fastened together with straps of that same leather, they looked poorly built, yet they stood strong.
The same material was used to construct the cages on the far end of the village, closest to that river of molten green rock. As Icarus looked on, and narrowed his eyes to try and better scrutinize the area, he understood that those free-standing cells were not empty.
The people of Searchlight were inside.
From that vantage, he could only make out distant shapes and colors, but he saw the largest of his friends for certain. Tressi, the tall gnoll huntress, still stood strong, despite all that time in the alien world. She roared as she tugged at the strange obsidian-like stone, but it was no use. Though that cage was crudely fashioned, it was held together well.
A few other outfits that looked unlike anything those monsters wore left Icarus certain that those who had gone missing were there. A look further down beyond the valley reminded him that another of them was joining the prisoners. Korrin gave up fighting against her captors, but she still refused to make it easy for them. They dragged her all along the way, leaving scuffs in the dirt beneath her hooves.
Another of those monsters passed by the pair that took hold of the minotaur. He made his way down that path, stopping at the bottom of the small slope there. Without hesitation then, he stretched out his arm, and started spinning it in small circles. In a gradual motion, those arcs became larger, and as they did, a rift emerged in the air before him, sending dust and dirt scattering away from it. In time, that rift stretched larger and larger, until it was the same size as the portal that the monsters had invaded Tellest through.
Icarus felt a tug of tension in his throat, for he knew what he had to do. Those monsters were too numerous to assault by himself.
The only way to liberate his friends was with an army. And he knew just where he could find one.
Leaping off that floating perch, the elf summoned his ethereal wings to his back once more. He dove toward the surface of that foreign world, fighting against the thermal lift. As the monster passed through the portal, Icarus drew spread out those ghostly wings and glided just above the ground, following the creature back to Tellest.
* * *
Though he hadn’t been in that alien world for long, when he emerged on the Tellest side of the portal, it was like he was breathing fresh air for the first time in centuries.
Icarus didn’t have long to reflect on that before he crashed into the monstrous fiend that skulked through the forest. Caught unaware, that creature yelped before transforming that surprised noise into a hiss. It reached over its shoulder to claw at the airborne elf, but it wouldn’t do it any good. Icarus already had a plan to carry out.
With an immense thud, elf and monster alike crashed into the nearest tree. Together they landed on the ground, Icarus tumbling end over end for a few moments before he came to a halt.
Though he had the monster to cushion his blow, he couldn’t ignore the throbbing in his shoulder then. He let a loud groan leave his lips as he squeezed his arm. Despite that injury, he drew one of his scimitars from its scabbard, and he approached the monster, ready to put an end to it.
It wouldn’t be necessary, he realized. Blood dripped from the crown of that foe’s head, pooling beneath it. A face etched with pain would be there upon it until long after it began to decay.
As the monster’s life ebbed away, the portal it summoned shrank, until it looked like it had in the alien world, when it summoned it into being. Wisps of energy rolled over each other until they faded, never to open again.
Icarus shook his head. Perhaps if there was some other way, he could have learned to communicate with the monsters. But his people—the people of Searchlight—were in danger. Such thoughts of harmony or even tolerance had to be forced aside. Instead, he focused on returning to the city. He needed to spread information about the whereabouts of the missing folk.
After taking a few steps, the elf realized that things looked unfamiliar to the place that he and Korrin waited to ambush the strange beings. There was no sign of their earlier skirmish, and the trees were in different places. Confused, Icarus let his wings beat several times, and he rose into the air. As he passed beyond the canopy, he could see Searchlight’s beacon tower in the distance. Sure enough, he was miles away from the border of the forest.
“As if time wasn’t running thin to begin with,” the elf said. Blowing out an anxious sigh, he raced forward across the sky, eager to return to his old friends.
* * *
He moved as fast as he could, but he knew it would not be quick enough. He held out hope that he would be able to clear the trees, but it was no use. Those wings expired before he could touch down on solid ground. Icarus careened to the land below, falling atop branches and bashing into tree trunks on his way down. Not altogether unfamiliar with the sensation, he shielded his eyes and tucked his legs in as he fell. As he thumped into the ground, he tumbled several times, sending leaves flying every which way before he finally came to a halt.
The elf grunted and groaned as he rolled to his back, doing his best to ignore all the pain and discomfort that had taken a toll on him.
“There isn’t enough booze in Garel’s tavern…” he muttered as he labored to sit up. While he steadied his breathing, he plucked twigs and leaves off of his tunic. He expelled a deep breath before he attempted to sit up, feeling his tender muscles and sore bones. Despite that irritation though, he knew he could climb to his feet, and he knew that he could make that long walk back to the city.
When he turned around, he saw the light emanating from the flame of Searchlight’s beacon tower, and knew that it would not be long then.
“Hold on, my friends,” he whispered into the chill autumn air. “I’m coming for you.”
* * *
A small collection of the citizens of Searchlight gathered around Icarus as he made his way past the houses and business that separated him from the tower. He offered terse answers to those that kept pace with him, but he was more concerned with where his oldest friend was.
“Sarendal is atop the tower, stoking the flame,” Ullabor said. The centaur remained alongside the elf with ease, nudging in front of him every few moments as if to slow that approach.
Icarus sidestepped and sent a quick glance to his friend, agitation clear on his face. “You need to get out of my way or go on ahead to fetch Sarendal,” he said.
“I’m just trying to get you to stop and think clearly. You returned to the city and haven’t told anyone anything. All we know is that the others were attacked, and—”
“They took Korrin,” he confessed, drawing to a stop. “We let Moonfeather and Urak go on ahead, and in just a short while, we were overrun.”
Ullabor held out his hands, as though he didn’t know what to do with that information. “Urak said that you had found the monster, and that it returned to wherever it came from.”
Icarus bowed his head. “They came back here. And they weren’t alone. I followed them through the portal—they have our people, my friend.”
Renewed hope sat heavy in the centaur’s throat. He swallowed away the lump that formed there before nodding and starting forward again. “I’ll let Sarendal know you’re looking for him. You’ll have your moment with him.” Ullabor sped on then, leaving Icarus and the growing crowd behind him.
The elf continued along then as well, but he could hear the crowd behind him murmuring and muttering to one another.
One gruff voice, however, boomed out over the rest. “Did you say that you found our people?”
With some hesitation, Icarus pivoted on his heel. The rest of the crowd separated from the citizen who inquired. A pleading look was upon the gnoll’s face.
“I did,” the elf confirmed. He held up his hands to placate those rising voices though. “Listen: I don’t know what is going to happen between now and when I return to that other place. I don’t want to get any of your hopes up.”
“Is Tressi…?” Tursik tried to ask. “Did you see her?”
Closing his eyes and bowing his head, Icarus took in a deep breath to steady himself. “Your wife was alive when I last saw her.”
The gnoll’s legs buckled beneath him, and he fell to his knees, catching himself on the cobblestone street before he dropped any further.
“I’m going to do all I can,” the elf went on. “I didn’t come back because I’d given up. I came back because I have a plan. If I’m right, I think we can save the people we’ve lost, and prevent anything worse from happening to the city.”
“You won’t have to do it alone,” a man called out from the back of that mob.
“He’s right,” another voice piped up. “If there’s danger out there, we’ll rise up to meet it.”
“Let me discuss this with Sarendal,” Icarus said. “It’s possible that I could use your help, but I won’t know if it’s possible until I speak to him. In the meantime, go home, or visit Orin’s shop and see if he can help you out: these creatures are deadly. You need to be armed and armored to dare to stand a chance.
“If I’m right, I could use any help I can get. Meet me here in thirty minutes.”
“What’s in thirty minutes?” another citizen of Searchlight asked from the crowd.
Icarus stood taller when he was sure of his decision. “That’s when we invade their world and convince them to never come to ours again.”
* * *
Sarendal was already emerging from the tower when Icarus arrived there.
“Urrabar told me that you would be here,” the elf said to his longtime friend. “Then it’s true? You’ve been to that other world.”
“It has to be the one you mentioned, doesn’t it?” Icarus asked. “That other place—it was the place that you and your sect used to travel to when you moved between realms.”
“I’ve dared not to use my magic in millennia, my friend. All I remember are flashes of light and a bitter heat.”
“Rivers of green and floating islands,” the other elf added. “And craggy, sharp mountains that looked like dirtied dragon’s teeth from afar.”
Sarendal bowed his head, as if hearing that description confirmed the awful truth. “After all this time, I thought my people lost.”
“Better that they were,” Icarus insisted. “You don’t want to see what’s become of them. But I need you to open the gateway that can lead us back there.”
“What?” Sarendal asked. “I…I can’t.”
“If you don’t, we’ll be forced to stand out in those woods, in the dark, hoping for one of those warped elves to open a portal for us. We’ll be separated, caught in the darkness.
“But if we make the stand here, in Searchlight, we’ll have the advantage,” he went on. “We can gather up, all at once, and march on their encampment, and bring our people home.”
“You know what happened the last time those portals were opened!” Sarendal cried. “All my friends, my family…they never returned home. They were lost forever. I can’t let that happen again.”
“We can’t just stand by,” Icarus said. He lowered his voice, a soothing timbre exiting his lips as he drew closer to his friend. “Magic has returned to Tellest since those days. You think I don’t remember the price we paid? I saw what remained of Shandranar after it fell. I dealt with the storm that came after. I lost everything, the same as you. But I rebuilt it, time and again. I have new friends, and new family, all over this place. I’m not losing anyone else,” he said. “I’m not leaving anyone else behind.”
Though tears neared the rims of Sarendal’s eyes, he offered up a meager nod. “What do you need me to do?” he asked.
* * *
That portal opened far from the crude encampment of the warp elves, and one lone elf stepped across the threshold. He looked across that alien world, seeing those distant mountains and the floating islands that hovered beneath the light-streaked sky.
An ally stood beside him a moment later, and the odd luminescence of that strange realm reflected in the bardiche the gnoll held.
“This is the place?” Tursik asked.
Icarus nodded. “It’s hard to tell where we are exactly, but this is certainly the same land that they took our people to. Midnight was nearly upon us by my return. When my wings return to me again, I’ll confirm we’re heading in the right direction, but those islands there look like the ones I stood atop,” he said, pointing out at the pair of distant specks in the sky with his scimitar.
“Let’s not keep them waiting,” another voice rang out.
Icarus looked to his opposite side then, seeing the orc there walking past him, a hatched in his hand, and a new bracer upon his arm, covering the injuries he’d sustained in that earlier encounter with one of the warp elves.
The elf couldn’t shield a grin, and as he looked over his shoulder, and saw the other courageous residents of Searchlight, that smile grew wider. He marched on, leading his companions forward, embracing the belief that his new family would be complete again.
* * *
She sat on the ground in the corner of that cage, as far from the crude huts as she could go. Every now and again, Korrin saw those yellow eyes peering out from the darkness, and it made her seethe in rage.
The minotaur was not the only one who couldn’t hold back that anger. In the next cage over, another abductee from Searchlight snarled and paced. Tressi invited those eyes to look her way, and every time they did, she grasped the jagged stone bars and gave a fierce shake. They held fast, but it earned her some unintelligible grunts and shouts from her captors.
“You’re bleeding,” the gnoll heard. She didn’t acknowledge the stranger, keeping her eyes on the leather-covered buildings across the way. “When you get out of here, you’ll need a weapon. If you can’t close your hands properly—”
“I’m going to rip them apart with my bare hands,” Tressi growled. She turned to Korrin then, as though that warning was the worst insult she could have aimed her way. “They caught me unaware when I was searching for Magda, but I’ve seen them now. I’ve seen the way they move; I’ve seen the way they fight. They’re flesh and blood, just like us.”
Both of them grew silent when a distant sound unlike anything they’d heard in that alien world rang out.
“Is that…?” Korrin asked.
“That was a horn,” Tressi confirmed. “The kind one blows before a charge.”
The other captives of the warp elves stood in their own cages, intrigued by the strange sound.
“It’s Icarus,” the minotaur stated. “I’m sure of it.”
Several of those transformed elves emerged from their huts then, looking down the hill and beyond to that barren plain. They spoke to each other in their unfamiliar and unsophisticated language, and gathered up the crude weapons they had available to them.
“You think they’re friends of yours?” a man in a distant cage asked the others.
Before Korrin could formulate a response, she saw a flash of white and blue high above them. As those ethereal wings undulated from atop that floating island, the minotaur let a smile stretch across her face.
“You best all be ready to grab up some weapons in a few moments. Get a rock, one of those jagged daggers—whatever you can find.”
That horn sounded in the distance again, and those warped elves began the trek down to meet them.
When the last denizen of that unnatural plane disappeared from sight, that winged elf perched above made his move. Icarus dove from his floating island, and a moment later, he landed in front of those cages, his scimitars drawn.
“I knew you’d come,” Korrin said, drawing closer to the door of her cell.
“I didn’t expect them to be so numerous,” the elf said. “I had to come up with a plan in order to have a chance.”
“So that horn?” the gnoll huntress asked.
Icarus smiled at her as he stopped before the minotaur’s cage and lifted one of his swords. “They’re a few brave souls from Searchlight,” he confirmed. “Hello Tressi.”
“Icarus!” one of the other captives, a little girl in another cage, called out.
“I’ll have you out in just a moment sweetheart.”
“No, Icarus!” Korrin warned.
He understood too late why they were concerned. Before he could turn about, one of those warped elves slammed into him, bashing him against the jagged bars that made up the cage. His tunic tore, and the toothed stone left gashes in his skin.
A snarl echoed in his ear as a clawed hand reached around his shoulder, and dug into his chest. That shooting pain that surged through him had his sword rolling from his hand.
Icarus groaned and cried out, but refused to be complacent. He kicked out against Korrin’s cage, pushing his opponent back and releasing its hold on him. Spinning around to face the monster, Icarus worked at retrieving his second scimitar. The warp elf produced his own weapon, tugging the crude dagger from his ragged belt.
Wearing a confident grin, the elven champion of Searchlight advanced on his foe, swinging the scimitar with finesse. That transformed elf parried those talented attacks several times, but he dodged it twice as often.
Icarus lunged in, eager to score a stunning blow against the fiend. The monstrous foe spun on his heel though, stepping around that attack and reaching out with his bare hand. It only grazed Icarus’s torso, but he felt the sting from that touch. It felt like his chest was on fire, and his legs nearly wobbled out from beneath him.
The warp elf cut across with his other hand, and Icarus didn’t have the energy to protect himself. That crude dagger ripped open his tunic, and had him spilling to the ground. He gasped, struggling to get a grasp on a breath of air that would not come.
Before he realized it, the monstrous elf had a handful of his hair, and wrenched him to the side. Disoriented, Icarus was unsure of what was happening, though he knew his opponent dragged him away from those cages.
He only regained his senses when he faced that hole in the ground where the green liquid had been collected. Like a makeshift cauldron, it boiled and bubbled—and the elf forced him closer and closer, until the steam from it threatened to singe Icarus’s face. The elf pushed out against that stone, but he could not ignore the strength of the warped elf that battered him so. As his caged companions cried for him to fight back, he knew he was fading fast.
Those ethereal wings appeared at once, and the heat lifted him from the ground. He smacked into his opponent, knocking him off his feet. Though he couldn’t discount the pain, Icarus spun about and stomped toward the warp elf. That foe snarled, displaying those inch-long fangs, but Icarus cared not. He lunged forward again, kicking that monster in the shoulder, knocking him back further.
It climbed to its feet, those corded muscles bulging with every angry breath.
Before it could make another move though, a blade plunged through its abdomen. Icarus stepped back, shocked by the sight of his scimitar and the gush of blood that escaped through that warped elf’s wound. When Icarus stepped to the side though, he saw Korrin draw the sword back, allowing the monster to fall to the ground, defeated.
“You looked like you needed some help,” the minotaur said.
The elf blew out a weary, pained breath. “You’re a master of observation.” He stepped around the fallen warp elf, and retrieved his bloodied sword from his friend, eager to cut through the lashed leather that kept the cage bound together.
“Icarus, look,” Korrin warned again.
Weak and exhausted, he spun about, spotting the other warp elf that walked up the hill. He could see the rage in that monster’s eyes, even from that distance, and knew that he was in for the fight of his life.
It wouldn’t be necessary, he soon realized. With a mighty roar, Tressi tugged one of the jagged bars from her cage, and the pair beside it fell out of place as well. The gnoll huntress pushed through the cage, keeping that bar in her hand as she sent her fierce gaze toward the warp elf.
For the first time, Icarus saw fear in the eyes of one of those monsters. Tressi broke into a sprint as she pursued the creature.
Finally, Icarus earned a respite.
“Cut me loose,” Korrin said. “I can’t afford to let you laze about.”
Though he hurt, the elf couldn’t suppress a chortle.
* * *
Those warp elves marched on, even as the centaur blasted out another note from that spiraling horn. While Urrabor beckoned those monsters forward, Urak spun his hatchet over in his hand.
“They’re coming faster!” Garel cried.
“Let them come,” Tursik grumbled.
Those transformed elves marched across the plains, letting their unnatural cries and grunts echo across that barren world.
“Hold your ground,” Urrabor ordered. “We need to give Icarus and the other time.”
“What about Sarendal?” one of the other citizens asked. “Is he going to be able to hold the portal open?”
“Have faith in him,” the centaur replied. “It’s all we can do.” He held out his hand as he cantered back to the group, and Garel dispensed one of the javelins he held to him.
“We’ll make them regret trying to take down Searchlight,” Tursik insisted.
“Remember,” Urrabor said, “we only move when we see our friends.”
Those warp elves broke into sprints, cutting the distance faster than those citizens expected.
“Don’t you dare break formation,” the gnoll snarled. “If they get here, I’ll rip them in half.” He let his polearm lean forward, and stepped forward, daring those elves to come closer.
Urrabor launched his javelin, watching it cut across the sky. His aim was true, and it pierced through one of those monsters’ legs, hobbling them and spilling them to the ground. The centaur reached back, waiting for another spear from Garel. When he had it in his hand, he looked ahead once more, picking out another target among those warp elves.
But it was then, among all that chaos, that he saw those wings in the distance. Narrowing his eyes, Urrabor confirmed that Icarus headed up his return. And at his side, the people from Searchlight made their way as well.
“Now!” the centaur cried.
At once, that makeshift militia from the city spun about, fleeing from their spot on the would-be battlefield. Urrabor tossed his second javelin, but the monster that it would have struck spun out of the way, dodging the deadly projectile.
The centaur scoffed and turned about, only stopping when he realized that Tursik held his ground still. “What are you doing you fool? We have to return to the portal.”
“Go,” the gnoll demanded. “I’m not leaving until I see my wife. They’ll need extra time.”
“She’ll need her husband upon her return! We can make our stand at the portal.”
Grumbling, Tursik conceded to that rationale. He spun on his heel and scuttled across that alien landscape, panting as he made his way alongside the centaur.
“Hurry you sloggers!” Urak shouted, in sight of the portal once more. “Those monsters are faster than you can believe, and just a touch can leave you with a nasty burn that chews away at you from within!”
The rest of the militia took those words to heart, and pushed forth, only slowing when they drew within reach of that gateway, and needed to move through one-by-one. The orc turned around then, wary of his other two allies who still had some distance between them. Those warp elves were hot on their tails, and even Tursik had wide eyes as he ran, remembering the awful sting of the monsters’ touch.
“Go through!” the gnoll cried. “Let Sarendal know to close it once we’re clear!”
Urak hesitated for a moment, but he remembered his own experience with the transformed elves, and that was all the compelling he needed. He ducked into the portal, causing it to ripple as he went.
“Are they going to be alright?” Tursik asked his friend as they reached the aperture to their world.
Urrabor only gave a brief glance over his shoulder, and he offered the gnoll a warm smile. “Icarus is with them,” he said. “I’m certain they’ll be fine.”
With those words of encouragement lingering in the air, Tursik blew out a sigh before he charged through the portal. The centaur was close behind him, galloping through while those warp elves were in pursuit.
As he disappeared from their view, the portal closed, and the monstrous elves drew to a halt. The lot of them hissed and snarled, trying to make sense of what happened. One of them chittered to the others, and at once, they looked over their shoulders, back toward their makeshift village.
Their prisoners marched down the plains, as if they were fearless. That source of energy couldn’t be wasted though. The warp elves turned back and advanced on their scurrying captives. In time, they broke into another sprint.
It wouldn’t matter. Just before those captives, another portal opened. Too far from their prey, there was no hope in stopping them before they plunged through, returning to the safety of their world.
* * *
“You’re sure about this?” the kobold shaman asked. Moonfeather couldn’t discount the fatigue that persisted in him, but he was standing strong, thanks in large part due to Urrabor’s healing abilities.
Sarendal nodded. “If it’s as you said, and your magic frightened them so, this might be the only way.”
“They’re your people, you know,” Moonfeather said. “They’re separated by thousands of years, but there’s still some connection to you.”
“Perhaps,” the elf said. “But I have a new family now, and I mean to protect them. There is no place for these corrupt elves here.”
As he spoke, Sarendal opened up a new portal. It stood upon the walkway of the tower; far enough away where they would have time to react when the first warped elves came pouring through.
They weren’t kept waiting long.
The first monster plunged through the portal, and for a moment, Sarendal gave pause. There was the slightest idea of familiarity there, as though he was seeing the ghost from another lifetime. But time had changed those creatures, and they were naught but fearsome beasts that needed to be shown they could no longer venture to Searchlight or the area around the city without reproach.
Sarendal reached up, gathering up a tendril of fire from beacon atop the tower. As the warp elf looked up at that roiling flame, its eyes went wide. Two of its brethren appeared, just as the elf from Searchlight cast out his hand, sending a blast of fire toward the portal.
The monster’s rags caught fire, and it howled as it swatted those flames out. Before it realized what was happening, Moonfeather channeled his own magic into the mix, amplifying the power that coursed through the beacon. Another blazing lance flew out over the area, spurring the warp elves back through the portal. When they passed through it, Sarendal reached out, closing it.
He stepped back and leaned against the wall of the tower, expelling a forlorn sigh. But as he considered all that happened, he looked to his friend.
“Moonfeather, I do believe it’s over. I will guard the flame, as I ever have. But perhaps you would like to do the honors of telling Icarus the good news. Searchlight is saved.”
* * *
I hope you liked this year’s Halloween story. As you might be able to tell, the story had a bit of an abrupt end. There was a reason for this: as we worked along with it, we knew that we were going to end up expanding on it. This “short story” ended up being the size of a novella. We decided to make some tweaks to it going forward, and at some point next year, we’re going to edit it into chapters. Certain story elements will be added, but we’re holding those close to our chest for now. In the meantime, head over to the concept art page for the Warp Elves that we had commissioned by Paul Davies. He did a fantastic job with this year’s monstrous creatures!