Prologue

Darkness enveloped the woods. A dank mist seeped in, small tendrils threading their way through the branches. Tall menacing firs reached up to grasp the night sky with twisted, gnarled fingers. Bark was peeling off the huge firs slowly and the earth was sodden and damp with soft leaves and wet twigs littering the ground around the massive old trunks of the aged trees. Upon one of the boughs, high off the ground, almost indiscernible from the night around it, a hunched form sat motionless, as if waiting.

In a nearby part of the forest, a tall figure dashed confidently through the winding trees, the soft earth squelching slightly beneath his feet. His shadowy form slipped from tree to tree. Sometimes he crouched; sometimes he was swinging from the trees above. Then, with a deft flip from his vantage point in a tree, he paused for a second and then raised a long- fingered hand to his chin.

As Helioth stroked his groomed beard, he thought for a while. He frowned, in thought. Where could that elf have gone? He must have swung above the trees and then sprinted ahead to lay an ambush. Suddenly, he bent down and grasped the earth from under him, the moist mud slipping slowly through his fingers. He brought the wet clump of earth to his nose and sniffed at it. The elf had been here. Helioth looked up, his hawkish eyes swooping over the entanglement of trees that spread above him as if it were algae, suspended in water. He narrowed his eyes and then stood, his towering form hidden by his dark long swirling ranger's cloak. Very silently and carefully, he drew his magnificently carved longsword and brought the specially darkened blade to bear. Like a spectre, the Ranger started forward again with the oiled blade ready in his hands.

Helioth was a veteran warrior. He had dealt with Dark Elves many times before. He had fought in several battles but he was mainly used to fighting vicious campaigns across the wastelands and over the oceans in their home country. He thought about the first group of soldiers that had been sent after this elf. How foolish they had been! They, presumably veterans themselves, had all been slaughtered by one elf. By the speed and strength of the elf, Helioth guessed that it was a young male. He was never wrong with these things. He had done this before. He was a hero - not some incompetent warrior. Helioth relished the coming spectacle. The surprised look in the elf's eyes, already glazing over. Another dark elf would die tonight. Another soul would be spared.

An owl hooted and the sound reverberated off into the night, fading away into the distance until silence resumed once more. A thin whistling could be heard n the distance and the steady creaking of the trees was an ominous, repetitive sound, like the oars in a boat.

And in the darkness the figure rested, still immobile, as unmoving as a tree - swaying, swaying in the unforgiving shadows.

Slipping through a clutter of swirling, crooked branches, Helioth swiftly came to a halt. He squinted ahead and then his eyes widened in surprise. In front of him lay the bloody carcass of a horned horse-like creature. A unicorn! Helioth marvelled at the sight but his wonder quickly slipped into a controlled but dangerous rage. His fist clenched and unclenched, while the other gripped the sword tightly. He bared his teeth and a growling sound could just be heard - those foul elven folk had murdered one of the holy creatures! He let the wrath build up. This elf would pay for the misdeed. Oh, this elf would pay.

The hunched form swayed and then came to a rest, one with the tree.

Helioth ducked down and crawled forward. The hero rubbed his fine, blessed necklace and frowned in thought, fingering the keenly wrought gold. Where could the elf be? How experienced was he - for the elf must have laid the ambush around here - it was the perfect place.

The stooped figure was motionless, waiting, waiting in the dark.

As he crawled under a warped, dirty, fallen log Helioth caught his breath suddenly and froze. There he was. The hunched form of the dark elf was just visible on the twisted bough of a tree a few yards ahead of him, facing the other direction. He must have been waiting in ambush for Helioth to suspect the other ambush. Very clever. Helioth reckoned now that this elf was quite experienced. Probably an experienced veteran. But that didn't fit in with why he was so fast and strong. Anyway, this elf had been found. No elf could hide from a ranger.

Helioth allowed himself a small grin. Then, slipping quietly up to the tree, he scaled it with his sword ready in one hand, grasping the knobbly trunk, bits of bark peeling off in his hands, and he reached the bough above the one on which the elf sat as quietly a he could muster. The elf didn't even move. He hadn't noticed.

Helioth raised his keen sword slowly. This would be for his family. The elf would die. Revenge. His family, who had been murdered by a raiding party of dark elves while he was campaigning. The unicorn. Helioth felt the frenzy, his old hatred for Dark Elves, rising up inside him. The sword glittered in the moonlight for a second. He sneered with relish.

"Time to die, elf."

"Yes, time to die."

Helioth was barely able to register the feminine voice as he swung his blade at the elf with lightning speed. From behind the dark hood of his cloak, Helioth caught a glimpse of its face in the moonlight. It was a bundle of sticks swathed in robes! His sword whipped viciously through it, causing the figure to crumple and slip off the wrinkled bough. The construction fell apart as it plummeted down to the dark ground far below.

Two bolts flashed through the night.

Helioth turned around, seeking the real elf as the first caught him in the throat and ploughed straight through him. He coughed and choked, struggling to breathe as he brought his blade round. He swung out on the branch, swinging his sword and unable to breathe. He prayed for life. One more chance. This elf must die. No one could kill him. This could not happen. As he was swinging around back to the tree, pain flashed up from his throat again. He was feeling dizzy but the elf had only fired one shot.

Ideas flashed through his head. He had been hit with a crossbow - they took time to reload. If he could only discern the path of the previous shot -

Time seemed to slow down for Helioth as he just managed to see the second bolt shining in the air as it flew towards him. He gasped silently as the second bolt sliced cruelly across his underbelly, disembowelling him and spilling his entrails out onto the forest floor below.

Pain raged through him once more and his hand twitched. He fell down, his leg snapping on a branch as he tumbled towards the ground. His dead body hit the ground with a resounding thud, resting in its own pool of blood and its entrails.

As his vision glazed over he saw high, high up in the branches a figure flitting through the trees.

A double winged crossbow glittered in the sky before slipping back into the Dark Elf's robes. She swung down through the trees and snatching the human's sword, headed off into the night, her feline body swallowed by the malevolent darkness.