“I cannot believe I let you talk me into this.”

complained Hainault for perhaps the sixth time.

Ulimë sighed.

“You offered to help.” she reminded him, drawing another grumble from the rogue. Ulimë did her best to ignore Hainault’s glare, concentrating instead on leading a pair of massive draft horses towards the front of the wagon. The pair were on the side of the road that ran through the woods just south of the town of Whitespyre.

“Indeed,” replied Hainault sarcastically. “I think it's obvious that I had something else in mind.”

Ulimë turned to look at Hainault. He was a half-elf, and a handsome one too, truth be told. He had pewter eyes with long dark eye-lashes which made him popular with women. His face was angular, with high cheekbones. He kept a short moustache that curled up at the sides, and the shadow of a beard to accentuate his jawline. His long black hair fell loose about his shoulders.

He wore only a baggy white tunic and a pair of wool hose tucked into tall leather boots.

Ulimë continued to study the half-elf, her expression unreadable.

Hainault sneered at her silent regard,

“You’re using me as bait!” he accused.

Ulimë shrugged, and tied the horses to a long hanging branch beside the wagon. It was turned over on its side, the rear axle broken, with one wheel hanging off kilter.

The crofter who had leant Ulimë the wagon had initially protested when she had explained what she planned to do, but had grudgingly accepted after she assured him, that she would pay for repairs and insisted it was a necessary part of the ruse.

She stepped back and admired her handy work. Slewing tracks in the mud led off the road, which sat a little higher up the hill down onto the grassy flat. By all appearances, it looked as if a traveler heading through the forest had lost control on the muddy road as it snaked around the hillock, then slid down and ultimately breaking the rear axle of the wagon before settling on its side.

Satisfied with the deception, Ulimë turned to survey their immediate surroundings. They stood in a meadow where the forest opened somewhat before the road was once again constricted by bracken and alder. It was autumn, and the leafless trees gave a sinister impression as the late afternoon sunlight began to wane.

“I hope you’ll at least permit me to keep my weapons?” asked Hainault, drawing back Ulimë’s attention.

“Of course,” she replied. “An unarmed traveler out here would be suspicious, though If my guess is correct, I doubt they’ll do you much good.”

Hainault’s scowled, and let his hands drop to his sides. He placed his left hand on the ornate hilt of his sword; a long-bladed rapier, and his right hand on his shorter weapon, a thin stiletto dagger. Under his left armpit hanging from a leather thong rested his pistol, one of the new weapons devised by artificers in the Sister Cities to the east, which were now beginning to appear in the Westlands. These handheld weapons were matchlock; devices of powder and flame that fired balls of lead faster than any bow or sling.

Though Ulimë acknowledged the armour-piercing power of these matchlock weapons, she found that they took far too long to load.

Her eyes rested on the pistol; and Hainault, catching her look was able to read her thoughts.

“I’ve improved on the charging, in case you care to know.” he said, patting the wooden handle of his pistol.

“I can load it without the ramrod now; I can shoot three times or more per minute if I’m lucky.” he boasted.

Ulimë smirked, one of her rare smiles.

“I’ll stick to Dolly thanks.” she replied, referring to the crossbow slung diagonally across her back. “Dolly” as she called it was an arbalest, a long crossbow with a mechanism called a crannequin which permitted the archer to redraw the powerful weapon in a fraction of the time required for more conventional crossbows. Dolly’s stock was made of ebony, polished so it gleamed. The lathe of the bow, the catch and the crannequin were adamantine.

Ulimë had always been fascinated by bows, of any and all varieties. The name Dolly referred to a time where, as a child a ranger had rebuked her for wanting to handle his warbow. “Shouldn’t you be at home playing with your dollies or something?” he’d sneered.

A precocious child, Ulimë remembered the jibe and met the same archers years later when she joined the rangers herself, outshooting him in the training yard. “This is my Dolly!” she had proclaimed triumphantly.

It felt like a lifetime ago she reflected; and in truth it was, or at least it was in the lives of men, for unlike Hainault, Ulimë was a true elf.

Her ears were longer, their points more pronounced than Hainault’s. Her hair, closer to silver than blonde was cut in a short bob, with tresses falling to either side of her face just below her jaw. Her eyes were a dark blue, almost indigo. It would be inaccurate to say that the long-lived elven folk looked “young”. The skin of their faces had no trace of lines or droop like the shorter-lived races were wont to develop as their years declined. Rather, elves have an agelessness, a preserved grace tempered by the haunted air gained from centuries of experience. Ulimë was no exception, and being an elf from Halëfas, she had experienced her fair share of grief. Like her arbalest, she was clad in black; adorned in leather armour, trousers and boots. Over her left shoulder and dipping slightly over her chest was a pauldron; a layered piece of armour made of leather and surmounted by overlapping plates of adamantine, vignettes of leaves and thorned roses etched into the dark metal.

On either hip she carried a pair of kukris; a curious weapon. Like a saber or a falchion, it was single edged, the blade widening as it extended from the hilt but instead of curving upwards, the
blade suddenly turned downward. The last length was wide and thick like a butcher’s knife, then tapered into a wicked point.

Though shorter than most swords like the rapier Hainault carried, the Kukri could strike with surprising power for a weapon its size, landing blows not unlike those of a hand-axe, though without the weight or awkwardness.

Hainault began to pace. He was annoyed; and wondered again how he’d found himself in this predicament. He’d met Ulimë the night before when she first rode into Whitespyre. Hainault wasn’t a local. He hailed from Ross, one of the three Sister Cities in the east of the continent. Periodically, he journeyed to the Westlands, usually when debtors, lawmen or anyone with a score to settle (for Hainault had many such acquaintances) came calling, until things settled down once more. In the meantime, he spent his time in every tavern or inn he came across. He had a charming and swashbuckling manner, and people were inexorably drawn to him. He could enthrall a room with tales of his daring, if downright absurd exploits, and always seemed to find a way to ensure his drinks ended up on someone else’s tab. Eventually, people would begin to catch on to the game, or the blacksmith’s wife would be found in his bed, or he’d have to put down some oafish, dull-whitted country ruffian who didn’t care for his jests, and inevitably Hainault would slip away once more to try his luck in the next town.

He was having a fine time of it in Whitespyre. The large village sat at the edge of the old Trader’s Pact Road in western Felldart. To the east was the forest realm of Halëfas, and to the southwest the specter of the Needle Mountains sat on the horizon.

But what made Whitespyre so appealing to Hainault was it boasted an unusually high number of unmarried young women. Had Hainault cared enough to take an interest in this mysterious phenomenon that affected Whitespyre, he’d have certainly thought it suspicious that the same tale was repeated again and again. The young men of the village would wake up, kiss their wives and sweethearts goodbye before going about their day, and then they would simply disappear. Searches had been organized; inquiries made, however these men simply vanished without a trace. Many of the women had despaired, believing their husbands had left them, run away to start a new life somewhere else, and Hainault was happy to console them. Since taking rooms at the Horn and Sheaf Inn the week before, he’d made several friendships he hoped to further explore.

Then Ulimë had ridden into town.

Some of the folk of Whitespyre suspected a more sinister explanation for the disappearing men. Since the Sundering of Westermeet two centuries before, dark and evil horrors prowled the moors and woods of the Felldart Territory. The frontier towns were vulnerable, and so mercenaries known as Hunters began appearing, offering their services for pay in exchange for ridding townspeople from the monsters that preyed on them.

The people of Whitespyre had put out such a request, and Ulimë had come to take up the task.
Hainault had been comfortably leaning in his favourite booth, sharing a bottle of Conqazi wine with a pair of friendly locals when Ulimë had entered, grim as a judge.

“Have you any warriors among you?” She had asked the people in the common room.

“A few are left,” said the barkeep. “Most are the old or crippled, what with all the disappearances.”

It was at that moment where the lovely brunette perched on Hainault’s right volunteered the half-elf rogue.

“Hainault is who ye need!” she cried out, the wine adding extra enthusiasm to her voice. “He’s a right and true hero, and that’s a fact! Why, he’s told us all about it!”

The common room of the Horn and Sheaf started to buzz with excitement as the patrons, who had by now heard a dozen of Hainault’s grand tales expressed their agreement, and called on the rogue to stand up.

So caught off-guard was he that he could barely stutter a reply. The patrons, all well in their cups didn’t notice his discomfort, and only continued to roar his name. Ulimë had noticed however. When Hainault turned towards the elf, he saw her staring at him intently. How he’d hated that scrutiny! It felt as though she had reckoned him through entirely in that one look, and decided on the truth of it.

“Indeed...” He’d said in a voice he knew sounded shaky. “I happily offer you my help, in gratitude to the fine people of Whitespyre, who have been the most gracious of hosts.”

He raised his cup in toast, and people cheered, all except Ulimë who continued to stare at him hard.

“Very well,” she said curtly.

And now here they were.

The memory of it all annoyed him again. “What do we do now?” he asked irritably.

“You stay here by the wagon; I’m going to scout for a while.” replied Ulimë.

She had already turned to start away as Hainault began to protest.

“Wait, that’s your plan?! To just leave me here for the... whatever it is to come roaring out of the woods?” demanded the half-elf incredulously.

“Only able-bodied men have been disappearing,” explained Ulimë calmly. “And it's always been at night, and they were always alone.”

“I won’t be far off.” she added to reassure him

A sly expression drew itself across Hainault’s handsome face.

Able-bodied is it?” he said with a grin.

Ulimë stared at him coldly for a few heartbeats, then turned and started for the tree line.

“I’ll come running when I hear screams of terror.” she shot over her shoulder.

Hainault watched her go for a moment, then a thought struck him.

“What am I supposed to do? Just sit here?” He shouted these last words, as Ulimë was now some distance away.

“Use your imagination,” she called back. “Look like you’re trying to fix the wagon or something.” with that, she vanished into the gloom of the woods.

Hainault ran his hands through his hair and sighed in exasperation.

“Like I know anything about carpentry.” he said to the horses, who cropped at the grass absently.

He smiled at them, then after a moment strode over to the wagon. It lay on its side, and so he walked around near the driver’s bench and discovered it was a lid for a compartment. Several items poured out as he pulled it open; bits of spare bridle and tack for horses, an old long-stemmed weed pipe which he promptly dropped into a pocket, and an old mallet.

“Good enough then,” he muttered as he scooped up the hammer.

He straightened out, and looked out to the spot where Ulimë had gone into the forest. There was no sign of the elf. The sun was just a red sliver over the western horizon, and soon it would disappear entirely.

He strode around the wagon and inspected the broken axel.

“There’s yer problem right there.” he said out loud in his best peasant’s brogue.

Without any purpose or aim, Hainault simply slammed the hammer down the length of the axel.

“They don’t make em’ like they used to.” he drawled, amusing himself.

He suddenly drew back, raising the mallet high and slamming it down hard on the broken part of the axel, and with a snap it fell away, the heavy spoke of the wheel landing on the toe of his boot.

Hainault cursed at the sudden pain and limped in a short circle. It was then he noticed the laughter.

A woman’s laughter.

He turned sharply, hands instinctively falling to the hilts of his weapons to see, leaning comfortably against a nearby tree, a young woman.

Hainault’s eyes went wide as he regarded her.

She was a true beauty.

She was easily as tall as he was, with long wavy red hair cascading over her left shoulder and down her side.

She had large green eyes that glinted, conveying an air of both innocence as well as something else... something mischievous. Her lips were full, and sporting as sly smile that made his knees weak.

She wore a simple red dress low cut and he found his gaze drifting. In response, she turned to him, leaning forward and by so doing improving his view.

“Quite the craftsman.” she said in amusement.

As the sound of her voice washed over him, Hainault felt as if a breeze could have blown him over. Had he been on his guard, he might have considered the possibility that the effect may have been magically induced.

“Yes, well...” he stammered, looking sheepishly from the mallet in his hand to the wheel, now broken clean away from the wagon.

The red-haired woman pushed herself off the tree trunk and sauntered forward. She strode right up to the half-elf, smiling prettily.

Hainault felt his face flushing as she approached, his whole body reacting to her proximity.

A sweet smell struck his nose. He couldn’t quite place what it reminded him of. Flowers surely, he thought, but there was something else. For the briefest moment, he fancied he caught the whiff of something sickly and foul lurking behind the floral scent.

“So handsome.” she remarked playfully, and all thoughts of scents and smells vanished from Hainault’s mind.

“The lady is too kind.” he said, fighting to regain some composure. “Are you from the town? I don’t think we’ve met.”

Indeed thought Hainault, he’d certainly have remembered seeing this one!

“Does it matter?” she replied, her voice a soft coo. She stepped closer, and reached for the open collar of his shirt, her pale fingers stroking the exposed skin of his chest.

“N...no.” replied Hainault hoarsely.

She kept her hand there for a moment longer, massaging. She stared into his eyes, and he fell into her spell. He found himself immobilized, fully ensnared by those green eyes, in them he saw comfort and cruelty, the promise of pleasures beyond his wildest imaginations.

She stepped away, beckoning. In a daze, he followed her.

Ulimë hadn’t gone far. In fact, she had simply walked the perimeter of the meadow, making sure to keep the overturned wagon in sight.

She had just made it around to the north side of the copse when she spied the red-haired woman.

Ulimë tensed; save for a few scattered trees, there was no cover in the meadow. How was this woman able to appear by the wagon without Ulimë noticing her approach?

That fact, and the woman’s obvious attentions regarding Hainault confirmed Ulimë’s hunch. She unslung Dolly and crept forward, silent as a cat.

She steadily moved forward, watching as the red-haired woman had begun stroking Hainault’s chest. From her angle, the red haired woman’s back was to Ulimë. In a few more seconds, she would be within three hundred paces.

There, Ulimë crouched. With a practiced grace, she drew a dart from the bandoleer she kept slung across her side. She set it, then pulled on the crannequin, drawing back the lathe of the arbalest with only a soft click.

She took aim... but just then the red-haired woman stepped away from Hainault and gestured him forward. The pair vanished behind the wagon, out of Ulimë’s sight.

“Damned fool.” she hissed in frustration, and set off as quickly and silently as possible.

Part of Hainault, a very, very small part of Hainault sounded alarms of warning in his mind at this unexpected event. However, the greater part of the rogue couldn’t believe his good fortune.

He lay on the wet ground, her straddling him. His hands hiking her skirts as he stroked her pale thighs.

She moaned softly atop him, then threw back her head. He felt himself utterly enthralled; he was drunk off of her, his mind swimming. He gasped for air, never before knowing such ecstasy.

Then he looked at her face.

Where a moment before, she’d had the face of a lovely young peasant girl, now a pair of small goatlike horns sprang from her forehead. Her eyes, previously shining with innocence, now glowed with a hungry malice. Her mouth opened in a smile, far too widely, revealing rows of razor-sharp teeth. She leered down at him, a feral growl rattling in her throat.

For a moment, Hainault simply smiled dreamily up at her, so caught under the effect of the monster’s glamour that he didn’t react. Then the smell returned to him, and suddenly he knew what it reminded him of.

Rotten flesh.

His face screwed up in horror as he realized his folly, and his doom.

The demon laughed in triumph, an eldritch sound both high pitched and deep at once. She reared, preparing to lunge down and tear out his throat...

Then suddenly, she was thrown sideways.

Hainault hesitated for a second; he turned to see the creature struggling back to her feet, shrieking in pain and rage, a feathered dart poking out of her side.

“Any time now hero.”

Hainault turned over to see Ulimë crouched behind a log, reloading Dolly.

He rolled, fumbling with his hose as he rose. He had set his belt along with his weapons aside just before, and he cursed his own stupidity as he lunged for them.

“Clever” snarled the monster, “But I’m not the kind of girl who shares.”

With that, she began to transform. her hands grew, her once delicate fingers curling out into cruelly hooked claws. With one sharp movement, she tore her dress away.

Both Hainault and Ulimë saw then that she had cloven hooves instead of feet. A long tail swished out behind her, but more striking were the pair of large, black bat wings that sprouted out from her back.

Ulimë fired again, but this time the demon; a succubus was ready. She launched herself into the air, letting loose a bloodcurdling screech.

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