Constable Zizzy stood before yet another crime scene, yet another display of pointless brutality serving no purpose higher than pain and suffering. Echoes of the raw agony suffered here dragged across her nerves like nails across a chalkboard. She found herself constantly surprised by this feeling; ordinarily, the pain and suffering of mankind failed to move her. After all, the Hells she was summoned from -- and by extension, she herself -- existed for the sole purpose of cleansing the sins of the damned by returning to them all the suffering they’d inflicted during their lives.
This scene, though, like all the others, was different; this was no ordinary predator inflicting ordinary suffering on an ordinary victim. Like others of her kind, Zizzy was able to sense the good and evil inherent in the souls of Man, and even through the remnants imprinted on the crime scene, two things stood out to her: the Defiler was evil, and his victims were innocent.
Despite her agitation, Zizzy kept her wings furled and her tail tucked around her waist; she was the picture of calmness as she took in the sight before her. The scene had already been documented, of course; the local township -- called Hat for some reason not even the residents could remember -- had a handful of retired, yet still competent, Wardens who took every pain to record the scene. But Zizzy wasn’t here to observe those details; if she were, she could have reviewed their meticulous report.
The details she sought weren’t sounds, or smells, or sights, and her attempts to explain them to her mortal peers, even those among the Wardens, had all fallen short. It was more like the heat from a fire that warmed the skin, but it came with flavors, and she could feel it through clothing. All living things emanated such energies to varying intensities, and every person’s trace was different. On top of every person’s unique signature came impressions of a person’s emotions and feelings to which her heritage sensitized her. People were constantly giving off these signals, and if they were particularly intense, objects and places around them could echo the signals for some time.
What she could sense did not tell the entire tale by itself, but it added vital context to what she already knew from the Wardens’ report. The crushed chair and the broken table reeked of outrage and surprise, most likely that of the victim, whose body was still cooling in the evening air. The slashed tunic he wore gave off desperation; so too did the shattered plank of wood, one half of which was still in the decedent’s grip. His body, riddled with shattered fragments of his own bone, stank of suffering and malice alike, a pall that hung like a miasma through the entire room.
Again, the Defiler lived up to his title. Nothing in this room was spared the marks of the Defiler’s passing; though Zizzy was used to seeing this level of brutality in connection with ritual sacrifice and the like, there was no evidence of such acts here. There were no ritual circles with lingering traces of Mana, no blood sigils and no patterns denoting any sort of language. At least no language known to Man or Demonkind. She could not completely rule out the possibility of The Defiler using some sort of ritual runes from his own world in the smattering of bloody mess spread amongst the random sprays, but she did not think that was the case. She sensed no Faith or Mana based magics from the scrawling lines.
She knelt down by the man’s body, sniffing the air. The blood, like the corpse, was still warm; she was closing in, gradually whittling away the Defiler’s lead as he killed night after night. A silver pin covered in blood lay on the floor next to the body, marking the young man as an Adept in the Storm Breakers. The outline of the broken stormcloud was just visible under the blood. The young mage had not had it long enough for his feeling of pride and accomplishment to wear off, and his emotive essence made the symbol stand out, shiny and gold to Zizzy’s senses even through the coating of blood.
She heard footsteps approaching the door to the room and stood, turning to greet the other Warden.
“Every head in the village is accounted for, Constable.” The man looked tired even beyond his middling years, certainly never expecting such tragedy to interrupt his comfortable posting. He shook his head with weary sadness. “Tarma hadn’t been stationed at the local array very long; less than a year. But we all liked him. The village midwife, Miss Landi Pael, is the only one not here. She’s up the valley at Middle Gates deliverin’, but I’ve questioned everyone else.”
“And not a soul saw or heard anything in the early morning, just like the others,” Zizzy replied.
“Not a thing.” The man sighed in resignation. “I never thought I’d have to send a letter like this back to the mainland. I think his family is in Meadowspire, but the Breakers will know for sure.”
“The failure is mine, Senior Warden. Have his personal effects delivered to my office at Stormbreak and I’ll see to notifying the family.” She stepped out of the room, letting her wings finally spread out and relax while her tail whipped in nervous agitation. “I have to get ahead of him, Warden. The road splits just north of Hat; where do the forks lead?”
“Well, the coastal road keeps on following the shoreline for sixty or so miles to Twelve Oaks and their array. It’s bigger than the standard ones, and the next upstream link for our lesser array here at Hat.”
“And the eastern fork?”
“That cuts over Bald Rock Road, through a bunch of gullies and switchback canyons heading to the interior of the island. Can’t take a cart over it but it can get you to Ridgewater in a day’s travel on foot.”
Zizzy stood still for a moment, deep in thought. “Ridgewater doesn’t have an array...but it sits on the road to Southpeak. They’ve drafted older students through the old treaties so they can fire the entire array, and they’ll be travelling under guard.”
“Twelve Oaks has a chapter-house retreat for [Paladins] on pilgrimage to get their Blessing from Asima, Constable,” the Warden informed her. His expression gained a rather grim and eager light. “If he heads there, his story will end.”
“We can hope,” she muttered. After a moment’s thought, she nodded. “I’m going to Ridgewater to try to get ahead of him,” she said with a stretch of her wings. “If he goes to Twelve Oaks I'd just get in the way. And if I catch the wrong end of a thrown Holy Judgement, well…” She shuddered at the thought of being anywhere near a Holy Warrior throwing down Divine enhanced abilities. “He doesn’t leave traces when he travels, so tracking him directly is right out. But a bunch of students fresh from the academy, travelling scared? That’s a tempting target.”
“How do you know he won’t simply go around, Constable?”
“I don’t. But he’s taken over thirty victims so far since Purple Night. He has to be close to a Class Specialization into something even nastier, if not already past one. I have to get to him before he gets too strong for me to take him.”
She snapped her wings and leapt into the sky, barely hearing the man calling out to wish her good luck and good hunting. Winds from the approaching storm buffeted the succubus as she climbed over the township, but her magical nature permitted her to cut through them with ease. By the time she reached a thousand feet over the village, she could see past the ridgeline to the western sea. Though the worldstorm was still hundreds of leagues away, she found herself staggered by its size and ferocity. The wall of inky clouds whipped the ocean into a roiling froth, and smaller storms spun off to wreak their own devastation. Flashes of wild Mana arced through the steely thunderheads, illuminating the distant darkness with impressions of eldritch shadows moving within the storm. It was a stark reminder of what was at stake: by threatening the Storm Breakers, the Defiler threatened the entire continent.
As she winged her way north and west to head inland, Zizzy activated one of the enchantments she had had placed on her uniform. She felt the magic settle against her body, and knew she had just become transparent; nearly invisible to mundane sight. A static light-bending camouflage enchantment was simple enough for even student [Mages] to make; however, hers was of a caliber that allowed her to move while maintaining the effect. Gliding in near-silence, she rode the winds from the approaching storm, climbing above the rocky craigs after less than an hour of travel.
As she crested the ridge, she could make out a town to the northeast, sprawling at the intersection of one broad roadway paved with time-worn stone cobbles that bisected a sprawling community of thatched-roof buildings. The avenue ended in a wide circular lot with smaller roads heading southwards in half a dozen directions. Several stone bridges crossed the rushing water below the ridge that gave the town its name, and to the north she could see a large caravan slowly making its way towards the town. Evening approached, and the lengthening shadows lent the entire scene an eerie ambiance from her lofty vantage point.
For a few minutes, as she flew, Zizzy contemplated informing the Wardens guarding the convoy of her plan. But every person that knows could betray my plan, and I have no idea what this monster looks like, who he could be…
No, she decided as she settled onto a rooftop next to the north gates of the city, still shrouded in the effects of the magical cloaking enchantment. Better to surprise everyone, and not just him.
With inhuman patience, she waited until the convoy of guarded wagons passed through the stone entrance. Tired young men and women in various colors of robes denoting their academic affiliations sat in the open wagons or took turns walking beside them. Dipping further into her demonic abilities, it was a trivial thing to slip into the group. A quick drop to an alley before they passed, a quiet furling of her wings back inside her tunic. Her golden braids darkened to a milk-chocolate brown then flowed down into tousled locks, and her skin likewise went from pale cream to an islander’s tan. As if sculpting herself, the succubus ran her hands down her bust to enlarge her chest while a wriggle of her hips rounded out her posterior, her tail vanishing through the slot in her trousers. The enchanted attire proved its worth, responding to her intent while her badge and signature hat slipped into an enchanted storage pouch on her belt. The colors of her uniform faded from a formal grey to a more well-worn brown befitting a dusty and road-weary student of magic, pants tightening around her curves while the buttons of her tunic strained at holding her bosom, seemingly ready to fail at any moment. A cloak from her utility pouch completed the disguise as she shed inches from her height.
A short and mousey brunette with wide, innocent eyes and a figure that would cause any mother to hide her sons casually flounced out of the alleyway to join the passing pack of students. A wizened but burly Master with a golden emblem of a broken storm clasping his cloak at one shoulder looked across his group of charges. His gaze lingered a moment on Zizzy, and he reached for one of the many flasks on his belt before recognition dawned on his face. He remained silent, and she nodded respectfully. One did not reach the rank of Master in the Breakers without a hefty amount of Intellect.
“Groups of three at a minimum,” he growled as the students began to disperse towards the inn, its windows casting a warm and inviting light into the chill evening air. “Don’t wander off, not even to use the facilities, just like last night.”
Zizzy paid no attention to the murmuring gossip and whispers of the students, but she did listen to the general tone. Older students feigned bravery and boldness, as much to impress the younger as to mask their own feelings of fear and nervousness. A less experienced succubus -- a less experienced demon -- would have found the aura given off by the anxious younglings to be a nectar too sweet to resist, and she was counting on the Defiler feeling the same way. She slipped into a chair next to two timid girls, quietly pretending to eat from the tray of meats and cheese offered to the mages. They offered no conversation, and Zizzy was silently grateful that she wouldn’t have to play a role. While playing to the fantasies of others was instinctual to any succubus, she had spent decades growing into her own maturity of personality. Even without the geas from her unknown master, she would have preferred older, more deserving prey.
The meal passed without consequence, quiet and hushed conversations carrying on between different groups of students. Armored and well-armed [Fighter]- and [Brawler]-type guards surrounded the building, with experienced [Scout] and [Ranger] lookouts watching the perimeter. All should have been well. But Zizzy’s instincts -- naturally honed far past any mortal ability, and further refined by decades of experience tracking nefarious criminals through myriad situations -- were screaming inside her head.
As the Master instructed, the students traveled in threes when they had to go anywhere -- including the facilities. The girls she had attached themselves to, after doing the same, slowly made their way back to the room selected for them. The need for security drew out the process of getting the students settled in, and it was well past midnight before her pair settled on their shared bunk, tossing and turning as sleep slowly took them.
Sisters, I’m sure, she thought to herself. And far too young for this.
Hours passed in what was, for Zizzy, a mixture of nervous waiting and the calm anticipation of the predator waiting for its prey. Her keen senses brought to her the snoring and other nocturnal sounds typical of a large group of travellers, especially the romantic couples that normally would have definitely piqued her unique interests. The building grew even more quiet as the hours drew on; as the eastern horizon slowly began to brighten, she could hear the kitchen staff rummaging through cupboards and beginning preparations for the morning meal. Her innocent charges had finally succumbed to sleep, entwined on their bed and exhausted from the pallor of fear that had likely followed the group all the way from Stormbreak.
While her demonic nature let her go longer than most without certain physical requirements, she still had to tend to the needs of her own body eventually. Silently, she made her way out of the room to the facilities at the end of the hall, partly in hopes that a solitary student would appear more inviting to The Defiler. Nothing projected an air of vulnerability better than actual vulnerability, so her trip to tend to her needs was not faked. She lingered in the washroom for a few extra heartbeats, but nothing changed in the building to her senses.
She exited the restroom and spied the Master, who stood watching the hallway. As she passed, he placed his hand on her shoulder to stop her.
“Nearly didn’t recognize you, Constable,” he rumbled, taking pains to keep his voice low so as not to prematurely wake his charges. “Makes me more comfortable knowing you’re here. And your partner, too; suppose Stormbreak saw the risk and sent you with backup.”
Zizzy shook her head in automatic negation. “I work alone. None are my equal.” A moment passed before horror slowly stole over her expression.
The Master, seeing her paling face, grew tense. “There were two extra students when we passed into Ridgewater. If the other wasn’t your partner, then--”
As Zizzy’s eyes widened, twin bolts of agony and suffering broke over her senses, sending her staggering into the wall. “M-Master Breaker--!”
The Breaker reacted, drawing a clear crystal the size of his thumb from a pocket in his cloak, hurling it to the ground. As it broke, a sound like a massive gong echoed throughout the building and beyond, shouts and cries going up immediately afterward.
The succubus let her disguise fade, body flowing smoothly back into its natural shape as she pelted towards the source of the feelings – the room she had just left.
I can’t sense him! she realized, a flash of insight dashing her like a cold bucket of water. And he can’t sense me! We are both hunters, drawn to our prey and not each other! What she could sense in horrifyingly exquisite detail, however, was the reverberating waves of horror, pain, trauma, and weak outrage emanating ahead.
Drawing on the power afforded her by the hellfire coursing through her veins, she smashed through the wall into the room beyond, wood crumbling into splinters before her implacable might. The sound was somehow muted, even standing as she was in its midst. He has a muffling Skill! That’s why--
She took in the scene without slowing down as she burst into the room. Before her stood a tableau so wretched it might have been born from a nightmare, from the hell that gave birth to Zizzy herself: one girl lay curled on her side, clutching at her throat while blood-tinged froth bubbled at her lips and painted a crimson hook on the floor ahead of her. She hacked and coughed, trying to draw breath through her own viscera while she looked helplessly at her sister.
The other screamed, raw and animalistic even in the soundless space, at a writhing, shadowy form that sat both atop her and in the air above her. It resolved into the twisted form of what had once been a man, but was no longer, feral and lengthened in a wholly unnatural way.
Zizzy leapt forward, raising her hands, the air ahead of them wavering before her heated aura. The Defiler’s free hand rose as well, catching the onrushing succubus by the face, ignoring both her snarls and the way she wrenched at his forearm.
As he resolved further, his other arm tensed and jerked back, parting the girl’s belly with a sick, wet sound and splitting her from sternum to crotch, a fresh wave of agony rolling out from the girl as she screamed anew, audible now as he laid aside whatever Skill he had been using.
His bloody arm reached under the ragged garment he still wore, crushing something over the girl’s horrific wound as Zizzy drew her legs up to kick him in the side, tearing herself from his grip. Whatever he crushed over the girl had immediate and terrifying effect, forcing the misaligned, tattered flesh and bone to heal in place, further intensifying the girl’s agony. The sheer power of the pain nearly broke Zizzy’s composure as she was exposed to its full extent.
“I chose them because you did,” the beast who was once a man growled, his voice guttural and sharp. He disappeared into the room’s shadow only to emerge to her left, this time assuming the guise of a male student she had sat beside mere hours before. “You smell...different,” he continued, voice now cooler and smooth, almost curious. “Not afraid. Your magic, too. It hisses and burns.”
He’s managed a Class Evolution or gained a shifting skill already! The thought trickled through her being like ice water down her back. To face a [Mage-Eater] was dangerous in its own right, but ultimately simple enough once you mitigated their ability. This particular [Mage-Eater], however, had obviously unlocked a more sinister specialization for whatever his particular Class was, amplifying him into an even more formidable opponent. Dread filled the Constable, but she could not back down.
“I’ve got more for you,” she replied, voice low and dangerous. Her tail flickered out, looping around his ankle. Her hands grew longer, palms and fingers elongating as her nails slid into claws, burning with a sulfurous light that was mirrored in her wings. She leapt forward as her tail yanked the man’s leg out from under him, raising her claws to strike.
He fell and rolled with inhuman agility, dropping his glamour once again to rise as the feral beast, wreathed in shadow. So fast! she thought in shock. He’s even faster than me! As he rose, he yanked on her tail, spinning her around and drawing a bark of pain from her throat to add to the distressed wailing of the crippled girls.
He got both hands on her tail, strengthening his grip, and Zizzy barely had time to realize what he was doing before he tore at her spine, flooding her with agony as she collapsed against the wall. Stronger than I thought, she whimpered to herself as all feeling abandoned her legs, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
She felt the man shift as one booted foot planted itself firmly between her shoulder blades, aborting her attempt to push herself away. He leaned in and took hold of her wing, and a long tearing sound and fresh waves of pain preceded one burning wing settling to the ground. Never before had she had to square off against someone with such physical strength, always relying on speed or surprise or emotional manipulation to level the playing field. Panic began to rise like bile in her throat as the weight of her mistake crashed down around her.
As a demon, death didn’t mean the same thing for her as it did for mortals; instead of cessation, she would ‘merely’ face banishment to the Hells for a time, a fate which she had hitherto avoided for a half-century. She was saved from that ordeal – as a succubus, she knew there were fates worse than death (a notion the two girls on the floor might object to, if they could) – by a sudden ring of steel and throaty shouts as someone else burst into the room, drawing the Defiler’s attention.
Thankful for the brief reprieve, Zizzy slid down the wall and rolled towards the center of the room, her healing abilities already working to repair her spine and patch over the stump of her wing, a process which sent bolts of lightning up her spine from her hips to her back. The severed wing had disappeared into motes of hellfire, already fading, and Zizzy knew it would be days before she could take wing again.
She saw the Master standing beside someone she didn’t recognize, facing down the Defiler. The newcomer brandished a mace, bringing it down it in a savage arc and activating a Skill which made it glow briefly with an inner light. The Defiler brought his arm up to block the strike, but his limb crumpled before the heavy blow with a sickening crunch. He snarled, turning to merge with the shadows, but the Master whipped a vial from his cloak. It broke against his body before he could disappear, evoking a sizzling sound as his shadow-wreathed flesh began to melt. He howled, a savage, bestial sound as he turned and burst through the window and out into the pre-dawn twilight.
Nobody bothered giving chase; the moment he left, he was gone, the trail cold before it began. Her failure burned in her mind, almost as hot as her own wounds and the slowly-fading – too slowly – agony of the girls before her.
The girl who could still move did so, weakly coughing as she dragged a cloak over her sister’s ruined form, attempting to give her some measure of dignity in their remaining moments.
Though Zizzy wasn’t a mage herself, she could feel the ragged edges of their magical essences as they shriveled and faded away. It was a sad truth that the life-force of those who use magic – anyone alive – was inextricably linked to that core. To remove it is to promise death, with the cold inexorability of the tides. She could feel the girls’ life slowly fade, bleeding drop by drop, into that abyss.
She dragged herself with agonizing slowness towards the girls, gathering them in her arms, whispering meaningless platitudes, promises she couldn’t fulfill. Her skills, though geared towards the taking of life, did permit some flow in the other direction. She husbanded her stamina and poured it into the girls, and she could feel their weak gratitude, even though her efforts delayed the inevitable by only a few, fleeting moments. Bereft of the ability to hold mana, her gift trickled through the cracks, fading into the nothingness that reached out. The girls’ desperate stares burned into Zizzy’s face with a hopeless intensity, their pleading expressions nearly breaking her heart as oblivion smoothed them, stealing the breath from their lungs, the light from their eyes, and finally, the last, lingering spark of their lives. So clutching was oblivion’s grasp that, before it retreated, it nearly took Zizzy as well.
She sat there, breath frozen in her chest as she looked down at the two slowly-cooling bodies – silent rebukes, silent testaments to her failure – and wept like a broken-hearted child.
A world away, a dungeon burned.
A world away, a titan woke.
And in the here and now, on the back of a Constable’s hand, a [Seal of the Oracle] flared into brilliant light.