The first body turned up, or so I was given to understand, two months to the day before my arrival in Debronshire.
The first of many.
Found smoldering in the back of a dank alley, where the miasma of rotted offal and stale urine had served temporarily to mask the aroma of cooked flesh, it was purportedly a sight terrible to behold. Hair, clothes, skin—all these were entirely absent, as though they had never been. Eyes and blood had boiled away, flesh blackened thoroughly enough to flake away beneath the faintest breeze, and even the bones were cracked and scorched. To say the poor fellow had burned to death was understatement of the grossest order, for the flames that had inflicted such damage were akin to a simple “fire” in much the same manner the greatest zweihander is akin to a “knife.”
A small city of a few thousand souls, cosmopolitan Debronshire was no stranger to violent murder, but a killing of such grotesquery was shocking in the extreme. Still, after a brief bout of sensationalist and salacious rumor-mongering, the populace’s attention, truly a flighty and fickle thing, was drawn elsewhere.
Until, of course, the second such killing.
And the third. And the fourth.
All like the first: utterly destroyed by fire, practically cremated alive.
They called him the Dragon, for want of any truer name, and certainly it seemed apt. More so, it was a powerful image indeed for this city in particular.
Debronshire is rich in copper, thanks to the deep and generous mines of neighboring Mount Kellan. Debronshire is also rich in trade and culture, due to its seat along the single highway that cuts through the mighty range of which Kellan is only a single part.
But most of all, Debronshire is rich in folklore.
Their stories tell of the fey, the Fair Folk who dwell in the forests and the mountains, though this is hardly unique to Debronshire. Their tales tell as well of witches most hideous and child-eating ogres, but these, too, are common.
Debronshire’s single greatest folktale, one the citizens take great pride in relating to outsiders, is that of the dragon of Kellan. So long ago that even one’s grandparents’ grandparents had not yet been born—or so the tale inevitably begins—what was then the tiny town of Debronshire, and all the lands within uncountable leagues, were the domain of the great wyrm who dwelt in the mountain. It was an appalling beast, to which the various tales of drakes and dragons did no justice. Its scales were blackest iron, its fangs the swords of giants, its fires the products of the Devil’s own Hell. And beneath its terrible reign, the men and women of Debronshire and everything around it suffered horribly.
Yet in time even the dragon of Kellan grew old and tired. No longer did the scent of boiling blood excite it; no longer did it delight to see the people flee in maddened terror beneath its merest shadow. And to the wonderment of the people of Debronshire, it offered to them a proposal. In exchange for regular tribute, it would cease to trouble the lands surrounding Mount Kellan, and would even protect its “vassals,” such as they were, from other marauding threats. Then the dragon crawled back into its endless, bottomless lair, never to be seen again.
Nobody believes the tale, of course, any more than they believe other fairytales told to children at bedtime or around campfires to pass the night. But still the story is a source of great pride, even cultural identity, to the folk of Debronshire. It has inspired many of the city’s sculptures, and even the crest that rises above their gates. It is as much a part of them as their actual recorded history.
So when this killer chose the dragon’s weapon with which to work his bloody purpose, assumed the wyrm’s mantle, the citizens of Debronshire could not help but pay him great attention. It was ingrained within their very nature.
Now, nine victims and nearly as many weeks from the moment it started, the leaders of Debronshire had called for an assembly of their nobles, their most prominent citizens, the heads of guilds and merchant houses. They gathered together in an open hall, within the House of Meeting. Their finery was stained with sweat, their eyes darted nervously from one to another, their anxious voices reverberated from the heavy walls of stone. For all their fine perfumes, the air in the hall stank largely of fear.
I know this, for I was there. No nobleman of Debronshire, I, nor merchant, nor guildmaster… yet the guards did not forbid me entrance. I am, after all, not without my wiles.
At the head of the hall, upon a hastily constructed podium of wood, a quartet of elders called the assembly to order. Rupert Sterling, Lord Mayor of Debronshire, in his baggy robes of office, his graying hair slicked back with oil and sweat. Braham Bancroft, Sterling’s Chief Officer of the Treasury, a black-haired gent thin as a reed and possessed of as much personality. Father Donovan, high priest of the largest of Debronshire’s many cathedrals, present no doubt to comfort the restless stirrings of the flock. And Shelton Raines, leader of the militia—and I use that term with great generosity—assembled from amongst the citizenry in hopes of tracking down this Dragon. In real life, Raines was an apothecary, drafted into this duty purely because he was one of the city’s few experienced military officers, having served king and country for most of his youth.
It was no mere chance that called the assembly to order now on this day, but rather deliberate purpose. Lord Mayor Sterling required the words and advice of every man present, for the Dragon had finally deigned to contact His Honor by means of a heavy parchment note, tucked into the gaping mouth of the most recent corpse.
The precise wording of the missive I have never heard, for I came somewhat late to the assembly, but by keeping my ears wide and my teeth together, I had come to understand the gist well enough. In it, the base murderer called himself “a dragon of the new generation,” and demanded that, as in the fairy tale from days of old, a great tribute be delivered unto him lest Debronshire continue to burn beneath his wrath.
The man knew his audience; that, at least, I had to grant him.
Long I listened to the debates and the arguments rage, covering the same points over and again like dogs marking their territory. And then, finally, when I decided that I’d had enough....
The words carried through the chamber, crushing the squabbling voices beneath them, as clear to the farthest ear as they were to the men on either side of me. No great secret, this, just a small trick I’d picked up in my travels, but one that never failed to grab attention.
When every eye in the room had turned upon me, I shoved my way forward that I might stand before the podium. “I would like to address you worthies, if I may.”
“Who might you be, sir?” his Honor the Lord Mayor demanded of me.
“Merely a traveler, good sir, a humble latecomer to your city and your assembly both. I had come hoping only to study your folklore, my Lord, but as I seem now to be caught in the midst of a new tale, I thought I might offer my assistance.”
“And how, pray tell, do you feel you can assist us?”
“First, my Lord, a question if I may, as I was indeed late to these proceedings. How much, precisely, has this monster demanded of your fair city?”
It was Bancroft who told me, and I will confess that even I was somewhat surprised at the amount.
“Madness!” It was Father Donovan, now, who spoke. “Why, even if we could assemble so much—and a fair question it is, if we can manage it!—it would bankrupt Debronshire entire! It’s an irrational demand!”
I could not help but chuckle. “Perhaps, good Father, rationality is something you should not expect from a man who would burn his neighbors alive.”
Then, once more to the Lord Mayor, “Your Honor, I have mastered many a skill, and many secrets, in my time. I would be willing to lend my efforts at hunting down and stopping this killer, in exchange for—oh, say, half the sum total of his demanded ransom?”
I expected the murmurs and whispers that flowed through the room at that, but still I had to bite my lips to keep from smiling at them.
“Who do you think you are, sir?” This time, Shelton Raines, the man most directly responsible for the efforts to locate the Dragon—and, arguably, for their failure. “Who are you, to claim yourself capable of such a thing? Why should we trust you, an avowed outsider, at all? For all we know, you yourself could be this Dragon, hoping to trick us out of yet more coin!”
“As to that, you need merely speak with the guards at your eastern gate. They will attest to my arrival less than a week gone by. I could not, therefore, be responsible for murders that occurred prior to that, could I?”
Raines mumbled something unintelligible.
“And as to trusting me, what have you to lose? Should I succeed in bringing this madman to justice, I’ll have proven myself capable. And if I should fail? Then you owe me nothing.”
They spoke amongst themselves for a time, and I left my gaze fixed upon them, ignoring the curious stares from those around me. When they turned their attention back toward me, I already knew their answer. Raines looked unhappy still, but I could tell by the look in the others’ eyes that they had agreed to accept my proposal. Doubtless they thought me, a new-come stranger, incapable of doing as I promised, but were willing to grasp at any straw, no matter how thin and feeble. After all, as I had said, they lost nothing if I proved powerless.
Powerless I was not, but I did choose to omit one particular detail, one at which they would have been ill-pleased. I would have to wait before I could find their Dragon.
I would have to wait until he killed once more.
Still, I thought that I would not be waiting long, and in this the Dragon proved me right. Apparently perturbed at the results of the assembly—or rather, the lack of result in that no tribute was immediately forthcoming—he struck again the following day. His victim was found not in some impoverished lane nor back alley, as were most of the others, but instead on the steps of a building across from the House of Meeting itself, smoldering amidst a pile of half-charred skirts and familial jewelry. I never heard the name of the woman so brutally slain, but by the tears on the face of the normally emotionless Bancroft, I reckoned it was someone he knew.
Ignoring his accusing glare, for I have been subjected to worse and by better, I pushed my way through the assembling crowd so that I might more closely examine the body. Burned to the bone, bereft of flesh, as all the others had been. This I expected, but was not what I sought.
I knelt low, far more closely than the others would have gotten, as I wished none of the bystanders to see the precise method I used to trace the murderer. A moment was all it took, and then....
Yes. Yes, I could do it. I could find him.
I ignored the puzzled looks as I had ignored the others, and departed. I wanted neither for any to follow me, nor to take the time for explanations—all of which would have been lies anyway—so I simply glared at anyone who drew too near. They fell back, as people always did. There is, I think, something of my past to be seen in my eyes.
So, I made my way from the House of Meeting, and indeed from the bustling center of Debronshire. The roads beneath my feet turned from smooth cobblestones to rough, and from rough to tightly packed dirt before I found my destination.
It was a simple storefront, wood paneling over older stone construction. To judge by every other such establishment in which I’d ever been, the lower level would prove the shop itself, with the proprietor’s living quarters above.
I would not find what I sought in any public room, and I preferred not to give my quarry any time to prepare. Rather than the door, I thought it best to make my entrance via a window on the second storey.
But not now. Not here in the light of day. I wanted no witnesses to my efforts. I would have to wait, but no matter. I can be patient as the mountains, when needs be.
With the fall of night and a thick blanket of clouds pulled up to keep the moon snug and comfortable, came my opportunity. Entry was swift, simple, and I found myself in a modest bedroom. The mattress was unmade, and daily washing could not quite remove the scent of the chamber pot in the far corner.
Still, neither what I sought nor whom were to be found here. That, again, was just fine. The structure boasted limited space to hide after all, and I still had my trail to follow.
Perhaps the inner chamber would have been hidden from most searchers, but it was not to me. And once within, I found exactly what I’d anticipated.
Bottles. Beakers. Vials. Burners. Chemicals that bubbled, chemicals that boiled, chemicals that smoked, chemicals that reeked and set the eyes to watering.
And above all, chemicals that burned, with a flame hotter than any torch or lantern, a flame that would burn until it died a natural death. Neither wind, nor water, nor the thrashings of those who died within its blistering embrace would put it out.
I paced before the worktable for a few moments, marveling at the killer’s ingenuity. Then, because I grew tired of waiting—I can be patient, but I like it not—I tipped an empty beaker off the edge of the table. It shattered on the floor with a most satisfying sound, and I heard footsteps upon the stairs almost immediately. Putting my back to the array of alchemical accoutrements, I awaited the opening of the door.
His face, when the secret portal flew open to reveal me standing in his “hidden” sanctum, was priceless to behold.
“I did tell you that you ought to trust my abilities,” I said to him. His only response was to gape further still.
“I must say, it’s not without its brilliance, as such schemes go,” I continued when it became clear he had nothing yet to say. “But I wonder... Did you expect to be made leader of the militia assigned to hunt you down? Or was that simple happy coincidence?”
Shelton Raines, apothecary, veteran, extortionist, and murderer, finally found his breath to speak. “What do you think of you’ve accomplished, stranger?” he asked of me in a voice that was probably meant to intimidate. “By all means, go. Run for the Lord Mayor. Accuse me. What proof do you expect to remain by the time you return? And should it come down to my word against yours....” He allowed his words to trail away into a rather manic grin, no doubt assuming he had made his point.
I must admit, I rather enjoyed seeing that smile fall away when I replied to his arrogant boast. “I shall have plenty of time to gather everyone who might care to view the evidence—once you’re dead.”
He lunged at me, then, with a maddened cry. Whether he thought to overpower me with his military experience, or simply hoped to win past long enough to grab one of his beakers of liquid death, I cannot say. It mattered little, for it was no effort at all to hurl him back whence he came. The entire house shook with his impact against the wall—I can, at times, forget my own strength—and he cried out as he sank into a boneless heap.
“Why?” he begged of me as I strode closer to him. “You’re a stranger here! An outsider! These people are nothing to you! Why are you doing this?”
I stood over him, glaring down, and allowed just a sliver of my true anger to show.
“Because whatever sins may be laid at my feet, little man, I have always kept my promises.”
One last flicker of the tongue, to capture the change in his scent as the fear washed over him, and then I reached deep inside myself, deep within the embers that ever burned within my soul regardless of my chosen form, and breathed.
A fitting end, if ever a man has had one.
I watched for a few moments, to ensure the fire would not spread beyond the corpse itself. I did, after all, need the Lord-Mayer and the others to witness the evidence I’d found. Only after the flames died out did I turn about to leave, to go collect the first of my new tributes.
The first of many.