Prologue: Of Past and Power
Torches flared in the night, first one, then half a dozen, then half a hundred. The dim light they provided glinted off dozens of pitchforks. Eyes glittered with the frenzied fervor of fanaticism. A man clad in black leather raised his voice to be heard over the restless murmurings of a bloodthirsty mob.
"My fellow townsmen, too long have we suffered the presence of this witch among us! For too long have we let her poison our crops and kill our animals!"
The crowd roared in response. Every day for the past week, a cow or boar had gone missing from a barn and later turned up dead on the outskirts of town. What distinguished these deaths from natural, aside from the frequency, was the fact that each and every one of the dead animals had been completely drained of blood. As for the crops, the poor yield of the harvest could be better attributed to a sparse rainy season than poison. But men prepared to murder, especially such a murder as this, attach as many atrocities to their victim as possible, so they can later say, "Look what she did! Didn't she deserve it?"
The black-clad man went on. "Thus far she's only taken your animals. But if we let her live, how long will it be till one of your sons or daughters falls victim to her vile machinations?!" This elicited a second roar from the crowd, this one rich with blood-lust. Unable to contain themselves anymore, the rabble began a disorderly charge from the square toward the outskirts. A particular house on the outskirts.
As they drew near the house, an ancient woman emerged from it, her back stooped almost double. Feeble as she was, she still had enough fire in her to spread her arms and block the doorway. "Please! Consider what you're doing! Are you men or animals?!" she pleaded, her thin voice nearly lost in the angry susurrus of the mob. Looking into their eyes, she found her answer: these men had cast their humanity aside for this night. They were no more than animals.
Except for one. Alone of the crowd, the black-clad man had retained control of himself. "Stand aside, woman," he commanded. "We're not here for you, and there's no reason for you to die tonight. I would not begrudge you the little time you have left."
Before she could decide whether to comply or not, a voice from the crowd shouted, "She sheltered the witch! I say kill her too!" Cries of agreement rose from all sides, and without warning, they charged. The crone felt her body pierced again and again by the tines of the forks, all over her body- her legs, her chest, her arms- it seemed to go on forever-
Then a fork came down on her thin skull and pierced to her brain. There was a single instant of silver-bright pain-
-and, for the last time, her vision went black.
The black-clad man stared down at the body with cold eyes. Though he would have been content to let her live, it was probably better this way. Turning back to the rout, he called, "The witch is no doubt inside! Come, men, and let us finish her!" Bellowing, the first four or five members of the mob dashed inside; the rest hung back, waiting on them to drag the witch out. In a few moments, they did so, to the pleasure of the black-clad man.
She lifted her tear-streaked face to stare at him. She was a little girl of about five, wearing the simple homespun dress that was common to most girl-children of the town. She had long blonde hair and, under normal circumstances, would have been an extraordinarily lovely child. But as she was, filthy, weeping, in the flickering torchlight, she looked awful.
The man gazed back into her blue eyes. She sought mercy in his face and found none.
He directed his gaze to the men holding her. "Burn her."
She screamed, a high-pitched keening wail that seemed to cut through the ears of those who heard it with an almost physical force. And then-
A man who had begun to stride toward her, brandishing his torch, suddenly burst into flame, as if he'd set himself on fire instead of his target. He screamed, dropped the torch, and fled toward the river. Even as he did so, another, then another, then half a dozen more at once did the same. The blood-lust of the mob dissipated rapidly into fear as man after man caught fire with seemingly no cause. However, as the last fled, the reason was revealed to the child: the same demon she had accidentally summoned a week ago, the same demon who was responsible for the dead animals, stood behind the rabble, shooting fireballs into their backs. She picked herself up from where her assailants had dropped her and turned to run- and nearly ran into the black-clad man.
He was a terrifying sight. He was on fire, every inch of his body seeming to be covered in flames- and yet he showed no reaction to it whatsoever. He reached for her-
Britni awoke with a gasp, sitting bolt upright. Sweat covered her lithe body, and she was shaking uncontrollably. The nightmare of her flight from Brinsford had plagued her long ago, but she hadn't suffered it for nearly a decade now. Why tonight? What had changed?
Knowing she would be unable to get back to sleep, she stood and began donning her gear; though she wore only cloth, most of it was enhanced with enchantments that not only made her harder to hit, but made her own attacks and spells more effective. Her demon had spirited her away from Brinsford that night, reaching her side with superhuman speed, seizing her, and teleporting a few hundred yards into the woods. She then laid low as the black-clad man, still burning yet- impossibly!- still alive, screamed at the sky in rage. He ran out of town, seemingly seeking her- but he ran in the wrong direction.
She had taken to the woods in earnest then, her demon hunting food for her, gradually learning to keep herself alive and safe in the wilderness. She became more adept at survival than any grizzled soldier or battle-hardened paladin. Revenge had not crossed her mind, then- staying alive had been her only priority. But as she became better and better at it, as she had to devote less and less attention to endurance and had more and more time to think, she had come to hate the black-clad man, and begun to devote her energies to seeking him.
She had also come to the conclusion that the power she wielded was inherently evil, and that through wielding it, she herself was evil. When she was young, the thought had bothered her quite a bit. But here, now, she had a rather different perspective: if doing what was necessary to live was evil, then she embraced it.
She finished gearing up and strapped her staff to her back, then began summoning her demon. Over the years, she had learned to control not merely the imp that had rescued her from Brinsford, but other, more powerful minions. Today, she summoned her felguard, which took the form of a huge, blue-skinned humanoid adorned in heavy armor and wielding a gigantic axe. That done, she shouldered her packs and mounted her horse. Consulting the map for the course she had laid out, she dug her heels into the horse's sides and rode south.