The Hölle District was constructed in the name of progress, the apotheosis of civilization, and was, by necessity, a place of fire, steel, and transmutation. When hell poured into Berlin, none could have imagined a positive outcome among its flames and darkened keepers.
Here, along one of its red-brick sidewalks, a faun advanced with singular purpose. A young woman, no longer a child but hardly yet an adult, shadowed her cloven hoofed master by a few steps behind. A handkerchief over her nose and mouth was of little defense against the sulfurous odor of tortured elements.
“Katja,” The faun maintained a steady saunter as he spoke. “What do you know of Hölle?”
“That it's hot and smells of rotten eggs.” she replied, her dreadful tone betraying misery. How any could live here was to her a mystery.
He sighed, rolling his horizontal pupils. “A comfortable environment has resulted in an entire species of whiners. Truly, you are the epitome of your race.”
Clearing his throat, the faun returned to his point. “Anyway. Kobolds were the first non-humans to be encountered by the German people - and they arrived with a bang. The ground ruptured, breathed fire, and grew to resemble the hell of human myth and superstition. Devils, your people thought, and your doomsayers for once seemed vindicated. Humanity struck first, though I am able to understand how they would have seen things differently, and thus ensued a dreadful bloodba-”
“The Massacre at Mitte. Falkenrath taught me about it.” she interrupted.
“Good! You've actually learned something, if not manners. May I please continue?”
“Of course, Mr. Pox. I apologize.”
“Right then. As I was saying...” he paused, his gaze falling upon a gathering of kith. “Eh. I'll save that tale for another time. I do believe we've arrived at the scene of the crime.”
Golems and pickelhelmed constables barred access to the alleyway. Faces grim, they moved aside to allow the pair to pass without speaking a word. The officers barked orders at the crowd, their demands for dispersal inadvertently luring more to the scene. Katja saw their gawking eyes peeping through the gaps between black uniforms and man shaped metal.
It was early, her tired eyes red from lack of sleep and the brimstone fumes of industrial transmuters. She stopped suddenly in her tracks, an audible gasp escaping her lips.
“You'll get used to this,” said Pox, donning a pair of rubber gloves. “Eventually.”
Katja was paralyzed. Her stomach churned and she covered her mouth against a rise of vomit. Loose skin and viscera cloaked the victim but a radiant light reflected from various fissures. Retrieving surgical scissors from his side satchel, Pox proceeded to snip through strings of sinew. The remaining epidermis unraveled with a sickening schlop, revealing a golden skeleton preserved mid-contortion.
Averting her gaze, Katja leaned up against a soot-stained wall. Pox had already begun to speak while she scrambled to find a notebook and pencil.
“Decedent resembles human female. Dark hair; fair skin; facial features unrecognizable. Clothing has merged with what little flesh is left. I am able to discern the remnants of a corset among the mess. Possibly a skirt as well. Nothing else. Soles of the feet are well preserved; heavily calloused and blackened by grime. I also detect the heavy aroma of cheap perfume – something obnoxiously French. Victim was likely a prostitute and one that was fairly active in this district. Will likely find many who were familiar with her, if there was only some way to identi- ”
Pox stilled his tongue, shifting all attention to the soft remains which he lifted from the ground and unfurled, letting the flayed hide flutter like a banner in the wind. Katja turned to the wall and vomited.
“Toughen up, girl. Take a closer look.” said Pox, responding to the noise of slurry on stone.
Katja wiped breakfast from her lips. After a moment of mental preparation, she turned to face his ghastly display. It was a grotesque effigy of the woman that once was, distorted by lack of shape and substance. Pox pulled the skin, rendering it taut and its details more perceivable. There were deep cuts and lesions; they had not healed well but they had at least healed.
“Scars?” She hoped her answer was enough to satisfy that persnickety old goat.
“Explicate. Remember what I told you before.”
“Scars...” She paused, mindful of his expectations. “Scars tell a story. They represent the history of an individual and their relationship to others, as well as their environment.”
“Close enough but what do you see? Read the scars. Be precise.”
“The scars aren't too distinctive. Lots of cuts – probably from a knife. This woman likely lived a traumatic life. And what's that? Above her left breast. It doesn't look like the others.”
Pox turned over the husk and studied the mark. His yellow eyes narrowed and then abruptly expanded. “A brand.”
“Someone branded her?”
“Quite crudely. It appears to be the letter M.”
“But why?” A question almost childlike in its innocent naivety; it felt out of place among the blood and flesh and that auric enigma.
“Because they could. It is not unheard of for a pimp to mark their so-called 'property'.”
Katja shifted her gaze to the golden statue. “Okay. So - cause of death?”
“Death by chrysopoeia. Human transmutation. I've only ever heard of them happening in industrial accidents. A worker falling into a live transmutator – that sort of thing.”
“Putting the 'how' aside for a moment – but why wasn't the rest of her converted?”
“An astute observation! That, however, is outside my area of expertise. We'll have the body delivered to Shimndglurm. That old kobold will know what to make of it.”