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Valla smelled the rotting dead from a mile away.
The air was warm despite the clouds that blanketed Khanduras as the demon hunter arrived in what was left of Holbrook—once a tiny, struggling farm community, now a deserted ghost town. Or so it seemed; the heavy stench of putrification suggested that the residents were still present, just not among the living.
Valla's mentor, Josen, stood in the center of the village, considering a pile of debris: scattered mason stones, upturned rock and soil.
He was dressed in the attire of the demon hunters' calling. The soft light reflected dully off the plate armor that adorned half his body. His twin crossbows were slung from his thighs, within easy reach. His hood was down, and his cloak snapped in the gusting wind.
Valla was clothed in similar fashion, the greatest difference being the long, dark scarf she wore that even now covered the lower half of her face. The sawyer's daughter slowed her horse, dismounted, and waited for a moment, silent and still, assessing.
There was a barely discernible, persistent hum. The only signs of life came from Josen and two other hunters, one searching the derelict structures, another standing near a rundown storehouse. Whatever had happened here, they were too late to do anything about it. Now it was a matter of looking for survivors. That was, after all, the second most important thing her people did: feed and shelter those left homeless in the aftermath of unthinkable catastrophe. Guide them, encourage them, heal them, educate and train them... to do the most important thing, should they so choose: become a demon hunter and annihilate the hellspawn responsible for evils like this.
Josen continued studying the rubble intently as Valla approached. "I came as quickly as I could," she stated, lowering her scarf.
The faint thrumming sound droned on. Josen's eyes remained fixed.
"We should not be here." His voice was loose gravel. "Had Delios succeeded in his task, we would not be here." His shimmering eyes finally met hers. "Tell me what you see."
Valla gazed at the upheaval. The masonry and timber were familiar... as was a dark liquid spattered across them. But there was also a black substance throughout, like tar, that she did not recognize.
"The town well," Valla offered. "The demon emerged from here... wounded, given the presence of demon blood. Delios managed that much at least. I only pray that he died a hunter's death."
Josen kicked at the dirt. Beneath the surface, the soil was wet. "This happened not more than a day ago... after."
Valla waited for Josen to continue. When he didn't, she asked, "After what?"
The master hunter's expression was unreadable. "Follow me," he replied.
As they approached the storehouse, the hum rose in volume, a penetrating, vibrant buzz. As the thrumming grew, the fetid stench grew also. The hunter stationed out front swung open the tall doors.
A thick, dark mass, a living cloud of flies, escaped. And though the smell of degenerating flesh was familiar to Valla, the potency of its assault nearly drove her to her knees. She pulled her scarf tight and choked back bile.
Within the barn-sized enclosure, the townspeople were piled in haphazard mounds. Men, women... many of them bloated, their midsections distended. Some of the bodies had ruptured, insides spilling out, maggots working their way over and through the viscera. Fluid seeped from eyes, noses, mouths. Beneath the odor of decomposition was the unmistakable smell of feces. Hundreds of flies swarmed the carnage.
Valla frowned. The wounds, while gruesome, were not those common to a hellspawn attack. These were stabbings, impalements, crushed skulls—not the shredding, dismemberment, and decapitation associated with most demon slayings.
Josen spoke. "Delios was seen one day ago outside of Bramwell. He stormed into a bordello, killed everyone... then disappeared. Last night there was another massacre. Fifteen victims inside an opium den. Killed by crossbow bolt and blade."
Valla's eyes widened in disbelief. Josen answered her unspoken question.
"He fell to the demon's corruption. He's lost to us now. No better than a demon himself."
It was a horrific development, one every demon hunter faced, navigating the threshold between good and evil. All too easy for hunters to lose their ability to control their fear or hatred and cross over to the other side. But this... this was not the work of Delios. This was something different. Valla hid her unease. "Perhaps that is so, but no hunter is responsible for what we see here. No demon, either."
"Do you think they turned on one another?"
"Possible," Josen answered flatly before departing. Valla scanned the corpse mounds once more, noting something odd: there were no children among them.
Outside, Josen stood at his horse. Valla hurried to him. "I completed my last assignment. What orders now?"
"We continue searching for survivors. Come sunrise I'll ride to Bramwell, and I'll find Delios. Perhaps... it's not too late for him," the master hunter said, but his minor hesitation spoke differently.
Valla squared her shoulders. "I'll go and seek out the demon, then."
"No," Josen shot back. "You're not ready."
Valla stepped closer. "Come again?"
The master hunter turned to her, his tone remaining even. "I said you're not ready. We know very little of what we're dealing with. What its methods are. We believe it's a demon that feeds on terror... but Delios had that information as well, and it wasn't enough to prepare him. A demon such as this..."
Josen's eyes fell slightly. "It will reach into your mind and uncover every fear, every doubt, every regret, no matter how deeply buried. It will pit you against yourself." The master hunter's eyes snapped up, locking on Valla.
"Remember your failure at the ruins."
"That was different. A demon of rage," Valla protested.
"Rage. Hate. Fear. They all feed upon one another. A demon hunter learns how to direct hate. But such a balance is precarious. And when that balance is lost, the cycle begins: Hate begets Destruction. Destruction begets Terror as Terror begets Hate as—"
"I've heard it a thousand times!" Valla blurted.
"Then mark it well. You're still young, and you have much to learn. If I've taught you anything, it's that a demon hunter must always temper hatred with discipline. So calm yourself. The demon is wounded. Inactive for now. I'll send another hunter."
Josen turned to leave, but Valla was not done.
"I'll go after Delios, then."
Josen looked back. "You'll stay and help search for survivors. Delios is mine. Those are my orders." The master hunter then strode away. Calmly. And somehow, that infuriated Valla all the more. She wanted him to yell, to scream, to show some damned hint of emotion.
Not ready? I'm not ready? After all I've been through... "How dare you tell me what I'm not ready for?" Valla whispered.
An instant later she was astride her horse.
Which way? Which way would the demon have gone? Valla glanced at the blood among the debris. There was no trail outside the radius of the castoff. No help there.
To the east sat only mountains. To the west, the Gulf of Westmarch. Far to the south lay New Tristram. But the demon was wounded. Would it take a chance on the longer journey south, or would it travel northeast... where it might find more small farming communities like this one?
More easy prey.
The closest village, Havenwood, was less than a day away.
The choice was made.