It was a kind of isolated chaos within the roiling eye of the sinkhole. The world surrendered to obscurity as her muscles struggled to negotiate her body's orientation. Her chest burned with held breath. She fought to maintain her grip on the satchel in the midst of it all. She was whipped, rolled, thrust, and submerged deeper and farther until her consciousness threatened to abandon her completely. The darkness and lack of positional awareness were absolute.
There was a sense of rapid movement; various parts of her body struck stony protrusions as she was carried by the river.
Her fingers found a snag. She had grasped a thick stalagmite and was bracing against the rushing tide. She pulled her head clear and drew in as much air as her chest could hold.
She felt the satchel in her hand and was relieved. The water in her eyes made it impossible to see, and even after she wiped her face against her arm, her vision still did not clear.
The air was cool down here. Valla probed with her foot and felt a wall of stone. Finally, the blurriness diminished as she swung the satchel onto a ledge and dragged herself out of the raging torrent.
She sat, allowing her body a moment to rest, taking in her surroundings. The immediate area opened into what appeared to be a warren of tunnels and alcoves. Luminescent algae coated the walls, stalactites and stalagmites, rocky columns, and parts of the roof. The light cast by it provided an eerie, unearthly glow that rendered a torch unnecessary.
Good, Valla thought. I can keep both hands free.
Detecting any noise other than the gushing water was impossible, as the thunderous roar echoed throughout. Valla removed her cloak—which, remarkably, had remained mostly dry—from the satchel and fastened it for warmth. She unpacked her weapons, relieved to see that the crimson bolt was still among them, then set her crossbows and stood, one in each hand.
She gazed into a cave with jagged limestone spikes protruding from top and bottom like a shark set to swallow its prey, and she spotted a shadow against the blackness beyond, flitting from one side to the other.
Valla pressed after it, and as she did she felt the first brush of the demon's mind against hers, a malefic, detestable presence lurking just outside her awareness, a wolf prowling at the edge of a dark forest.
The sensation became more insistent as she stepped into the cave, senses fully alert. Her pulse raced.
WELCOME, a voice spoke in her head. Valla moved to the back of the cave, where a tunnel receded into darkness, the algae much sparser upon the walls. Here and there were patches of the same black substance found at the well in Holbrook.
She knelt and dipped her fingers in the viscous muck.
WHAT PERSISTENCE YOU HAVE. WHAT DESIRE.
THE EYE WILL SEE.
Valla stood and snuck into the tunnel, crossbows ready. There was movement across the floor, a slithering, and then she saw it, its skin glistening just a bit in what little light existed, a black tentacle that rose, unfurled, and whipped out at her. Valla fired a bolt and the thing jerked backward, but the crossbow was a poor weapon for this task. She slung one crossbow and removed a dagger even as she felt the demon probing inside her head now, a dull ache. She envisioned black tendrils within her mind, not unlike the oily appendage that attacked her.
Valla sliced across, shearing the tip off as the tentacle shot forward. It retracted quickly, but the presence in her mind was burrowing deeper.
DELIGHTFUL MEMORIES YOU KEEP INSIDE, BLOOD SACK. RIPE FOR PLUCKING.
It felt as though needles were piercing Valla's head as she pressed on. The walls here were thick with the black, glistening sludge.
VILLAGE. FAMILY. FRIENDS. WARMTH, SHELTER. HAPPY TIMES.
DEMONS. SWARM LIKE LOCUSTS.
The walls seemed to squirm now as more tentacles emerged from the mire and uncoiled. Valla slung her second crossbow, removed another dagger, and lashed out, left and right.
ABANDONED FAMILY. LEFT THEM TO DIE.
Valla wrestled with the part of her that said it was true.
You are the demon's greatest weapon.
"There's nothing I could have done but die myself!" Valla shouted as she somersaulted over a massive coil, slicing deep. "I did what I had to do. I survived."
She then found herself in a larger circular gallery that opened into a grander space beyond, an outer half ring fronted by rock columns, thin in the middle, wide at top and bottom. Her head pounded. The demon was driving harder.
SCREAMS. DEATH. VILLAGE... PURGED.
"You will not manipulate me as you did Delios!"
YES. BLOOD LIKE...
"Enough! Face me, and let's have done with this!"
THE EYE SEES.
I SEE YOU.
The thunder of the water was more distant in this area, and Valla thought briefly that she heard a little girl's giggle. She saw movement in the outer ring and gave chase.
The curved chamber led to another tunnel, another bend, and she was again surrounded by darkness, her feet making squishing sounds in the black ooze on the ground, and then... the squall roar of the river muffled all other noise.
She was circling back around toward the water. A form, a light haze that seemed to be a head peeking from behind a corner, appeared and was gone.
Valla switched once more to crossbows, rounded the bend, and saw briefly what looked like a child. The hellspawn must have brought one of the children down here with it... to use as a mortal shield.
The figure ran. Valla pursued. They were drawing closer to the river. Valla could see now that it was a girl. A girl with long blonde hair.
The child stopped and stood eerily still. Valla slowed her approach, ready for any surprise, her heart hammering within her chest.
The girl turned, and Valla saw Halissa's features.
RIVER. RUNNING. MIND BROKEN.
It couldn't be Halissa, of course. But it looked so very much like her. This girl was pale, as pale as death. Her waterlogged skin had begun to fall away in strips. One eye bulged.
Valla froze. The pain in her head was unbearable. But the wall that had blocked her from the memory obscured since before her arrival, that wall was crumbling.
And she remembered...
She remembered the night Halissa ran, maddened, completely unhinged by weeks of nightmares and living like an animal, tormented by the carnage she had witnessed. She remembered chasing her through the storm.
The little girl in the cave smiled, and the claw of a black crab reached out.
Halissa had slipped, and Valla's heart had turned to ice. Halissa had stretched forth her hand, and Valla had taken it...
But the rain-soaked grip could not be held. Halissa had screamed once and was gone.
BURIED IT, YOU TRIED. BURIED SO DEEP. BUT THE EYE SEES.
NO GOOD DREAMS FOR YOU.
Valla dropped to her knees before the girl in the cave. A black tentacle squirmed out of the rushing river, sliding snakelike across the floor. It closed around Valla's arm and pulled. One of her daggers fell from cold fingers. It didn't matter anymore. Nothing mattered.
WHY THE CHILDREN? CHILDREN ARE HOPE. I AM THE DESTROYER OF HOPE. I AM THE TERROR OF MURDER BY THE BELOVED. I AM THE RAGE OF INNOCENCE LOST.
Destruction begets Terror as Terror begets Hate as Hate begets Destruction—
DELIOS. SO MUCH HATE IN THAT ONE.
BENEATH IT ALL A SCARED BOY. EAGER TO DESTROY.
She felt the stone rough against her as she was drawn to the river's edge.
YOU ARE MINE NOW.
But there was one more piece of the missing memory.
She remembered the campfire.
The tentacle pulled her under. Another reached up and grasped her free arm. The water was much deeper here. Valla closed her eyes, unwilling yet to let out the last of her breath. What final piece was left?
The campfire. The mental exercises. She had buried the recollection of Halissa's death. But why?
So the demon would go searching for it. In her mind's eye, Valla saw the infiltration as hundreds of smoky tendrils.
When a demon peers into you, into the deepest recesses of your mind, then you may peer back if you know how.
Valla imagined her consciousness locking on to a tendril, following it back to its source...
WHAT IS THIS?
It is the most dangerous thing a demon hunter can do.
Her consciousness invaded the presence that had so deeply latched on to her. A malignant red eye dominated her mental vision. She pressed toward it, seeking. Her surroundings were alive with squirming, crawling things. But as she probed deeper, as her insistence mounted... they took form.
With a sudden clarity, she understood what she faced.
Valla's eyes opened beneath the water. And there in the inky depths...
They burned like fire.
I see YOU.
She felt the presence retreating from within her mind, felt the grip on her arms loosen. She slashed outward with her remaining dagger, slicing the tentacles. The river threatened to sweep her away... but not this time. The river would take nothing else from her.
Olphestos is not even your true, cursed name.
Valla kicked toward the surface and dug her fingers into the rocky ledge. She pulled herself up, and the corpse of Halissa, a look of fear now upon its face, took a step back.
I see you, Valdraxxis—foot soldier. Outcast. Derelict.
The dead girl turned and ran.
During the wars against the Prime Evils, you led a failed campaign. Maligned and scorned... you once were a demon of import in the Hells but now are considered anathema even to your kind.
Something shambled out of the darkness to her right, something that might have at one time been a toad, malformed now, bloated, with massive lambent eyes. It reached for her.
I WILL NOT BE DENIED.
Valla bit down on her dagger, dug into a pouch under her jerkin, and was happy to find that her bolas were still there.
She cast a bola, which wrapped around an amphibian arm. The creature raised the appendage to its face, staring at the rope and spheres stupidly.
The bola exploded, vaporizing the thing's arm and taking the head with it as Valla grabbed the dagger from her mouth and stalked after the little girl.
Not really the corpse of Halissa, just a form taken by the demon to weaken her.
It is you who are weak now, lapdog.
More things came from recesses in the walls, monstrous things; the first scuttled sideways and swung a single massive claw. Valla vaulted above the creature and drove her dagger through its carapace. The fiend's legs buckled beneath it. She retrieved one of her crossbows.
Another aberration lunged. Valla fired one bolt that shattered something resembling an arm, then shot a second through a bulbous eye, moving all the while, chasing the impostor of her sister. She tossed her dagger and drew her second crossbow.
A long passage greeted her. The walls came alive as countless insects—roaches, centipedes, beetles... a slick, wet tide of pestilence—surged toward her almost as one.
The demon hunter stopped, took a knee, and fired multiple bolts from both crossbows. There were several small explosions. She felt the heat on her face, and when the flames dissipated, the squirming host was little more than a slimy paste on the walls. The rest she crushed as she sprinted forward.
Valla rounded a bend, but what she saw was no longer the little girl.
It was a mirror image of herself. Valla stepped up, removing the crimson bolt from beneath her leather. The mirror-Valla opened her mouth, and a thick black sludge bubbled out, pouring down her chin. Runnels of the substance bled from her nostrils. The scar on her jaw split apart and ooze seeped through. Her eyes filled with the black liquid, and the mirror-Valla cried tears of demon blood.
No. That is not me. That will not be me.
The mirror-Valla darted away past a darkened alcove, around a massive stone pillar. The demon hunter followed, crossbows prepared to fire. She rounded the pillar, spun, and dropped to one knee, speaking...
"I see you, minion of the Burning Hells..."
She spoke the words even as the demon emerged from the alcove, swinging a thick arm that ended with a chitinous serrated blade, a strike that would have surely beheaded the sawyer's daughter an instant before.
"In the name of all those who have suffered, I cast you out!"
The demon was a hulking monstrosity. Its body was like those of the creatures that existed deep below the sea, where light never reached. Tumescent black tentacles served as legs. Its upper torso was covered in an armor-like shell bursting with spiky protrusions, and the entirety of the nightmarish thing was coated in a viscous, midnight-hued ooze.
"Begone and be damned, and may you never return!"
A massive red eye with a narrow slit stared back at her. The slit widened as Valla fired the crimson bolt.
The bolt struck the eye, popping it like a grape. The runes on the shaft of the bolt glowed, and there was an explosion of light.