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Valla sat before the campfire, still a few miles outside of Havenwood, staring. She ran her finger absently over a long scar that traveled the line of her jaw.
You're not ready.
A demon hunter must always temper hatred with discipline.
Josen's words still stung. But the more she thought of it, the more she considered that maybe... maybe he wasn't exactly wrong. Her thoughts drifted back to the incident at the ruins...
She and Delios had journeyed deep into the southern Dreadlands, traveling together for several days. Delios was crude and abrasive and set her nerves on edge. Valla preferred to operate alone, but Josen had insisted they work as a pair.
They located the demon's hideaway among the long-forgotten ruins of some unknown civilization. Valla guarded her mind as Josen had taught her. He had warned them both that, with a powerful demon such as this, their battle would be much more than simply physical.
"You are the demon's greatest weapon," he had counseled.
As the two wound their way down wide, monolithic stone slabs, Valla felt her agitation mounting. The base of the stairs opened into a cavernous grotto where hundreds of gargantuan rocky pillars stretched upward, their caps lost in the darkness above. Flaming braziers cast pools of flickering light.
Delios surged ahead. He was reckless. Foolish. Valla's head throbbed. She could feel the demon infiltrating her thoughts. In her mind's eye its presence was black tendrils, probing, coaxing, provoking. Valla dwelled on every irritating habit, every negative quality, Delios possessed. Her agitation soon turned to anger, which turned to rage.
Delios darted ahead again, after she had yelled at him to stop. He spun, favoring her with a wicked smile. She became suddenly certain that he had been corrupted. He had crossed over. Her rage boiled over into a blind fury, and she knew that she would kill him. He was weak, pathetic. Ending his life would be a mercy.
She drove forward. Delios stood there, smiling tauntingly. She sprinted toward him. He ducked behind a pillar. Valla followed...
And he was gone. She felt the demon behind her, a hulking, otherworldly presence. Inside her mind, she could hear an echo of laughter. The demon had manipulated her with the ease of a puppeteer working the strings of a marionette. The Delios she had followed was not real. She had lost, and now she would die.
There was an explosion then, and much of what happened next Valla only remembered in brief flashes: Josen battling the demon. Delios rushing to help. Valla gathering her senses in time to fire several bolts from her crossbow. Josen shouting words of banishment. "I see you, Draxiel, lapdog of Mephisto. In the name of all those who have suffered, I cast you out! Begone and be damned, and may you never return!" Josen fired a bolt; an eye-searing brilliance flared; and the demon was gone.
The ruins had been a test. (Josen was fond of saying that everything was a test, that life was a test.) And Valla had failed. Now... now Delios had failed as well. And it had cost him his soul.
Valla was determined to defeat this demon, but she was also determined not to meet Delios's fate...
He's lost to us now. No better than a demon himself.
The sawyer's daughter suppressed a shudder. There was more than one way to banish a demon, but only one way that Josen had taught her. He had also told her once that "when a demon peers into you, you may peer back. But it is the most dangerous thing a demon hunter can do."
Valla's mistake at the ruins would not be repeated. She had grown too much since then.
The demon hunter retrieved from her pocket an etching of her little sister, Halissa.
"For you," she whispered. And as the flames of the campfire died down, she initiated a series of mental exercises taught to her by Josen.