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Valla reached the outskirts of Havenwood shortly before midnight. The time of her arrival was not of her choosing, but it suited her nonetheless.
She would not be welcome in the town. Her kind never was; demon hunters were seen as dark omens, harbingers of death, even on the best of days.
The air was still warm as she passed moonlit fields thronged with barren cornstalks, and wide patches of land where rows of gathered wheat bushels stood like obedient soldiers. Harvest was under way.
Valla's ears were soon greeted with the sound of rushing water.
The sawyer's daughter felt a hollow tug in the pit of her stomach as she rode on.
The innkeeper turned pale at the sight of her, even though she had removed her hood and lowered her scarf to put him more at ease. He responded to her queries in minimal sentences. There had been no signs of trouble, nothing outside of the ordinary. No cause for concern. She gave him a note to pass on to the town healer come first light: Any trouble, send for me.
Upon entering her lodging, Valla went through her routine checklist, noting several details: a sturdy sideboard suitable for use as a barricade, if necessary. No connecting door to the adjoining room. A bed positioned against the far wall, with a clear view of the entry. A single desk and chair, and one window with a ten cubit drop to the ground outside.
Valla then removed her plate armor and numerous weapons. She placed the twin crossbows, daggers, darts, bolas, and quiver of bolts—taking special care with one bolt, crimson with runes adorning the shaft—within easy reach on the bed. She began to unpack. Throughout, the sawyer's daughter could not escape the nagging sensation that had vexed her on her ride in—that she was forgetting something. Something important. Something vital. It was as if there were a void in her mind, an emptiness where some essential knowledge had once been stored.
She finished her unpacking, then sat on the floor and closed her eyes, quieting her mind. She focused on the rhythm of her pulse.
Whatever it was that she had forgotten was not coming to her. Other thoughts then intruded as well.
What if she was wrong about all of this? What if she had disobeyed Josen for nothing?
Worrying about that now would do her no good, she decided. And the errant memory would return to her in time.
Valla moved to the desk and wrote a short letter to her beloved sister, Halissa. She recounted details of her journey, told her that all was well, told her that she loved her and that she would come visit her soon.
And she hoped that was true. Maybe after this demon was dispatched... maybe she could take some time away.
She folded the letter, placed it in an envelope, then deposited the envelope in her travel bag.
Valla snuffed the candle and lay on her side, facing the door, her mind working to retrieve what she felt was lost.
She sighed heavily and wished desperately, as she did every night, for a sleep without nightmares of the attack on her village. She wished, as she did every night, that just once she could dream of something good.
She had forgotten what it was like to dream of anything but slaughter.
Keghan Gray stumbled through the doorway of his farmhouse, having relieved himself in the flower garden outside moments earlier. Seretta would not be pleased if she found out, but she would also keep silent on the matter if she knew what was good for her. She hadn't known such things when they were first married, but over the years she had learned. Sometimes the lessons were hard but necessary.
The lamp beside the door was unlit... a matter Keghan would take up with Seretta come sunrise. A man could break his damn leg walking into a dark house. After three tries, Keghan succeeded in lighting the wick.
Keghan absently wondered where Rexx was as he headed for the scullery. On the nights when Keghan would come home late from the tavern, Rexx would normally greet him at the door, tongue lolling, tail wagging excitedly. Of course, Rexx preferred to sleep in Joshua's room... He was most likely there now, curled up at the foot of the bed.
The scullery table was bare. Keghan felt the aggravation well up inside, causing his hands to reflexively curl into fists as his jaw clenched. Seretta had been told to have a helping of supper waiting for him. She couldn't be that foolish. Keghan considered that perhaps Joshua had eaten his portion. If so, the boy would have to be punished. Punished sternly, as was warranted in such matters.
For now, though, it looked as if Keghan would be forced to cut his own meat. The ride from town had stoked quite a hunger, after all. Snatching a knife from the table, Keghan thrust the lamp before him as he stalked toward the larder.
He barged into the long, pitch-black room, lamplight revealing a few sizeable chunks of butchered pig hanging on hooks lining the wall to his right. He stood at a thick hog leg and smiled.
Keghan bent over to set down the lamp so he could cut off a slice, and as he did so, he noticed a puddle of something dark like wine on the floor. He held the lamp closer.
The sight sobered him slightly... There shouldn't be blood on the floor. The hogs were gutted and cleaned outside.
It was pooled between his legs, emanating from somewhere behind him. Rising and turning, Keghan lifted the lamp, then nearly dropped it as he stepped back.
Rexx was dangling from a hook on the opposite wall, hung by the soft flesh under the jaw. Blood matted his fur and was still dripping from his tail. Most of his insides had been scooped out and were piled in the corner.
A warm breeze rolled in as the door at the end of the larder was opened from outside. The lamplight could not illuminate far enough for Keghan to see. He held the lamp down and away to let his eyes adjust. A voice drifted to him.
"Joshua! Get in here, boy; what are you doing outside?"
Keghan still could not make out much more than a dark blur beyond the light.
"I said get in here! Someone's killed the dog. Do as I say, boy: move!"
His eyes adjusted enough to see his son's silhouette then, standing motionless in the doorway, a long-handled scythe held in both hands, its curved blade etched in sharp relief against the moon and clouds.
"But there's still reaping to do, Father."
Keghan's mouth hung open as he stumbled forward.
"What did you say, boy? Have you gone soft in the head...?"
A few steps more, and the lamp cast light on Joshua. His work clothes were stained... the same wine color that covered the floor.
"Did you do this? Did you kill the dog, you sick little—"
Without a word, Joshua stepped forward and swung. Keghan raised his left arm to block, but at the last second the boy brought the scythe down and across, between Keghan's ribs, ripping through his guts, the blade penetrating deep enough to leave the gore-soaked tip exposed on the other side.
A gurgling sound worked its way up Keghan's throat, escaping as a rattle from his open mouth. The boy had stuck him! Stuck him like a damned pig. He would answer for that. Come what may, the boy would be punished. Harshly.
Joshua pulled the blade free, a mistake that Keghan took full advantage of. Advancing quickly, he buried the kitchen knife to the hilt in Joshua's throat.
His son fell back like a stone. Despite the scythe blade's absence, a searing pain scorched Keghan's belly. He coughed up and spewed a massive spout of blood... and then he ran. He had killed his son! Now all he could think to do was get away, run as far and as fast as he possibly could. He headed straight into the cornfields, heedless of the stalks he crushed or drove aside, stumbling, spitting blood, dizziness threatening to topple him at any instant.
He ran as fast as his feet would allow, until the pain in his stomach at last forced him to his knees. He had ended at the base of the field's scarecrow. He needed to get away. If only he could regain his feet. If he could reach town, if he could get to Bellik the healer...
Keghan clenched the pants of the scarecrow, pulling himself up, a long stream of mucus and blood dangling from his chin. The material beneath his closed fist, however, did not feel like straw.
And there was blood soaking the cloth. Was it his blood?
Consciousness was slipping. Keghan hacked violently, pulled himself up the rest of the way, and raised his head to see the face of the scarecrow...
And saw instead the slackened, horror-stricken visage of his dead wife.