Valla stood looking through the small barred window into the stable stall. Sahmantha sat there, hands and feet lashed together, head inclined, straight blonde hair concealing her face. The rest of the children were held in the remaining stalls, two or three in some, but Valla had insisted Sahmantha be kept alone.
When the children had been transported here, a throng of townspeople had gathered around the wagons used to haul the young ones to the stables. Many of the citizens had grown violent, and much of their ire was directed at Valla. But Bellik, Bellik they trusted, and it was his counsel that had averted catastrophe, for the time being at least. The people waited outside the stables even now. Valla could hear the echoing din of their curses and lamentations.
Bellik had just finished speaking to them. "They want to know: why is this happening? Why the children?"
Valla opened the stall door, stepped inside, and kneeled in the dry straw.
"Lock the door behind me."
As she heard the latch being slid into place, Valla parted Sahmantha's hair. She tilted the girl's chin up. The little one's eyes were closed.
The blonde hair, the fair skin... reminded her so much of Halissa. She thought of how Halissa's face always lit up at the sight of her older sister. She thought of Halissa's bright, inquisitive eyes and boundless energy.
Valla could not show weakness to the healer, but now, now a wave of nausea rolled through her, a tide of sadness and disgust, and suddenly Valla felt very tired, tired in both body and soul.
She remembered her village in Westmarch. She remembered her family. She fought back the rapidly unfolding memories of the massacre, when she herself had been little more than a child, the same flashes that plagued her night after night: screams of the dead and dying; blood; a demon claw swiping at her neck but cutting her jaw instead; running, Halissa's hand in hers; hiding near the river...
And, later, being found by others who had suffered similar fates, learning of the demon hunters. Being mentored by Josen, remade into an avatar of vengeance, a weapon forged to strike at the heart of darkness.
Valla had been absently rubbing the scar on her jaw. She leaned close now to Sahmantha. "Speak, demon."
Valla waited. No response.
"Do not play coy with me. This is a game you cannot win. Your only hope is to be sent back to your light-cursed master, to pray that perhaps the Hells will show you mercy, because I will not. Now speak your name."
Sahmantha did not stir.
Lowering the girl's head, Valla rose and stood at the barred window.
"Healer! You asked if there was a reason this demon chose the children... and I tell you yes. This pathetic wretch of a hellspawn chose the young ones because it is weak and the fledgling are vulnerable, easy prey for the scum that begs for scraps discarded by its masters."
Bellik was standing just inside Valla's view. He stared at her, eyebrows raised.
Valla felt it then: movement behind her, accompanied by the faintest sound.
The sawyer's daughter turned to see the girl standing on her toes, back arched, head tucked against her shoulder... Her hair had fallen from a face broken out in veins, her eyes wide, unfocused, bloodshot. When her mouth opened, it seemed almost to struggle in forming the words at first. Then...
"TURN NOT YOUR BACK, OH PRIDEFUL ONE!"
The voice was a loud, grating strain, like a continuous intake of breath.
"SEEK YOU TO STAND BEFORE ME?" The girl's head whipped from one shoulder to the other. "SUCH REACHING EXCEEDS YOUR GRASP, SUB-CREATURE. A DISTRACTION, NONETHELESS I MIGHT FIND AMUSING. RELEASE ME, THEN, AND SEE..."
Valla drew a blade. Bellik protested, his hands pressed tight against his ears, lips quivering. Valla appeared not to notice as she severed the bonds holding Sahmantha.
Let us see indeed.
Settling back on her feet, the child took two halting steps. Valla moved to the side, and the girl lurched forward to stand before the barred door. Her head rotated, chin rolling over her shoulder, vacant eyes staring.
Valla called to Bellik, "Unlock the door."
Bellik's eyes shot back and forth between Sahmantha and Valla. "Is it safe?"
"No harm will come. I'll see to it."
After an instant's hesitation Bellik did as he was instructed. The girl, chin to her chest and hair hanging so that it was impossible for her to see where she walked, nonetheless proceeded unerringly into the stable.
Bellik gave her a wide berth, and then he and Valla followed as the girl passed the first stalls where the other children were held. To their right, the older girl who had hefted the stone earlier stood at a door, grasping the bars, and when she spoke, it was in the gushing voice of the demon.
"I AM OLPHESTOS. I AM THE INFILTRATOR, PROCURER, HERD OF THE WRETCHED, AND FLAYER OF THE WRITHING DAMNED..."
Bellik glanced about in horror, his palms pressed once again to his ears as Sahmantha shuffled on. The boy who had dragged the sword in the street pulled himself up to peer through a window on the other side, the voice continuing, issuing now from his mouth.
"THE FOMENTER, GATHERER, INFLICTOR, AND THROAT OF THE SILENT SCREAM..."
Another child spoke from a stall on Sahmantha's right. "THE FERRYMAN OF LOST DREAMS, SHATTERED HOPE, AND WITHERING DESPAIR..."
At the final stall appeared the smith's son. There was a bloody vacancy where his front teeth had once been.
"THE READY RIGHT HAND OF TERROR. THE INWARD-STARING EYE. KNOW ME, AND KNOW THE UNSPEAKABLE."
Bellik stayed close to Valla as Sahmantha stepped out into the sunlight.
Valla exited behind her, pushed back her hood, and forced her way through the gathered crowd.
"Make room! All of you! Bellik, a hand!"
The townspeople pressed in, questioning, accusing. Bellik shouted for the throng to make way as Sahmantha staggered forward.
Valla parted the crowd ahead of the little girl, who continued on. Her movements were erratic, spasmodic at some points, yet graceful and almost liquid at others. The knot of people proceeded past the shops on the eastern edge of town.
Sahmantha sped up her pace, and several of the townspeople fell behind. Bellik gasped for air, his face red with the exertion.
They had made their way along a desolate stretch of dirt road, little more than a path out into the fields beyond. Sahmantha stumbled out onto a patch of dead grass, stopped, turned. Her head straightened, and the demon's gale-speak burst forth once again.
"SEEK YOU TO STAND BEFORE ME? THEN COME..."
The girl grinned slowly, but when she spoke next, it was with the voice of only a child, of little Sahmantha Halstaff. "We can play roughhouse together."
Without warning the girl's eyes closed. Her body went limp and collapsed.
Valla rushed forward and leaned close to make sure Sahmantha still lived. She could hear the child's breath.
Most of the townspeople who had fallen behind caught up now, circling the demon hunter. Bellik stood nearby, steadying his breathing. Valla looked up as if expecting the demon to fall out of the sky.
Then, she looked down. She took note of the blighted grass, running her fingers over it. It spread out over a large expanse, stretching far and tapering on either side, forming the general shape of a massive eye. There were black spots throughout as well—demonic contamination.
"Healer, what's below us?"
Bellik's eyebrows lifted. "Nothing."
"That ain't 'xactly so."
Both Valla and Bellik turned to one of the observers, a rotund farmer with a bushy white mustache.
"The river Bohsum would be right 'bout underneath our feet."
Bellik watched Valla, and whether or not it was a trick of the light, he was unsure, but it seemed that she had gone slightly pale.
"But I heard the river as I rode in last night. I hear it faintly even now."
The mustached farmer's brow dipped in what appeared to be mild annoyance.
"That ain't the real Bohsum... Just a channel dug out by the settlers ages ago, meant ta divert the water... 'Cause the real Bohsum flows outta the Deadfall Mountains—"
The farmer turned and pointed northeast.
"—and pretty soon comes to a sinkhole. Then it goes underground... runs through these parts deep below for quite a ways 'fore comin' back up two days' journey to the west."
Valla scanned the immediate surroundings.
"Soil outside o' town's fertile enough, but the ground right here's harder 'n iron. Easier for the old timers to dig the channel."
Valla sighed as she replied, "This sinkhole and the place where the river resurfaces... there are no other ways to get down there?"
The farmer spat. "Nope."
"And where's the sinkhole?"
The farmer nodded toward the mountains. "'Bout half a day that way."
Bellik peered at Valla inquisitively. "So... so what now?"
The sawyer's daughter raised her hood and swept the crowd with her gaze.
"Stay here, and stay together. There is strength in numbers. Take Sahmantha back to the stables. Bind and lock away any other children under sixteen summers." She looked again to Bellik.
"And get me my horse so I can go kill your demon."