As I strode through the centre of the village, the wind brushed against my face, and I couldn’t help but think that it was a warning for me to stay. Several women looked up from their tasks as I passed them, and others peered out from behind their doors.
“Good luck, Athena,” a woman called.
“Be careful!” another warned from her doorway. “You know he’ll take it out on the whole village if you upset him.”
I took a deep breath and carried on walking. Their concerns weren’t needed; they weren’t welcome either. I’d make sure I was the same categorisation as Hannah—a feeder. We’d get through the next ten years together. We’d look out for each other like we always had.
Leaving the village behind, my bravado deserted me. My heartbeat raced, and I clutched my free arm across my chest, pulled my cloak even tighter and curled my shoulders forward. The wind was even wilder outside of the village. It whipped its sharp tongue of icy breath across my face as I trudged forward with no haste to reach my destination.
The path to Paymon’s was near enough hidden. Piles of pine needles covered the earth and obscured what lay beneath, but the blurred outline of Paymon’s house loomed before me like a dark foreboding beacon. My walk led up a slight incline bordered with nettles and weeds, beyond which grew the monstrous pine trees that surrounded the village. I couldn’t see into the crowded trunks and thick growth of bushes; the constant gloom ensured the forest was a solid black mystery. I hunched over even more, trying to make myself small, invisible even, to the unknown creatures that lived there. My misted breath blew from my mouth, each short burst coming in rapid succession as my heart rate accelerated. I increased my pace, eyes forward, fixed on my destination. I kept the lantern as steady as possible in my knuckle white grip so as not to shine its flickering light into the forest.
As I approached Paymon’s house, I gasped. The building had always been a mystery to me, its blurred outline only occasionally visible from the village, but now that I was here, it was impossible not to notice the narrow beam of light that shone from the sky and disappeared into the centre of the house. Why had I never seen it before? Surely I should have seen the light, even if I couldn’t see the house. I frowned, confused and even more curious.
Paymon’s house was dark and mysterious, like an angular monster waiting to devour me. I stepped forward as if invisible ties had wrapped around my legs and moved them without my agreement.
“Stupid demon,” I muttered, and not for the first time, I cursed their very existence and the day they crawled from the earth below us.
When I placed my hand on the lopsided gate, the damp cold wood forced another unwelcoming shiver from me. I breathed deeply, trying to steady my nerves as I looked up at the house. All the windows were dark or had curtains pulled shut. But these windows had proper fitted glass, small rectangular panels—physical barriers against the cold we all suffered in the village. Two storeys tall, large chimneys, and ivy covered walls helped paint it perfectly as the demon’s home—it was creepy, sinister, and cold looking—a house you’d run away from.
I narrowed my eyes as I caught sight of a flickering light from an upstairs window, but as soon as I focused, the light was gone. Shadows clung to the walls as I followed the line of windows upstairs, but there were no other lights to see.
With nerves jangling and my hands shaking, I shuffled along the short path to the wooden door—the final barrier between me and my future.