PROLOGUE - TREPIDATION
“Paymon’s coming,” Gran warned as she stepped away from the window in our meagre, ramshackle house. “Hide that stupid book.”
I lifted my gaze and huffed.
“I don’t know why you waste so much time trying to read it,” Gran scolded. “It’s demon language. What do you expect? The words to jump out at you and suddenly make sense?”
“It might hold the secret to the darkness,” I said, risking another argument with her.
She shook her head and hobbled toward the door. A hacking cough made her stumble, but she steadied herself with a hand on the uneven wattled wall and turned to glare at me.
“Hide it!” she snapped. “And make sure he doesn’t see you.”
I focused on my gran, concerned over the way she often became breathless and the cough that didn’t sound as if it was getting any better. But when she pulled the rug back from over the door and took a step outside, I closed the book. I’d hide it, like I always did when Paymon visited the village. I understood her concern. She feared what he would do if he ever found out I had it.
Screams from outside switched my attention to the window. I rushed to the open space just in time to see Paymon shoot a ball of fire at one of the homes in our village. I froze for a second, gasping in air as the house caught fire. Transfixed by our village demon and his actions, he sent another three balls of fire at the house. I dropped the book and headed to the door.
“No,” Gran said, blocking my exit. “You stay here.”
“I want to help!” I said, angling my body toward the doorway. “Get some water from the lake.”
“They’ll manage. The fire will be out soon.”
I widened my eyes at my gran. “But there are people in there!”
She nodded, but remained blocking the doorway. Her expression was steely. “You stay here. Have you hidden that book yet?” she asked, shifting her body so she could see around me.
“Not yet,” I said, moving back to the table.
I dipped my head and glanced outside. The house was burning steadily, lighting the darkness that constantly surrounded us. Paymon was watching the unfolding event, his arms crossed over his chest as he grinned at the panic around him. Women were rushing from their homes, returning several moments later with buckets of water to dowse the flames.
Gran stood in the doorway, almost mimicking Paymon’s stance as she too watched what was happening.
I picked the book up from the floor, wiped the dirt from the cover and traced the dimmed gold letters with my fingers.
What did it mean? Was it a person’s name or the title of the book? I knew who it had belonged to—the only other demon who had been in our village. She’d treated the villagers far worse than Paymon ever had. She’d enjoyed torturing them for nothing other than entertainment. I was only ten when she’d arrived, and she’d secretly fascinated me. She looked how I imagined a princess to look. She’d worn beautiful embroidered dresses, and she walked with a grace I could only ever dream about. Whenever she came to the village with Paymon, I’d tried to follow them, watch their sinister interactions. And that one time . . . that one time they had argued. I could still hear her manic laughter—it ripped through me like a winter storm. I had frozen in my hiding place as Paymon turned on her. I still remembered the large ball of fire that he sent her way. When it hit her, she exploded in a bright blue flash that lit the world for a split second. I’d shielded my eyes, and when I had opened them, there was nothing but her smouldering dress crumpled on the floor where she had stood. Paymon had limped away from the scene, and once he had gone I crept from my hiding place and headed to the glowing embers. The book I now possessed had been lying only a short distance away from the remains of the woman. Charred around the edges, it carried the events of that day from four years ago, and I was convinced it was important—that it held the secret of how they’d hidden the light.
After tucking the book under the mattress of the bed I shared with Gran, I rushed back into the only other room in the house. Pulling one of the old wooden chairs away from the table, I settled it next to the window before sitting down. Resting the side of my face against the cold wall, I ensured I could spy on the strange and fascinating interaction between Gran and Paymon, just like I always did when he visited the village.
Fear prickled down my neck as Paymon turned away from the house he had set afire and limped toward Gran. I screwed my nose up as Gran hobbled to meet him, and then I huffed as she bowed. Paymon was no king, and he didn’t deserve a greeting that was suited for one. I’d never bow to a demon. Never.
Paymon’s cloaked figure towered over Gran, but then she was an old woman, shrinking every day before my eyes. I sighed heavily, biting my lip. She needed to step down from being the village elder; her health was suffering. She needed to rest more. She wasn’t the only old woman in the village, and there were several who were younger than her who could step up to deal with Paymon and his demands.
Paymon leered toward Gran as his voice rose, and I took several deep breaths. He held an air of authority that I never saw in any of the men from the village. There was something about him that made the hairs on my neck rise and my heartbeat race whenever he came to the village.
He prowled around Gran, circling her as he spoke, and I wished more than ever that I could hear their exchange. What was he saying to her? What was she saying to him? When he stopped in front of her, he placed his hands on his hips. His cloak slipped away from his arms, and I caught a glimpse of what he was wearing. A dark jacket, trousers and knee-high boots. They were like clothes from a by-gone era, one from over a hundred years ago, one Gran had told me about.
My mind raced with the stories of what the world was like when I was a child. It had been a better place before the demons ascended. There was sunlight, freedom, and all sorts of machines. Now, there was a blanket of suffocating darkness covering the land. There was no freedom and no electricity. The demons’ arrival had destroyed all sources of power and forced the humans out of the cities and into the forests. With no sun lighting the world, a mind-numbing cold sliced into our pale skin. It cracked blisters open and reached into holes in dull clothing. Everything was done by hand. We’d stepped back in time. Life was hard.
Paymon’s raised voice snapped me from my thoughts. They were arguing, and I shrank away from the window, fearful of what would unfold. I rubbed my clammy hands on my tatty dress and licked my dry lips. Gran said it was never a good thing to annoy a demon, yet she was obviously not heeding her own advice.
The shouting became louder, but the words were still incomprehensible. My stomach churned, but when Paymon grabbed Gran’s hair and pulled her head backward, I forgot all my fear and sprang into action. I shot out of the chair and across the room, reacting instinctively to protect my only living relative.
The coldness of the morning nipped at my skin, but I charged toward them. “Leave her alone!” I shouted.
Paymon was bending down to Gran’s height, whispering something to her, but he stopped as soon as I shouted at him.
His withering gaze settled on me. Running on pure adrenaline, I stepped up to him, swallowed my fear and stared him right in the eye.
“Let. Her. Go.”
He smiled, and it unnerved me, but I returned his stare, focusing on brown eyes that gradually darkened.
“Who are you?” Paymon said, releasing my gran.
I took a step backward, and Gran grabbed me. Her gnarled and wizened fingers tightened around my wrist, and I winced.
“You stupid girl,” she hissed. “Why didn’t you stay inside?”
Her face turned even paler than her usual deathly colour, and I froze. My mind raced, trying to find answers to her unexpected and hostile response. Had I done something wrong? I’d just saved her from the village demon. Why was she mad with me?
Paymon’s smile grew even wider and his eyes even darker. “What’s your name?”
His voice was nothing like I expected. It was too rich, too smooth, not what I imagined a demon to sound like. I glanced at my gran who refused to meet my questionable gaze.
I saw no harm in telling Paymon my name, so I said it, clear and confident. “Athena.”
He nodded, his eyes narrowing as he drank in my appearance. I took another step backward, uncomfortable in his gaze. Relief flooded through me when he switched his attention back to Gran.
“Why have you kept her hidden from me?”
Gran closed her eyes before sighing. When she turned to me, she shot me such a fierce stare that in that moment I feared her as much as Paymon.
“Go back to the house,” she ordered.
“No arguing. Go. Now!”
I wanted to stay. Gran’s age obviously wasn’t a deterrent to Paymon’s cruel behaviour. None of us knew how his mind worked, how he chose his next victim. He’d set fire to a house today, but would that be all he did? I stayed where I was, trying to balance my intrinsic fear to flee from Paymon with my overpowering need to protect Gran. But there was something about my gran’s tone, a snippet of a warning in the way she spoke. I hated falling out with her, so I dipped my head before nodding.
I turned around and walked back to the house, ignoring the intense feeling of eyes following my departure. My body was heavy, each step was an effort, and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Something wasn’t right.
Paymon’s voice sounded out as he continued his chat with my gran, and I trudged back to the house and to the window to watch their continuing exchange.
Gran shifted from foot to foot, shaking her head as Paymon continued to shout at her.
But then he surprised me by placing his hand on her shoulder. She lifted her trembling hand to her forehead before looking down at the ground.
I groaned with frustration. What were they saying to each other?
Paymon rubbed his chin before speaking again, and when he did, Gran stumbled sideways. She dropped to her knees and pulled at his cloak.
I was on my feet, ready to charge from the house again. But as I stood up, Paymon tipped his head back and looked to the dark sky. When he dropped his gaze, his eyes locked with mine and a sinister grin twitched into place on his face.
I ducked away from the opening, sure he was about to engulf me in one of his balls of fire, but when the heated furnace never appeared, I risked another glance at him.
Gran was struggling to her feet. Paymon offered no assistance, and when she eventually stood before him, he nodded toward me, speaking quickly, at a slightly higher pitch than before.
Gran’s hands were shaking, and she lifted one of them to her throat before coughing. The hacking cough made her body convulse, and Paymon just watched as she took her time to recover.
When Gran had composed herself, she looked my way and then nodded at Paymon.
She began speaking fast, gesticulating with her hands, even stepping forward to continue her words when Paymon looked deep in thought. He only responded when she reached for his arm. He nodded and then closed his eyes.
I sighed. Whatever it was they were discussing, it looked like they’d come to an agreement. Maybe now she’d come back to the house, Paymon would leave us, and the danger he possessed would leave with him. Only then would my stomach stop twisting and churning.
But Paymon was grinning, and his relaxed expression made me even more anxious. Time slowed, and heat prickled at the back of my neck.
As if realising he was reacting in a way people were unaccustomed to seeing him behave, Paymon quickly recovered his malevolent composure. He shook his head before turning away from Gran, but when he was a few steps away from her, he suddenly stopped. His cloak billowed behind him as he spun around to face her.
With no warning, no exchange of any further words, he raised his arm. A ball of fire shot from his hand and engulfed my gran in flames.