My fingers have barely grazed the roughened edges of the dust-coated books when a loud ding resounds, my head snaps to Aïdon just in time to see a look of confusion flash across his face, lips twisting downward.
"Stay here," he grunts, whirling on his heels as he heads back down the stairs. The bell rings again, this time with a sense of urgency as the repetitive rasping of knuckles echoes, further heightening the peak of my curiosity.
I begin to make a move but halt in my tracks meters near the door. He did say to stay here, my gaze flickers to the open hallway, but what if it has to do with me and my unwelcomed presence here?
My curiosity will be the death of me, however, this is hell and right now, it's my life on the line. So fuck it.
The hallway is empty as I walk past, feeling very much like a spy on a dangerous mission as I tiptoe and attempt to silently descend the stairs. The air is tense, palm growing sweaty with each step.
Upon nearing the stairs leading to the living room, I kneel behind the banisters close to the wall. Vaguely, I hear the sound of a door creaking open, the jingling of metal catastrophically clashing with the other.
It is Aïdon who breaks the daunting silence, his voice low and deep. "Yes?"
"Greetings," judging from the texture of the voice it's a female, "I come bearing a message from the council. The presence of the living female has been demanded, and at this time of death in two moons she is to stand before them in judgment. You have been assigned the duty of making sure she reaches the court, be it in good health or otherwise."
Words are exchanged yet I can't hear them. Only the faint buzzing sound in my ears, my heart thumping louder than ever as memories of those ten dreadful men I'd encountered initially plague my memory. Their black cloaks and eery empty voices, the suffocating darkness which shrouds over them. Their ominous presence is one I never wish to be in, but what choice do I have.
Aïdon finds me at the top of the stairs, sulking with a faraway look in my eyes. He offers no explanation, having caught me eavesdropping, rather he offers comfort in form of gentle taps on my knee and then leaves me to brood.
Two days fly by quickly yet the feeling of despair never departs, and soon I find myself walking out the door with Aïdon leading the way, an open portal awaiting us. The rays of the sun are harsh and unforgiving, causing me to lower my gaze with a squint and glare at the stoned pathway. But the warmth it offers is much welcomed than the chill which seeped through my bones moments ago.
Together we both walk through the portal and when I come to it, I regret having breakfast, feeling the porridge churn in my stomach and bile rise up my throat. The bitter taste lingers as I take in my surroundings.
The court is big, a medieval structure held up by multiple tall pillars made of stone, a rounded arch that forms an entrance leading to the inner rooms, and a large glass dome overhead that acts as a roof and permits the entrance of warm beams of the morning sun. The color scheme is quite bleak; a rose smoke color staining the thick walls, cushioned wooden chairs laid out in two rows yet void of a congregation.
Aïdon leads me through a path in the middle of the chairs to the first row on the left, the repetitive sound of our footfalls bounces off the walls.
My gaze shifts to the podium before us, my throat clogging with fear when I see them. Black cloaks, blank stares, their stance emits regal power, once that has me shrinking slightly into my chair. The pep talk I'd had with myself in the bathroom suddenly has flown out of my head.
The councilmen plop into their chairs, postures upright, except one –the fourth– whose head is rested on his clothed hand and turned to the side, seemingly unbothered.
A spokesman steps up with a piece of paper in hand, be begins to read, "today we are faced with the case of Seren Caruso, a human girl who defied the..."
The voice trails as I notice something.
"Don't I get a lawyer?" Wide-eyed, I turn and whisper to the man beside me in a panic.
His gaze meets mine, lips tilting to form a smile. "you are your lawyer."
I gasp. "T-that's..." I stumble over my words, "I can't possibly defend myself when I was not properly informed of the-"
I'm cut off at the sound of my name, the person requesting that I rise in defense. Casting one last desperate glance at the reaper, I luckily catch sight of the thoughtful expression lingering on his face as I shakily rise to my feet in preparation to dance to the tune of hell.
"Why were you outside that night?" It is the first cloaked figure who asks, his fingers rhythmically strumming the armrest of his high chair.
The pit in my stomach deepens as I realize I'm the only one standing tall at this point, my skin prickling with the awareness of the several sets of eyes trained me with a burning intensity. The cloaks of the councilmen coupled with their lowered heads further conceal their eyes, but that doesn't stop the feeling, knowing that they're judging me underneath that mask of darkness. Ripping me apart with only their eyes. It's a really scary thing.
I don't even realize that I've completely frozen up, mouth hanging agape and full of unspoken words until I feel a warm hand gently poke mine under the table. Once then twice, his voice rings low in my ears (low enough that the others don't hear); "eyes on their foreheads, chicken legs."
I do as he says.
"And breathe for fuck's sakes, at this rate you're gonna end up dead before the council gets their hands on you."
I snort, the noise raising brows in my direction. Eyes up, inhale, exhale. One, two. Don't look, Ren. Foreheads are cool and pretty and big, fucking admire theirs.
I clasp my hands together in front of me and begin. "My boss at work refused to let me go home that night, rudely demanding that I work a little bit over time despite the fact she was well aware of the events to unfold at that time."
The second's chair creaks as he adjusts, "miss Caruso," he tuts with a shake of his head, the edges of the voice rougher than the first's, "I find it hard to believe that sob story especially if your boss is a member of the community. The village is a tight-knit one and everyone is aware of the customs, it's been passed onto each generation. There's no way she could've forgotten about it."
My mouth opens in protest but he cuts me off. "You could've simply slept at the motel that night, I'm sure you wouldn't have gotten in any trouble. You were well aware of what was to happen and yet you dared-"
It's my turn to grow frustrated and interrupt his speech, "no! you see that's the thing. I'm not a villager, I swear I was planning to live there for a couple of months. The village chief strictly stated as I was only going to stay a few months that it didn't seem wise to spill all their dumb sacred traditons to a foreigner. I was only instructed to stay indoors on the night of the blue moon." I pause, red-faced, "how was I to know they were involved in some dark voodoo shit!"
There's silence after my explosion, letting my mini-rant sink in and giving me the time to cool down and bury my frustrations. It's not my fault I got entangled in this mess, if anything I blame my shitty as fuck boss and the annoying potbellied man who withheld such information from me. But then again I blame myself for not inquiring about it. I should have asked around, eventually, someone would've said something, instead I had brushed it off.
"How interesting." My gaze lifts from the floors to find the fourth council member, "In light of this new information, I believe there's nothing to judge here."
My heart soars, hope brewing somewhere within me as his words register. However, it only takes a second for that hope to come crumbling down like the walls of Jericho.
"I don't believe her, lying isn't new to humans."
"What the fuck would I get out of lying?" The anger in my tone is laid out in the open.
The reply is instantaneous, "freedom."
There's no questioning their final decision as the court is adjourned and I trudge out of the hall with my head bowed and shoulders slumped. I can't describe how I feel in words; enraged, disappointed, scared.
I hear Aïdon sigh, he quickly catches up to me after a few minutes of letting me sulk and giving me the space I need. Brushing his shoulder softly against mine and thereby causing me to stumble in my weary steps, he says, "no more sulking chicken legs, you did pretty good, now let's go get some cake."
The corners of my lips twitch at the mention of the sugary goodness, "really?"
"Don't make me change my mind," he warns although it sounds more teasing, "chop-chop, let's go."
I pause in my steps as realization dawns on me. "You called me chicken legs!" I point an accusing hand.
"Do you want cake or not?" That successfully stops my whining.