The next village they came to was immediately suspicious. As soon as Father Bogdan and Svetlana were spotted the whole village stopped what they were doing and went to sit in the church. They sat on the pews, so that the pair were made to walk down the aisle with them on either side to meet with the priest. The villagers looked straight ahead, at the priest, who stood gazing intently at them with his hands clasped together. He was plump and red, as were most of the congregation. Many of the women were pregnant, Svetlana noted and there were numerous children.
It was evening and, though the sun barely touched the horizon, tall candelabras were alight. They cast flickering shadows on the faces of the villagers, which only highlighted their stillness all the more. Perhaps that was the intention.
After what seemed to be an age, Father Bogdan stood face-to-face with the priest. His eyebrows were in full dramatic vigour, as they had been upon meeting Svetlana.
"Welcome, newcomers, to our village."
"Thank you, Father. I am Father Bogdan and this is Svetlana, my disciple." Head bowed, Svetlana faced the villagers, watching them through her thick lashes.
"We have travelled far on a pilgrimage and we hope for a place to stay the night."
"Of course, we shall provide our most comfortable room." Svetlana narrowed her eyes as a boy of about twelve snickered, before being hushed by who could only be his mother. "These are the villagers. They have come here to meet you."
"They look healthy and strong. You keep a good village, Father. What may I call you?"
"I am Father Gleb." Then he called to the villagers. "You may return to your tasks, I shall confer with the newcomers." The villagers filed out silently. She inwardly shuddered at their eerie quiet.
"What do you wish to speak of?"
"Your...disciple. Is she ordained?"
"No, not yet, though we plan for her to be."
"She is so young."
"Eleven next autumn, old enough."
"And a girl."
"Women are allowed to join the church."
"Yes, but they don't. Not usually. Only at God's precise command. A woman's place is in the home, giving birth. It takes an extraordinary woman to please God so much that he would lift her from her purpose."
"Svetlana is hardly ordinary."
"Why are there so many children and babies here?" Svetlana interrupted, pretending to wonder aloud as if she wasn't paying attention to their conversation.
"We had a strange spring, in which the women were unusually fertile and the newborn unusually weak. There were a lot of early deaths. I can only guess why God would choose that for us."
"All the children seem healthy enough."
"Yes, those are the survivors. I often care for them here, because their families cannot afford to look after them all the time."
"But everyone seems healthy. Curiously large, too. It seems as though you've all been fed well." the priest turned a brighter shade of scarlet, spluttering. "Apologies Father, I did not mean to offend, only it is strange to me."
"We like to be well fed, we cannot all be scrawny pilgrims." Svetlana looked down at herself.
"I am exactly the same size I was before, Father."
"I can't imagine anything wanting to eat you."
"Nothing, child, just a random comment."
"Why would anything want to eat me?"
"Now, child, no one is eating anyone."
"'No one'? A person? There is a person eating another person?" The priest went stark white.
"N-No. No one. No one at all."
"I did not."
"I heard it, I heard you stutter!"
"You heard no such thing."
"Who is being eaten? And by who?" The priest went very still. He stared at her for a few moments before his face creased in a grimace.
"You are no pilgrims."
"You are no pilgrims, you are liars!" He was pacing around the room, rubbing his hands together. "I knew I shouldn't have trusted those two, they never do the job right, I told them to check, always check before presuming that they're dead!"
"What did you say?" Father Bogdan's voice was hoarse, barely above a whisper.
"Quiet, demon! You have come here, sent by Lucifer to take me!"
"If what you have done is truly what I think, then Lucifer has already taken you."
"No! You don't understand. We had a weak harvest. Then winter came and we were dying. We couldn't do anything, we could barely move, we lay in the church surrounded by those who couldn't survive the hunger. It was so painful, you have no idea. No idea. I had to, I had to do it, I couldn't take it any more. There were enough of them that they made a good meal for all of us and then some. We began to regain strength. Our children grew stronger. We are God's greatest creations, why should we settle for anything less than that? So we encouraged the women to give birth to lots of babies, that we may feed them until they grow old enough to eat. It has been twenty years since then and the village is happy. We are truly God's greatest."
"You have broken your covenant with God."
"I have not! I have not! What of you, bringing here this girl and claiming her for God when you have no right to!"
"God has claimed her as his own."
"What do you know of God?! Nothing! You know nothing!"
"I know that he has gifted this child with the eyes of an angel and that you are not faithful to him."
"Eyes of a..." For the first time he gazed deeply into Svetlana's eyes. Though she stood as a statue she feared he would see the fright in her soul if he stared for much longer. "Your eyes," he said at last, "Your eyes are holy. They truly are. I must have them. I must grow closer to God. That is why he has sent you here, that I may grow closer to him and be by his side in eternity. Be glad, child, you get your eternity early. Lucky you." He reached for her and she screamed, stumbling back.
"Stay away from her, son of Lucifer!"
"Come here child, come here, let me have you, just a bite, I just want a bite, please, come here."
"Stay back! You cannot have her!" Father Bogdan stood with his legs and arms wide apart, daring the whimpering man in front of him to take another step.
"No! I must, I must!"
"As long as I live, you shall not harm this child." The twisted priest let out a shriek of rage and, with a wide sweep of his arms, knocked over two candelabras. Flames sprang to consume the dry, creaking wood of the pews, the air full of smoke. Svetlana covered her mouth and tugged on Father Bogdan's habit, dragging him outside where they stood, coughing and gasping.
"Come out of there, Gleb!" She managed to choke out between breaths. "Quickly!" The Father shook his head.
"He is too far gone, child. Hurry now, let us be gone from this place."
"But the villagers..." "There is no way to save them. They are with Lucifer now." With one last look at the crowd of villagers that had begun to form, Svetlana took his outstretched hand and ran. They ran, the two of them, until their smoke-filled lungs gave up. Clutching each other, they fell into an exhausted slumber, filled with fire and ash and flesh.