It was still dark when I woke up, but it was a normal dark. Night time dark. The wooden ceiling above me was familiar, as was the ever-present barrier of heat that told me immediately I was back in the bedroom of the cottage. When I sat up, dragging backpack and box file with me, I saw that Epsilon was already standing and gazing out of the broken window, out towards our land, and the Ouroborus stone. Looking at him, you wouldn't think he'd left.
"Cimul is above ground," he said, without looking back at me. He couldn't have seen Cimul; the trees blocked the view completely. I could only guess he was doing his watching-from-afar thing. I nodded. As soon as I stood, Epsilon turned from the window and headed for the stairs. I left the box file in the room and pulled my bag fully onto my back so I could move quickly. Call it gut instinct, a premonition, whatever you like, but I had a feeling we'd be doing a lot of running, and I wanted my arms free to move. I snatched up my dropped torch, headily grateful for real, bright light.
The interior of the cottage was pitch black. The torch lit my way, the beam of light following Epsilon down the stairs. As he stepped into the kitchen and deeper into the darkness, I noticed the dim silver light Epsilon gave off. It was only then that I realised Epsilon was only semi-corporeal again, no longer the solid warrior from the cavern. I didn't comment on it, however, having to focus on the torchlight to see the floor and avoid tripping over any scattered wreckage from the fight.
Once outside, it was easier to see. The moon was a few nights away from full, and the sky was clear. It couldn't have been more than an hour since I'd entered the cottage. Weird. It had seemed like so much longer... but then again, Epsilon had said time didn't exist in that place, so I guess it could have seemed like ages and only been a short amount of time in our world.
I didn't have the time to think about all that then; as soon as we were out of the cottage door Epsilon started to run. Well, it looked like running, but his legs were so faint you couldn't say they touched the ground. Either way, he moved much quicker, and I had to run to keep up, Epsilon urging me to move faster with every step I took until I was running full pelt towards the Big House.
We shot past the lit windows, but rather than turning South East to the Ouroborus Stone, Epsilon went South West.
"Where are we going?" I managed to gasp around the stitch in my side. I may have been in better shape than two years ago, but I was by no means athletic enough to run around the whole island and not get out of breath. Epsilon didn't even have the decency to pretend to be tired. He glanced at me as he responded, before turning his eyes forward again, the silvery facets distant.
"Cimul followed the underground tunnels after he had recovered from the fall – he's exited at the well in the Village, by the graveyard. I intend to cut him off before he reaches your land."
Oh, he had to mention the graveyard, didn't he? The newer areas were really nice, but the older parts were creepy even in daylight. It was the last place I wanted to run into some ancient demonic creature with a grudge against me.
"Graveyard. Great. Thanks for making me feel better!" I groaned, dragging another ounce of effort out of my muscles as we sped towards the town. I had the sense to turn the torch off, both to save the battery and so the swinging light wouldn't tip Cimul off that we were heading his way. The darkness felt a lot thicker without it. My eyes kept jumping from shadow to shadow, expecting to see the stone body of Cimul stirring in the darkness of each one.
A shadow without a source, darting through the grass towards us.
"Keep going." With that order, Epsilon shot forward to meet it, sword drawn. The dark shape jerked, fleeing away to the right with Epsilon running parallel to it. As I turned, I heard the first ring of steel. He was fighting. I could only hope he would be more careful than the last time he'd fought something like that as I continued towards the lights of the town, acutely aware that should I run into Cimul now, I had no one to protect me.
Looking towards the village, I failed to notice what was in front of my feet. I ran full-pelt into something hard and tripped over it with a curse, sprawling on the ground with scrapes of dirt on my hands and chin where it had slammed into the soil. My torch went bouncing away into the night, skidding through the damp grass.
Swearing at the chunk of rock that had tripped me up, I only realised it was moving when it grabbed my leg.
Suddenly dragged backwards, I screamed and struggled to roll onto my back to look at whatever had hold of me. I shouldn't have even needed to look, really. There was only one thing – one person – it could be.
Cimul had caught me.
I'd never even thought he would be so far ahead of us to be able to trap us like that – distract Epsilon, letting Cimul take care of me himself. I guess I must have hacked him off more than I realised. Of course, by the time Epsilon realised what had happened, Cimul would have dealt with me, and as powerful as Epsilon is, I think Cimul might be stronger. With us out of the way, there'd be no one to stop him from coming back.
Of course, I wasn't going to lie still and let him kill me.
Cimul was crouched on the ground – he must have been lying flat for me not to have seen him – one arm partially extended to grab my ankle. My only consolation was that he was still stone; though that presented a problem, one I realised when I lashed out with my free leg, kicking him in the face.
Hitting him hurt me more than it hurt him. It literally felt as though I'd stamped on an uneven slab of rock.
As I yowled in agony, I caught a glimpse of his face. The moon provided me with enough light to see the curve of his remaining canine. He was smiling.
Without thinking, acting on pure anger, fear and frustration, I kicked out again, ignoring the pain already throbbing in my foot. There was a dull thud, a sharp crack, and a bellow of agony as the grasp around my leg vanished.
Scrabbling backwards, out of reach, I looked at the Lord of Inversion as his hands swept upwards to his mouth, that terrifying shriek still emitting from the dark space. On the ground by his knee lay a smooth, sharp spire of stone.
His other canine tooth. The base of it must have been slim enough for my kick to break it.
I felt a momentary flare of victory in my chest, one that cooled rapidly into fear when Cimul looked back at me, his low keening dying away.
It was his eyes. His empty stone eyes which were full of pure malice. No, more than that. Hate. He hated me, and he was going to kill me.
I ran, slipping out of reach as he lunged at me, his long nails hooked into talons built to tear me apart.
The lights of the village were to my right; I started to turn towards them only to shy away from the fleet black shape that separated me from the hope of safety. Cimul had given chase.
Frantic, I sprinted onwards, ransacking my memory for somewhere I could lose him.
The only place I could think of was Lume Lake. With his heavy stone body, Cimul couldn't swim. That was why he'd run around the pool in the tunnels.
My half-plan in mind, I angled towards the lake, pouring every last reserve of energy into my aching legs to keep myself ahead of the monster following me. Though he was far faster than when he'd been trapped in the wall, he was still slower than what he would be with a body of flesh and blood. I just hoped he would be too slow to catch me, and that I could outlast him, at least til I reached the lake.
I don't know where Epsilon was, or why he hadn't caught up yet. Maybe he'd been captured again? Either way, he wasn't here. He couldn't help me. I had to try and save myself.
In those panicked minutes between the village and the lake, I managed to stay just out of grabbing distance. I don't know how close Cimul was, but I could hear his low snarls, and the steady, untiring pound of his feet on the earth.
When I reached the shore of the lake, I think I'd had a vague plan of getting into the water and swimming out of reach should he wade in after me. I don't know. My only solid plan had been to get to the lake and lose him – somehow. But when he realised where we were, he must have guessed at my idea because he was suddenly right next to me, driving me away from the lake, towards the Crags.
Without a choice, I ran up the incline, scrambling up the steeper areas, the hairs on the back of my neck prickling at every scrape of stone on stone that came from the hunter behind me.
The Crags peak at Crag Point, facing the south of the island, overlooking the lake. On the map it looks like it's a small distance from the lake, but when you're at the top, looking down, you realise the furthest north-facing point actually juts out over the lake. That was where Cimul cornered me.
By the time I'd realised I'd reached the narrowest point of the Crags, Cimul had caught up and blocked the way back to the path down.
His mouth was open in a vicious smile. Moonlight revealed thick black liquid – blood? Could his spirit bleed? – coating his lips and chin, stemming from the gaping hole where his most recently lost canine should have been. The sight made me feel sick in a way fear hadn't. Desperately, I found myself shooting glances over his shoulder, hoping fruitlessly that I'd see Epsilon appear behind him. The treacherous stone path remained empty; suddenly darkening. A panicked glance up at the moon showed heavy clouds sweeping across to smother its silver light.
I had to strain my eyes just to see Cimul now. Not being able to see him approaching scared me more than anything else. Then I heard a soft click of stone on stone. I may not be able to see him properly, but I would always be warned if he stepped towards me. I'd hear him coming.
Another, then his sibilant voice, saturated with triumph. He was getting closer.
"Once I am restored, your family will be the first to die. The loyal will rule over this place; the villagers forced to choose, as they did long ago. My followers will live. Those who refuse to turn will be thrown to the sea. Nothing will be left of L'Ume's rule and the eagle will be driven out, exiled as I was!" So that was it. Cimul was sick of being Prince. He wanted to rule – or misrule. He had nothing but spite and hate left, the worst of which was directed at me and my family, for stopping him. Still, I had to be sure. I licked my dry lips, hoped my voice wouldn't fail me. It didn't.
"So what about me then? I screwed your plan up two years ago, didn't I? All those centuries of searching, of manipulating those women into doing your work and I tore it all down in a matter of days. Who's to say I won't do it again, Cimul?" Yes, I was being reckless. I was raising my voice, refusing to look intimidated. It was all a mask, to hide the fear. Delaying tactics, hoping Epsilon would reach me on time. If I could keep him talking, I would postpone my own death for a few more precious minutes. It's strange, how when you're faced with dying, each second alive feels like a victory. My heart was pounding heavily, as if it was expanding further than usual before crushing inwards, making seem like each contraction more pronounced. There was a sharp prickling in the centre of my forehead, on the skin. Agapetos...?
Cimul stopped, an ugly hiss emanating from between his drawn-back stone lips. I'd angered him.
"You die tonight, Jessica. Humans cannot act from beyond the grave." He sounded as if he was trying to claw smugness from somewhere, but was too irate to do so. At least he'd responded rather than simply tearing me apart. Besides, I knew how wrong he was.
"What about Sebastian then? Sebastian Wren, Martha's little boy. He helped stop you, just as much as I did. Yet he's been dead for two decades! And it was his diary from practically a century ago that helped me, so if that isn't help after dying, I don't know what is!" Epsilon, please, please hear me shouting. My hysteria was starting to show, my composure cracking. A wild giggle escaped me. By his snarl, it seemed to make the monster of ston even more furious. "You're wrong, Cimul. Wrong and bitter and twisted, and no matter how many people you kill, you will always be waiting for that one person who will piece together the clues and stop you again, whether it's in a year, a decade or a century, because time does not matter! You know why?"
He took a quick step towards me - I heard the clash of rock.
"Silence!" He spat. He couldn't stop me. Not now. I was too out of control.
"Because time is nothing to Agapetos, and he will always, always stop you!"
His screech of fury was wordless. I heard stone scratching, and a rush of air. A glimmer of moonlight burst through the clouds, illuminating him, mid-leap.
I dove to the side, praying the ledge of stone would hold.
It held, but it didn't matter. Cimul grabbed me even as he fell past me, dragging me off balance.
With his momentum out of control and me having no real purchase on the ground, what happened next was inevitable.
Scrabbling and screaming, Cimul pulled me over the ledge and into open air.
We plunged into the lake.